War without bullets
This article was written in 1999 for SEAD’s 21st birthday but it is still relevant today
I never thought that when I became active in the campaign for healthy housing that I would end up in the international struggle for justice, but that’s what happened when the people in my community in Glasgow started to make the links between our sick houses, our sick children, and the sickness of the planet.
Before I became active in 1982 I was politically ignorant and used to think that oppression was something that only happened to poor people in the “Third World” whose governments were either morally corrupt or politically insane. My real education started when I brought my own three healthy babies home to my cold, damp flat and my life became an endless struggle between my family and the fungus family.
During the course of our housing campaign I was forced to become a ‘why’ person and developed a real greed for useful knowledge. I wanted to know ‘why’ the people in working class communities like mine were being continually blamed, not only for causing the dampness in our homes but for our appalling health record.
Thatcherism forced millions of families like mine to live on welfare. She kept talking about the ‘free’ global market economy, but in reality it was enslaving everyone I knew in the poverty trap. It was then that I started to experience and witness human suffering on a scale which I never thought I would ever see in my lifetime. The unemployed, teenagers, homeless people, elderly people, sick people, single parents became the targets of public hysteria through the media who, like the government, seemed hellbent on persecuting us. The wider public were made to believe that the most defenceless people in our society posed the biggest threat to social and economic security since nuclear war. While the poor welfare state was being dismantled, it became evident that the rich welfare state was being refurbished.
That’s when I realised that there really was a war going on – ‘a war without bullets’; a war fought with briefcases instead of guns; a social, economic and psychological war where only the fittest and the richest were meant to survive.
At SEADs Shifting the Balance conference in 1993. Linda Gray, then SEAD Director, asked myself and my colleague Helen Martin to do a workshop on our campaign for healthy housing, which led to the first tenant-led solar housing project. Cecilia Moyo from South Africa was asked to listen to the story of our struggle and comment on the similarities facing people in South African townships.
It was evident that some people in the workshop knew more about “Third World” issues than they did about the struggle facing their own communities in Scotland. This was the first time they had heard our horror stories of living in cold, damp flats, the associated health problems, and how the poorest families owed hundreds of pounds in fuel debt, spending an estimated £10 million every year heating the sky above Easterhouse.
When I listened to the various guest speakers from different “Third World” countries, I could hardly believe just how much we had in common and felt that my spirit was totally on their wavelength. It was the first time I had been given the opportunity to exchange stories of oppression with overseas counterparts and to dispel some of the myths surrounding our poverty. It occurred to me then that we shared the same pain and negative image; an image created by unfriendly media and reinforced by ignorance. It was then that I recognised the real educational value of people from different parts of the world learning from each other’s experience of poverty and development.
I was desperate to go to Nicaragua since hearing about the unique achievements of their health initiatives. I felt our own society could be transformed if we in Britain were able to adopt their revolutionary popular health care system: a system which had the intelligence to acknowledge that ill- health is not only caused by biological factors, but social, political, economic and environmental ones as well.
SEAD co-sponsored me to go on a health study tour organised by the Nicaraguan Health Fund. It was one of the most heartbreaking, inspiring and rewarding experiences of my life.
Although the Ministry of Health told us there was no policy of privatisation, it was evident on touring the hospitals that the implementation of the so-called ‘free’ market economic policies introduced in 1990 had had a devastating effect on social and health care services. In one hospital I witnessed a new-born baby struggling for life next to a new incubator which was useless because there was no oxygen. At one women’s hospital, 70% of the patients were admitted as a result of botched-up back street abortions, and most needed hysterectomies. The operations were carried out without painkillers or anaesthetic, and many women died as a result.
This experience enabled me to understand that the war against the poor in Britain was actually a world war. This war, which had devastated families and whole communities in Britain was the very same war which was killing and impoverishing millions of people all over the world, forcing countries like Nicaragua to privatise everything, creating mass unemployment, undermining social welfare programmes like health care, food security, housing, education, water and sanitation.
Some people think I am off my head when I talk about this war. They try to justify the human and social devastation in Britain that I’ve experienced as an accident of governmental social and economic policy, but any doubts I had were erased when I attended the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development in New York as a representative of the Scottish Environmental Forum.
Everyone had their own stories to tell: stories of human and environmental destruction and the horrendous waste of human life. I listened too, to the arrogance of the World Bank and IMF representatives, people in smart suits whose debt repayment policies and structural adjustment programmes had caused this explosion in world poverty; policies which have left the poor, especially women and children, to carry a heavy burden.
Then Linda Gray invited me to accompany her to the World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen as representatives of Sead. At the NGO Forum there were thousands of community activists from all over the world. Unlike my ‘Third World’ counterparts, the oppressed communities in Britain are in the minority. At the Poverty Summit however, I realised that in the world struggle for justice, our communities were part of a large majority. For years I had felt excluded from mainstream society in Britain, but at Copenhagen I was made to feel included in a real global family that was screaming out to try and give birth to humanity.
A year later, through SEAD, I met Lynne Brown from South Africa. As a child Lynne was active in the struggle to overcome apartheid. She was tortured and many of those close to her killed during the struggle. After visiting many working class communities in Scotland, she came to stay for a couple of days in my flat. Lynne immediately recognised our social and economic apartheid. The one thing she couldn’t understand, however, was why the women she met in the ‘Scottish townships’, who were so committed to the well-being of their communities, were not interested in joining political parties.
Over many cups of tea in my kitchen, Lynne tried to persuade me that the only way people like me could bring about real social change was to stand for the new Scottish Parliament. I tried to explain to Lynne that having the right to vote was meaningless without economic democracy and that was one thing a Scottish Parliament couldn’t deliver.
I have learned a lot from my counterparts in the ‘Third World’: a basic belief that in order to create a new world based on justice we need to begin with an education that liberates people’s minds. Only through understanding their past and their present, and analysing their reality can people be free to participate in their future.
That is why both myself and Helen Martin have been trying to establish a ‘popular education centre’ in Easterhouse, active in the Popular Education Forum for Scotland. Popular Education is based on a clear analysis of the nature of inequality, exploitation, and oppression, and is rooted in the real interests and struggles of ordinary people, critical of the status quo and committed to progressive social and political change.
There is much talk of how a Scottish Parliament could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Over the past seventeen years I have already witnessed that break-up – a society full of broken families, broken communities, broken hearts, broken spirits, broken dreams, and broken minds.
I’m convinced that the only way we can begin to put our broken- down society back together, is to have the courage to establish our very own ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’. There has never been any public acknowledgement for this unjust ‘war against the poor’ in Britain. A public recognition would give tremendous comfort to casualties like me, who were never victims of their own misfortune, but victims of a society that has a price for everything, but regarded our lives as having very little value.
Cathy McCormack is a community activist in Easterhouse, Glasgow
Cathy McCormack’s study visit to South Africa was documented in Barbara Orton’s film ‘At the Sharp End of the Knife’, available from the SEAD office.