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Home Improvements in Glasgow East (July 2008)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Housing has always been an issue in the city – and the MP John Wheatley was perhaps its one true champion



The fine gents of the London press have had their fun with Glasgow East. What (among much else) has escaped them is that house-ownership in the division is 50%, far above what it would have been in 1980. Glasgow East is as afflicted by the rackety housing economics as the rest of Anglo-America.

If there is a spirit of the place it is John Wheatley (1869-1930) who during a short Westminster career, as MP for Shettleston became to housing what Aneurin Bevan would be to the health service. He created the system of central government subvention of council housing in 1924, and got it carried by the first and most precarious Labour government. Wheatley was its one true success.

Wheatley was one of the most articulate and well-read Westminster politicians: influenced by the Catholic socialism of Antonio Rosmini and Francesco Nitti, and in particular by the Guardian journalist J A Hobson, the pre-Keynesian Liberal-to-Labour economist, who diagnosed a country whose workers hadn't enough cash to stimulate consumer goods production, which instead was pumped by investors into speculative balloons.

An Irish nationalist by descent, he was the least overtly Scots of the Red Clydesiders. Tam Dalyell, a Wheatley by marriage, claims him for his unionist last ditch. But Wheatley hadn't much time for Britishness. His ideal, according to his acute biographer Ian Wood, seemed co-terminous with the spiritual realm of his church: a confederation of socialist city states trading with each other by municipal fleets.

Wheatley was an able businessman and devout Catholic whose social thought was grounded in a near-Marxist analysis of inequality. Glasgow's housing scarred him – in his youth 75% of its folk lived in privately-rented flats of two rooms or less, building ‘the Workshop of the Empire’. The Irish gastarbeiter were used to hold down the wages of the locals and divert cash from wages into capital investment.

Before 1914 Wheatley argued for the profits from the city's famous electric trams to go towards subsidising housing. He then opposed munitions profiteering and gained rent control in 1916: the greatest victory of what became the ‘Red Clyde’. His strategic intellect lay behind the Labour victory of 1922, although he lay in the shadow of James Maxton, the ILP's flamboyant leader and hero of Gordon Brown.

As Ramsay MacDonald's health minister he tried to provide ‘homes fit for heroes’. "Homes you had to be heroic to live in" would have nailed most housing: over half of 12 million units lacked a fixed bath; over a third shared a toilet. Wheatley gained a state subsidy to pay about 40% of the interest on council house construction: £9 a house in 1928. These were for the artisan elite, freeing-up better privately-rented houses for those on the next rung. In 1928, under the Wheatley act, 273,000 new council houses were erected, through the executive action of the Tory Neville Chamberlain. This increase in supply reduced the price of private building and seldom did inter-war houses cost more than £ 500.

Council housing wasn't an Attlee Labour success; in fact it reached its maximum of 300,000 a year under Harold Macmillan in the 1950s. Even Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was reluctant to promote council house sales. Willie Whitelaw, among others, feared the social impact of a free-for-all, and the policy was postponed until 1983. It became perhaps her greatest success, yet the Conservative vote fell as privatisation took over. Housing moved from social service to speculation, and then became the substitute for a secure pension. A fragile private affluence has literally been founded on infrastructural squalor, not to speak of a dwindling, and largely foreign-owned industrial sector.

Where now? The retreat of government from housing seems as much a fact as the hands-down win of cars or road freight transport. In 1980 60% of Scottish housing was publicly owned: it has since halved. For 20-odd years the privatised good times rolled, and then suddenly stopped as drastically as the crash of 1929.

Housing as a social service was a subsidy to industry, as it checked wage demands and promoted investment, rather like the free trade movement of the 19th century. Some large-scale developments (Macmillan's in the 1950s and the skyscrapers of the next decade) were unimaginative and out of scale; this could have been tackled with better town planning. Private estates crammed with roads and garages rather than gardens and playgrounds, well behind the European norm for heating and insulation, have been no improvement.

The Scottish Nationalist government in Edinburgh has ended the ‘right to buy’ and started to build new council houses. Would that have attracted Wheatley? And dislodged East Glasgow tribal loyalties? Maybe. As a classic Mittelstand success story he was a forerunner of the Celtic Tiger; while he believed (like so many leftists of the Glasgow City State) that lives lived collectively were the richer lives of Wolfe Tone's "great and respectable class, the men of no property".

This class has yet to speak.

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