Scotland's murderous heart

A new report claims Scotland has a higher murder rate than America. The UN says it's the 'most violent place in the developed world'. How did it come to this? Leading Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh on the dark heart of his beloved homeland

The following correction was printed in the Guardian's Corrections and clarifications column, Monday October 24 2005

The feature below mistakenly quoted a forthcoming University of California report as claiming that the country's murder rate now exceeds that of America. However, the report combines figures for murder, manslaughter and other "deliberate and non-deliberate deaths" and concludes that Scotland has a higher violent death rate than America. A recent World Health Organisation report, mentioned in the article, gives Scotland's murder rate as 2.33 deaths per 100,000 people. FBI figures released last week put the US rate at 5.5 per 100,000.

Several years back, I attended an event that was to resonate strongly with me. I was sitting in a crematorium with a sobbing family, mourning another youth who went to town on a night out and didn't come back. The boy in question had called into a party on his way home and got involved in a drunken brawl with another young guy over some vague, trivial grievance neither could probably remember much about. One died in the hospital, the other was to spend the best years of his life behind bars.

It forcibly struck me then just how many times I had been through different versions of this scene before; witnessing a family's lives wrecked because one of its members was a victim or perpetrator of the kind of violence so interwoven into the fabric of Scottish social life as to be almost mundane.

This murderous violence happens out of view of tourists and the urban-dwelling professional classes; often it's deemed not to occur at all. If it is registered, it's met with derisive choruses of "chavs", "yobs", "thugs" - or that Scottish derivation made famous by the Sunday Post newspaper: "neds". This "ned culture" is seen largely as a thing of the past, out of step with Scotland's new view of itself. After all, the Tartan Army who follow the Scottish national football team have morphed from the thugs who terrorised London in the 70s into cuddly, if drunken, teddy bears who only want to hug the world. Strathclyde police's Operation Blade of the late 90s - our own little decommissioning programme - was seen as a massive success as youths handed in tons of knives, swords and machetes. Now, supposedly, we are a forward-looking country with its own parliament, making decisions like grown-ups do, perhaps - whisper it - even taking tentative steps towards nationhood.

Occasionally, though, the ugly spotlight of reality is thrown in our faces, and what's illuminated makes this upbeat establishment view seem a little like wishful thinking. When Scotland's artists and writers have the temerity to depict the darkness that too often lies at the heart of our collective psyche, they are easily dismissed. Two new reports on the Scottish murder rate, however, are harder to brush aside. One was published recently by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the other is forthcoming from the University of California, and they serve to cast a dark shadow over our more complacent pretensions.

The University of California claims that Scotland's murder rate now exceeds the United States' and Israel's. The WHO study says that you're three times more likely to meet violent death north of the border than you are in England and Wales. Furthermore, a separate United Nations report has described Scotland as "the most violent country in the developed world", with more than 2,000 people subjected to serious assault every week.

What's going on here? It's almost as if the Glasgow City of Culture reinvention and Edinburgh's continued status as international festival city are a mirage and nothing substantial has happened since the 70s when Scotland and Finland regularly went head-to-head on the major indicators of social instability: murder, suicide and alcoholism.

In fact, quite a lot has happened. The city centres have been cleaned up. They now boast more housing for wealthier professionals, more tourist accommodation, and more leisure and recreation facilities. Central zones now enjoy better policing and saturation CCTV camera coverage. The postwar process of rehousing has led to the disappearance of traditional city-centre working-class areas. Large sections of Edinburgh's Tollcross district, for example, have been demolished to make way for conferencing and business facilities. And here's the rub: social problems have been removed from the city centre to the peripheries, out of sight and mind of tourists and professionals. In the Victorian era, Disraeli, that great Tory paternalist, talked about the two nations. In our modern urban life, we have two cities. Glasgow is Hillhead or Easterhouse, Edinburgh Merchiston or Muirhouse. And you stand a far better chance of being murdered in one than in the other.

But why should there be three times as many murders in Scotland than in England? We are not, and never have been, a nation of violent psychopaths. It's surely a little trite to say that heavy drinking is the sole reason, as bingeing is now ubiquitous in the UK. More likely it's the peculiar drinking habits and the urban environment of the most disadvantaged Scots.

The density of housing and the lack of money and mobility in many large local authority or former local authority housing areas led to people being pushed together; forced to share each others obsessions and social space in a way that would be unthinkable even to many lower-middle-class people.

In these crowded, yet isolated areas, gangs of bored youths converge in underpasses, or on the edge of industrial estates, out of reach of the CCTV cameras. In such a marginalised environment and in a culture where the individual rather than the community has primacy, people require compelling drama in order to give life meaning. The scheme - the housing estate - becomes the world. Violence and scamming become the principal means of winning status.

Throughout the years there has been a decline in the sporting, educational and cultural activities that were once an alternate source of affirmation. These have not been deemed market-friendly investments in peripheral housing areas.

Meanwhile, binge drinking often takes on a different, and more dangerous, form than that practised in England, land of lager, high street and punch-up culture. In the west of Scotland, the destructive influence of certain fortified wines such as Buckfast has been well documented. "Buckie" may never make it on to the wine lists of the smarter Glasgow and Edinburgh eateries, but it's cheap, easy to get down and will get you off your head. Moreover, it's considered fair game by many Scots to combine potentially volatile cocktails of drink and drugs, with often just about anything considered appropriate in the mix. This makes behaviour less predictable, and the consequences therefore often more dire.

Another big difference north of the border is in the knife/weapon culture. It's still a widespread assumption, particularly in parts of Glasgow, that carrying a knife is acceptable behaviour. This probably goes as far back as the Highlander's sgian-dhu, but has more recent roots in the "tools" culture of the city's industrial past. Thankfully, Scotland's gun problem has not yet reached the same scale as London, Manchester or Dublin. It would be truly terrifying to think what might happen if this came to pass.

The violence that springs from all this has led to Scotland now having the highest prison population in Europe; this only serves to make things worse. By incarcerating so many of its citizens, the country has created a kind of jail culture in some areas. Prison is no deterrent to many disadvantaged young people from housing schemes; they will have friends or relatives who have served or are serving prison terms. So many young people simply expect to go to jail that it's seen as a rite of passage and an integral part of life. It's very easy to get sent down these days: just being poor gives you an excellent head start. Once you're there, you will learn, if you didn't know it already, that a massive underground economy exists and with it attendant criminal career opportunities. In the absence of other vacancies, these will be quickly filled, and Scotland's prisons often act as black-economy Jobcentres.

This black economy revolves around drugs; recreational illegal drugs have radically changed things here, and possibly for ever. An insatiable, perfectly elastic market exists with a marvellously efficient pyramid system of agents eager to service it. The more ruthless you are in this criminal empire, the further you will go. Ironically, the cliches of mainstream business and Hollywood culture are regurgitated with a vengeance in the Scottish black economy.

Scotland also has its own peculiar embarrassment: sectarianism. It is so ingrained in our culture that we can hardly even bring ourselves to discuss it at any serious level. This is because our two largest sporting and cultural institutions - the Celtic and Rangers football clubs - have grown fat and rich by pandering to it.

Scottish sectarianism operates in the same way as racism. When you continually dehumanise somebody by labelling them as an "Orange" or "Fenian" bastard, on the basis of their surname, the school they attended or the colour of the daft Carling beer top they sheepishly wear, it makes it all the easier to abuse them in other ways.

One factor again comes shining through here: alcohol and our twisted association with it. But that relationship might be a little more appropriate if some Scots had better homes, jobs and educational and cultural opportunities. In other words, if many of our people had the chance to genuinely celebrate life rather than simply getting out of it.

Scotland has a lot going for it, but there is also a great deal to put right. One of the things we can start to do is to have some proper debate. Despite all our escalating problems, there is almost zero action on social marginalisation, and the problems are repeatedly explained away with references to "neds"; in other words, the problems are blamed on the pathology of the few disaffected bams [headcases] who have always been with us (but who might once have been sent to war, and culled in the process). It's almost impossible to have a serious debate about the impact of class structures and continuing inequality on our nation's social problems.

Another taboo in Blair's "inclusive" Britain is to talk about the differing status of the constituent national identities that comprise our islands. It's arrant nonsense to think that anybody in poverty in London or Liverpool is better off than anyone in the same situation in Edinburgh or Glasgow. But the dominant national culture of the UK is "England" and Englishness. The non-English are therefore, by extension, often unwittingly and unintentionally cast in the role of lesser mortals.

The fact is that in a UK context, Scotland, particularly the populous part of it, is too often seen as a rundown place. The people who leave are viewed as the go-getters; descendants of the entrepreneurial sons and daughters of the empire. Those remaining are frequently cast as the low-life rump. Their lot is to be patronised by Scotland's smug political and media class, often more British than Scottish in its orientation, sometimes augmented by southern white settlers who've made a killing on the housing market.

A depressed region of England might just about get away with this sort of treatment. After all, it will have the assumed superiority of its "Englishness" to fall back upon. It's far more damaging for an entire country to be viewed in this way. I'm aware that this is not a comfortable argument to advance, and many Scots who do so are viewed as self-pitying ingrates, but only a myopic idiot could argue that it carries no validity.

It's time we talked about these taboo issues of poverty, social class and national identity. I make absolutely no apology for saying that I don't want the sass and style of urban Scottish culture to be blanded out of existence. But I most certainly do want the soul-destroying litany of stabbings, slashings and slayings to come to an end. I don't like attending the funerals of young people. I really would much rather be going to graduation, award and achievement ceremonies. Perhaps if we had more of these events for disadvantaged young Scots, then we wouldn't be fretting over our embarrassingly high murder rate.

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