In memory: Kirsty Milne

Former NS staffer Dr Kirsty Milne has died.

We are sad to report the loss of a former New Statesman editor, Dr Kirsty Milne.

After joining the New Statesman staff in 1993 following its merger with her former paper New Society, Kirsty wrote reviews and features for the NS and other publications, including the Times, Telegraph and a politics column for the Scotsman. She later became a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University and a Research Fellow specialising in early modern English and the classics at Wolfson College, Oxford.

She died this week and will be much missed. Sarah Baxter, a colleague at the magazine in the early 90s and now Deputy Editor at the Sunday Times, said: "Kirsty was a wonderful colleague, full of energy, mischief and fun. She loved political ideas and political intrigue, and wrote about them brilliantly. She was always insistent that her name was pronounced Keersty, not Kursty ... After being told off a few times, I've never been able to pronounce Kirsty any other way. She was my great friend and confidante at the Statesman, and I'll miss her dearly."

Below is a reprint of the first article she wrote for the NS entitled, "Inside the Glasgow glass envelope", and dated 21 November 1986.

Inside the Glasgow glass envelope

What can you do for a city undergoing an economic identity crisis? With dying industrial heartlands, unemployment running above 20 per cent and a reputation for social deprivation which continues to stick? 'Adapt or die' is the response most commonly to be heard in Glasgow, and the result is a remarkable phenomenon — a city in search of a future.

There's no question that Glasgow is in danger of being left behind, a casualty city which just happened to be, in the words of one council official, 'in the wrong place, facing the wrong way, and making the wrong things'. Like the rest of Britain, Glasgow has had to watch the slow decline of its traditional manufacturing base — in shipbuilding, steel and engineering. There are only two shipyards left; the Clyde used to be crucial to Glasgow and now people are saying bitterly that you can fish in it. Manufacturing in Glasgow contracted by 30 per cent between 1978 and 1983, and plants which were once familiar features of the city continue to close.

The rate of redundancies, which peaked in 1980, is slowing down, but the cumulative result is a bad case of long-term unemployment: latest figures show that of the 77,204 jobless in Glasgow, 9,280 have been out of work for more than six years. Where are the new jobs to come from? The electronics industry clearly isn't the knight on the high-tech charger that's required; it only provides 42,000 jobs in the whole of Scotland, and besides, computer companies have tended to locate in other parts of 'Silicon Glen', especially New Towns.

To the rescue come Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Development Agency (SDA), both of which have put their faith in the service sector as the only realistic area for growth in employment. To this end there's been a lot of emphasis on improving the quality of the city centre, which is visibly in the process of turning itself inside out. The whole area known as Merchant City, with its extravagant Victorian facades, is being redeveloped to provide shops, offices and up to 2,000 homes as bait for Glasgow yuppies. South of Argyle St a huge site awaits a glass envelope which will protect a shopping centre, an ice rink and a multi-storey car park from the incessant Scottish rain in the £62m St Enoch's development. Even the old fish market, the Briggait, has been turned into glossy umbrella forstalls and specialist shops, though with a view across the Clyde to the Gorbals it looks as much like Covent Garden as a fish out of water.

Nevertheless, Donald Dewar, Shadow Scottish Secretary and MP for Glasgow Garscadden, describes the general atmosphere with the greater precision: 'the place is hopping'. And much of the hopping takes place under the careful eyes of the council and the SDA, working to combine public spending with private investment in as many projects as possible. The SDA is a unique phenomenon (and the Treasury would like it to stay that way): a semi-independent, government- funded organisation set up by Harold Wilson in 1975 to do something about the Scottish economy. As a leading industrial landlord with a gross annual budget of more than £130m, the SDA is much respected by the 200 or so people who make up the Scottish establishment for being hard­headed and commercially-minded. Not surprising, then, that a Treasury review last month criticised the SDA for being too interventionist. Certainly it has a finger in innumerable pies — in Glasgow alone it put money into the Scottish Conference and Exhibition Centre, initiated the GEAR project to put money into the East End of Glasgow, and is managing the 1988 Glasgow Garden Festival through a wholly-owned subsidiary.

Last year it set up a new group, Glasgow Action, to promote the city as a business location and the dynamic young director, David Macdonald, is as much interested in the music business as in merchant banks (Glasgow, remember, produced not only Ultravox and Simple Minds but the Associates and Strawberry Switchblade as well). His organisation has specific targets: relieving Glasgow of its status as a 'branch economy' (i.e. attracting more company HQs to Glasgow — Britoil was a recent success); improving air links with Europe and the USA; developing Glasgow's tourist industry (the Burrell Collection, opened in 1983, has now overtaken Edinburgh castle as Scotland's top tourist attraction).

However, there's nothing he can teach Glasgow City Council about selling the city; after all, for three years now Mr Happy has been seen on London buses proclaiming 'Glasgow's Miles Better' and the campaign has been given a boost since Glasgow won the British nomination for European City of Culture in 1990. Macdonald describes the council as 'solidly socialist and very pragmatic with it . . . the city's interests always come first'. Perhaps it's the pragmatism born of numerical supremacy (the Labour group has 50 councillors to the Conservatives' 5, and a visiting Hackney councillor was reputedly shocked when she saw how cosily collusive they all were).

The council needs its pragmatism when it comes to housing; as the biggest landlord in Europe it has the dubious distinction of presiding over some of the worst council housing in Britain: an estimate 10,000 homes in Glasgow don't have a bath. Government spending restrictions have limited the council's capital spending to modernisation and planned repairs, so it's small wonder that they should be encouraging private developers and housing associations to build and convert more homes — even selling council houses to tenants the deprived suburb of Easterhouse. But the core of the housing problem remains the post-war estates built on the periphery of the city: Pollok, Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Drumchapel. Almost one in four of the unemployed in Glasgow lives there.

What will the expansion of the service sector do for those one in four? Will it pick up the long-term unemployed? Retailing and office work may be subject to mechanisation and contraction of numbers in the future as manufacturing has been in the past. There are some economists that would argue that, anyway, the growth of the service sector goes hand in hand with the growth of the manufacturing industry. In Glasgow, Donald Dewar speaks of the need for a ‘balanced economy’ with ‘a core of manufacturing which is competitive’. Campbell Christie, General Secretary of the STUC is also unhappy about the over-reliance on the service sector. He would like to see Glasgow’s traditional areas of manufacturing, including the shipyards, sustained; new industries developed; and a major programme of expenditure on housing and construction projects to provide jobs and tackle Glasgow’s decaying infrastructure.

Earlier this month, the Invisible Export Council confirmed that employment in the UK service sector isn’t likely to increase substantially and won’t compensate for the jobs lost in manufacturing industry. But even if the service sector does represent the only real possibility for growth in Glasgow (and it’s worth pointing out that it’s remained more or less static since 1971), a depressing scenario suggests itself – that of a pepped-up city centre, a flourishing service sector, and, on the periphery, the long-term marginalised unemployed. In microcosm, it could be what’s in store for the British economy as a whole: 87 per cent of us in work and getting richer – and the rest out in the cold.

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.