Gavin Brewis investigates Ned Culture
An interview exploring unique research on a complex topic
Independence Captured is always looking to highlight interesting and unique work taking place in Scotland. This week we publish a fascinating interview with Gavin Brewis. Gavin is an associate of the The Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research, and a member of both the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit and the Scottish Graduate School for Arts & Humanities doctoral committee.
His PhD research investigates Ned Culture between 1995 and 2008, and came to the public attention when STV News covered his appeal for participants. “What I’m trying to capture within that period,” Gavin says, “is the emotions that individuals who were part of this subculture felt, looking at how they were affected by things like moral panics – such as the media scare around the young working class, what we consider as neds.”
I hope you take something from the exchange. Before we get into it, just a note to say that the follow up to the last newsletter, Part1: The Starmer Project, will be out next week.
Jonathon Shafi (JS): Gavin, thanks for Speaking to Independence Captured. I wanted to start by asking why you wanted to pursue a PhD on Ned Culture. It strikes me that this is unique work.
Gavin Brewis (GB): Well, the first thing is my belief that this is a topic which needs research. If we look at working-class culture historically, you've seen things like the mods and the punks as part of the public discussion, and as subcultures, they've all been spoken about in academia. They’ve had their share of negative attention, but have also been celebrated in certain ways. So I was quite interested to understand why that's never been the case for a distinctive section of society in the West of Scotland. Why has this never been the case for “Ned” culture? There are debates about whether this is in fact a subculture, or is it something reducible to issues like youth crime. These are some of the questions I am exploring and trying to answer.
If you look at the mods, the rockers, the punks, or even “goths,” middle-class people can adapt to any of these subcultures. They may get found out after a while, but if you try that in Ned culture, you're going to be identified pretty quickly. So the associations within these groups are largely internalised, with little external input. You're meeting other people within the same schemes in which you grew up. So this phenomenon isn’t a lifestyle choice in the same way. This is about people who are born and raised in a specific context.
I found that when looking through the academic literature, there was no real comment about “Neds” whatsoever. It’s as if people are scared to address the question. Maybe it's because there is a level of guilt around how these people have been portrayed and discussed as part of moral panics in the media. They have often been presented through the lens of fear, disdain and mockery.
But I think there's a lot more to it because here there is a community, a sense of togetherness and identity which raises wider questions about authority and society. So when I recognised the lack of work on this topic, I felt that it merited the same attention as some of the other subcultures. Indeed, part of my research is to investigate why there is such a discrepancy.
JS: I saw the STV news article, which first alerted me to your research. But before that, Susan Aitken had made a comment about graffiti in Glasgow in the run-up to COP26, when she said it was the result of “a wee ned with a spray can.” This was quite remarkable because it had been a word which politicians had generally avoided using, at least in recent times. So before we unpack some of the detail, what do we mean by the term, and how has it been used?
GB: I think it's multifaceted. And the reason why I think that is because you get people who will reclaim that word. I remember growing up some of my older pals would say things like “born and bred a Glesga ned.” At the same time, if we look at how Susan Aitken deployed the term, it’s about its relationship with criminality. Again this links to themes of fear and disdain. So there are different layers as to how the word is used, and you can see how it can link with the idea of the “underclass.” I don’t think this notion has any real value sociologically, though you get academics who attempt to build theories around it.
Others have even attempted to bring forward the idea that aside from ideological and economic matters, there are social problems inherent to a certain class of people within society. I think that's the same with Neds too. So while some will reclaim the term, the majority of people understand it to be associated with shame and mockery. Sometimes fear is also something that can be warranted because it can be quite a violent subculture. But I think to understand that, you need to look at it the material conditions as to how this emerges in the first place.
I remember Susan Aitkens's comments on the lead-up to COP26. At the time there were also major strikes taking place in the cleansing department, composed of many people who will have been labelled as “neds” in a derogatory way. A number of the participants in my research considered themselves as “neds,” or have been identified by others through this label. I think that's where the interesting part comes in. Some who take on the term, because it has been a source of such demonisation and dehumanisation, see it as a way of resisting the same system that has categorised them in this way in the first place, whereas someone like Susan Aitken has used it in a way that punches down and socially isolates especially the youth of the city.
Back in 2001, there was a discussion about banning the use of the word for many of the reasons I’ve given here. I've spoken with a couple of people who are involved in youth organisations who don't allow the word to be used within their groups. I don’t fully agree with that, either, because some of these young people use it themselves. The question is more about understanding disenfranchisement than it is about language unless it is used in a way which is to tar people with crime, disorder or being social outcasts.
JS: You describe the phenomenon as having its own forms of cultural expression. What sort of things are you referring to in this regard?
GB: There are numerous ways in which the subculture has expressed itself. We saw, for example, Graeme Armstrong’s book Young Team, which is an autobiographical account of his life experiences in the scene. We also see a thriving musical output, in the form of PC DJ’ing which is something that’s overlooked but was massive in the West of Scotland, though it never really went beyond that. Some of these producers did end up with CD’s available to buy in high street shops, as well as being hosted on the earlier incarnation of the internet on free web spaces.
People want to be recognised, to be seen, heard and spoken about. In relation to this, there is a distinctive dress code, almost a uniform, in terms of the kind of clothing, jewellery and fashion adopted. We can draw on some of Dick Hebdgie’s work on the role of style as a theoretical framework to understand some of this. The use of bright clothing is almost like a warning, and even though this wasn’t necessarily conscious, it created a form of group identity. It’s a complex picture because alongside this, a lot of cultural capital is also gained through becoming violent. But when we speak about this we need to include issues around economic depravation and entrenched social alienation and underrepresentation.
We can talk about graffiti in schemes, as a form of scheme symbolism and demarkation, which again is largely related to a specific territory, and not part of what Susan Aitken would refer to as “ned” based vandalism in, for example, areas of the city centre. Here we can draw on the work of someone like Alistair Fraser and the idea that this represents a “street habitus” in the context of limited autonomy in the post-industrial city. In other words, the claim to a local space and place, without owning much in the way of personal material possessions.
There have been city centre venues, like the Archaos nighclub, which became known as a place where groups would meet and socialise. The 23rd Precinct, a record shop, also became a focal point for exchanging records, especially rave music which was a central part of the subculture. Sometimes this would culminate in large-scale events too.
But part of the problem here is that people are expressing themselves in a way that is not seen as being socially acceptable. It is frowned upon. The music, for example, was not palatable to other people. If you look at the hip-hop scene in the United States, when they first started producing music, it was often referred to as “jungle music” as a racial slur. Musical taste is subjective, but people in the West of Scotland were creating their own, though it wasn't adopted by mainstream corporate culture. Alongside this we have weapon carrying, gang fighting and violence, often socialised as a result of the environment people are growing up in. But because of this, it was easy to stigmatise, dehumanise and alienate large groups of people.
With the deindustrialisation of Glasgow, the idea of the rise of the “ned” as an unsalvagable subject offered an easy target as a means to scapegoat and displace blame in the aftermath of failed regional policies and the fallout from Thatcherism.
JS: That’s interesting, and it leads me to the next question. What do you think are the material factors involved in the development of “ned culture,” “young teams” and so on?
GB: My research looks at the height of Ned culture, between around 1995 and 2008. After that, we see the culture fade away, certainly in terms of the media focus and portrayal of it. This is partly a result of the 2008 financial crisis and its implications. In 2005 Glasgow is the murder capital of Europe. We have been the sick man of Europe, the poor man of Europe and for a period the drug capital of Europe. The so-called “Glasgow effect.” If you look at the work of someone like Chik Collins from the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, you can see that Glasgow has been disproportionately affected by regional policies like the establishment of “new towns,” where young and aspirational people are pushed out of the city into housing schemes which had little in the way of high-quality employment. So when deindustrialisation starts to happen, people here are already at a structural disadvantage.
When poverty goes up, when economic activity decreases and when the solutions posed by government only compound the problems, there is always going to be a need to explain why this is happening in a way that insulates the system. This process coalesces with moral panic and the demonisation of people in the schemes as a means to rationalise declining living standards.
We can examine similar panics in the 1960s and 70s. Back then all the attention was focused on Easterhouse. Even though the writing of James Patrick in A Glasgow Gang Observed focussed on Maryhill, it never received the same media coverage as Easterhouse despite the similarities in the issues being discussed. You can go back as far as the 1920s and 30s when Glasgow was referred to as the “Scottish Chigaco,” after the introduction of American cinema led to trends in fashion which allowed for lazy stereotypes around gangsterism to emerge.
Percy Sillitoe, Glasgow’s Chief Constable at the time, even met with police in Chicago to share strategies such was the association. He introduced the use of radios in police cars, learning from the use of technology in the United States. The combination of the media panic, the stereotypes and the ramping up of police resources in relation to it meant that many people were punished for very little, if anything at all. This is the first time we hear about “teams” too, in this case, the allegation that those at the receiving end of the demonisation were part of the “High Team.” The “High Team” was a term generalised to anyone who congregated in a particular street. This had a clear discriminating impact in the court system too.
We can see this again if we look at Easterhouse in the 1960s, where harsher sentences were deployed. While a focus was put on young people carrying weapons, stores like Victor Morris who sold them continued to benefit commercially and were kept open. Rather than looking at where young people might source knives and so on, it was the individual who was held to account, without seriously addressing the underlying problems and conditions. Glasgow, if you compare sentencing for crime across the UK, is among the harshest. A lot of my research participants reference their proximity to police brutality. Not just in things like stop and search, but people being picked up for how they look.
I think the education system also has a massive role to play in all of this. Unless you were academically gifted, you were pushed to one side, with limited opportunities. Cuts to teachers and resources, and the lack of training and support for how to deal with classroom issues and the difficulties that come with real economic deprivation, led to people being easily written off rather than supported. Expulsions from school also expelled people from society, and the progression from school to work is disrupted, again leading to ideas like the “underclass.” It’s a huge culture shock for anyone in this position, and it's obvious where it can end up.
JS: You get a real sense of how the system has failed people. Bringing the various threads together, how do you assess the overall picture of the way in which this section of society has been ostracised?
GB: In sum, we have the media calling you scum; the police treating you like a criminal; the courts stacked against you; an education system that can’t cope; failed regional policies; the long-term impacts of economic and industrial decline. That is combined with the denial of access to amenities. You feel as if the whole world is against you, and that’s where we see the reaction, but also the development of a subculture around which people can find identity, protection and purpose.
Many of the participants I speak to loved drama, which makes sense, as this would be a way to express themselves and to role-play a different life. If you, for so long, are hoping for change and not seeing any, you come to view institutions and governments as being an enemy. Often political parties won’t even set foot in the schemes, so the idea they can represent them is patently not the case. The left is disconnected from these areas too. But the overwhelming point is that voting is not seen as being worthwhile, as their interests have never been represented.
When you have so many people feeling disenfranchised, the conclusion is that the current system simply doesn’t exist for them.
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