On Valentine’s Day, clusters of people gathered outside Springburn Parish Church in Glasgow to express love for another, not with hearts but with crosses. One by one, they planted the rough wooden memorials in the grass – 200 in all – each one marking a life lost to drugs. As they did so, they reflected on the good times, and lamented the waste.
The last to plant his cross was Steven Currie. Steven’s older brother Peter McGrattan – known to most as Big Ped – was obsessed by music. “He was into punk when he was a boy, then U2, Inspiral Carpets, Stone Roses, Oasis,” says Steven, who has the word “Brother” tattooed on his arm. “He was the man for the music, and you would follow suit because you looked up to him.” Steven would sit on the floor while Peter played DJ. “I’d tap tap my feet and think: ‘That’s quite good, that.’ His taste was superb. He could have been one of those guys that spotted bands.”
But Big Ped carried a bit of weight and it affected his self-esteem. He trod that well-worn path from alcohol through soft drugs, heroin and crack cocaine, on to the grave. He died of a Valium overdose, after eight years clean, in August 2016, dying in their mother’s house. “The paramedic came in and said: ‘He’s gone,’” Steven says. “I sat with him on the floor and cuddled him until they came and took him away.” Gone, but still loved; still remembered.
We are in the grip of a drugs deaths emergency here in Scotland, as everybody knows. Our drugs death rate is the worst in Europe. The toll for 2018 was 1,187 – the highest it has ever been. It will come as little surprise if this year’s is higher still. The crosses are a reminder that each of the 1,187 was an individual robbed of their future.
En masse, they capture the scale of the problem. Spread out in rows like war graves, they say: “Here is a generation being wiped out, while those at the top play politics.” Is this too harsh? Maybe. Yet even as Steven placed his cross, the UK and Scottish governments were squabbling over rival drugs summits to be held in Glasgow a day apart. “My drugs summit is better than your drugs summit,” they blustered like children.
Of course, politicians on both sides can justify their position. The UK government will say it announced its conference first. “But without consulting us, and without including those with lived experience,” the Scottish Government will counter. If either party does not understand how pathetic it sounds – how pathetic it is – for two governments who share responsibility for drugs policy to be unwilling to cut the crap and share a table, I suggest they get out of politics for a while and look at this from beyond the bubble. I suggest they spend some time in those communities where people are losing their lives for want of inter-agency collaboration and a coherent policy.
This is not to suggest the Scottish Government is doing nothing. Last year – under pressure, and having previously cut frontline services – it set up the Drugs Deaths Task Force. In the recent budget it announced an extra £12.7m to be spent on “delivering innovative projects, testing new approaches and developing a national pathway for opiate substitute therapy”.
The Scottish Government conference will also provide training in the use of Naloxone, which reverses the effect of drugs overdoses, and a demonstration model of a drugs consumption room. It insists what takes place there will “inform” its contribution to the UK summit the next day. And yet the mutual blame game neither side appears able to stop does not augur well.
So often we hear about successful policy elsewhere, particularly in Portugal where drugs have been decriminalised, users have been de-stigmatised and those who consume can choose between harm reduction and rehab.
But the key to Portugal’s success was not merely the approach itself, but the political consensus that formed around it; and an unshakeable commitment to that approach through successive governments.
Here in the UK, we are still treating drugs policy like a political football; a forum for the airing of grievances; a battleground for ideological differences. This was happening long before the general election, but it is worse now the Tories have a thumping majority.
The destructive relationship between Westminster and the Scottish Government – and more specifically between Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson – is spilling into other areas too, most notably the COP26 climate conference which will take place in Glasgow in November.
This conference is supposed to build the coalition necessary to break the deadlock on international climate action – and therefore requires UK-wide co-operation and a gift for diplomacy.
Already, however, it has been reduced to oneupmanship. Despite being advised otherwise, Johnson has refused to give Sturgeon any formal role in proceedings. And there have been disputes over the venue itself. With the conference set to be held in the Scottish Events Campus on the north of the river, the Scottish Government booked out the Science Centre on the south. But now the UK government says it needs both sites and has accused the Scottish Government of trying to undermine its plans. To make matters worse, the Prime Minister is said to have referred to Sturgeon as “that wee Jimmy Krankie woman” to which Sturgeon responded “if Boris Johnson wants to make personal insults against me, I’m a big enough girl to make personal insults back”. All highly constructive.
I think most of us accept Johnson would try the patience of a saint. As last week’s reshuffle demonstrated, he – or rather Dominic Cummings – is hell-bent on exercising control. Claire Perry claims he sacked her as the president of the COP26 and replaced her with former international development secretary Alok Sharma because Whitehall couldn’t cope with an independent conference. Sharma is said to have a questionable record on environment issues.
Given all this, it must be tempting to answer criticism by pointing out that “Johnson started this” and that he is a twat of the highest order. But that gets us nowhere. Meanwhile, the planet burns.
Aware, presumably, that tit-for-tat fighting is destructive and childish, Sturgeon has called for a reset in relations. But for that to happen, the UK government will not only have to be willing to co-operate on key issues, the Scottish Government will have to stop constantly passing the buck southwards.
The constitutional debate is not going to disappear. Both governments will be arguing over the legitimacy of a second independence referendum for some time. But they need to be able to set that argument aside when it comes to shared crises such as drugs deaths and climate change.
Only by attempting to find common ground can progress be made. If that requires pride to be swallowed, and teeth to be gritted, then so be it. There are too many crosses already in Springburn; too many species already extinct. Enough with the playground politics.