Classes End, Work Begins

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

As you return from October break, which was hopefully filled with lengthy naps and apple-picking, I’m taking finals. I am quite unprepared, but still having trouble getting worried. Instead, my attention has moved on to my internship. I will be working with Frank McAveety (finally I get to hang out with someone with his own Wikipedia page! Frank started his career as a teacher in Glasgow, Scotland; he was a member and a leader of the Glasgow City Council before moving to Scottish Parliament in 1999. In the years the Labour party led the government, he held the positions of Minister of Sport and Deputy Minister of Health. He currently convenes the Public Petitions Committee and is Labour’s point man for sports.

During my first day in Parliament, I watched First Minister’s questions, where members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) grill the current head of government, Alex Salmond, from Frank’s office. A guitar rests behind a chair, and “Obama ’08” stickers face the hallway. Upon the conclusion of the questions, I met Frank for lunch and followed him to a presentation from the Post Workers union. We spent the afternoon talking about our backgrounds and what I would be doing for the semester.

Frank’s constituents have a lot to say.

Frank represents a section of the city of Glasgow, a lively area which could reasonably call itself the music capital of Scotland. It is also has the highest murder rate in all of Europe, and sections face endemic poverty. In 2014, the Commonwealth Games are coming to Glasgow, and the city is also the site of the Clyde Waterfront Regeneration plan.

Each of these is going to involve massive investments in public infrastructure. My research project, which is the crux of the internship, will be to explore how those investments can benefit Glasgow’s neediest. Frank and I were matched very well. Our interests line up perfectly and our skill-sets are complimentary. I am very happy.

A circus came.

Last week, I shadowed Frank for a day as he toured his constituency. We started out at an apprenticeship shop, a public program to train less academically-inclined teenagers in practical skills. Pictures were taken and we chatted about football; unfortunately, much of the conversation was too fast and too accented for me to understand. As a city council member made an obscene joke about what he would like to do with the female interns, I smiled and nodded. Later, Frank translated.

In the afternoon, we went to a street fair in the East End of the city, a multiethnic district of immigrant communities (deeply noticeable in a country that, as of the 2001 census, remains 98% white). The fair itself, with a PA and a circus, was largely attended by recent immigrants from Slovakia (The EU has an open immigration policy: with the fall of the Soviet Union, residents of the former bloc countries have spread widely). The community beautified a blank wall, and civil services distributed information about taking out the rubbish and other city regulations.

These going-ons did not please the Glasgow old-timers. Frank spent the afternoon talking to his constituents, and they were angry. The Slovaks, apparently, have been demonstrating what the Brits call “anti-social” behavior: not learning the language, not getting jobs, singing on street corners at 2:00 a.m. Frank has been representing the district in one way or another for 20 years, and his constituents either recognized him or heard he was there. As I stood by, taking pictures and listening in, people accosted Frank with a variety of complaints and accusations: They need to learn English! Why are they getting a fair? Isn’t that rewarding anti-social behavior? Why are those kids drawing on that wall? Whose great idea was all this!

I would like to be sympathetic. Having the fabric of your life uprooted by huge socioeconomic, cultural and demographic shifts that seem to just happen overnight is as disconcerting in Scotland as it is in New Mexico. The toothless man with wafts of snowy hair, who has lived here for 40 years, waking one day to find his community essentially invaded by loud, poor non-Caucasians who speak a different language: I understand why he’s angry. But the racist undertones of his critique made me sad. Frank handled it all with serenity. His patience was incredible.

The skills I’ve picked up at Swarthmore are not suited to smoothing over the rougher aspects of cultural collision. Citing Milton Friedman’s opinion on the incompatibility of a welfare state and open borders really isn’t going to help anything. But maybe I can pick it up. If my work can help at all, I’ll be very grateful.