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Continuity and Change

In Glasgow, street gangs have existed for decades, with knife crime becoming a defining feature.

More than a decade on from Deuchar’s original fieldwork, this book explores the transitional experiences of some of the young men he worked with, as well as the experiences of today’s young people and the practitioners who work to support them.

Through empirical data, policy analysis and contemporary insights, this dynamic book explores the evolving nature of gangs, and the contemporary challenges affecting young people including drug distribution, football-related bigotry and the mental health repercussions emerging from social media.

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In this opening chapter, we begin by setting the stage for the remainder of the book by outlining the context for our research and by considering its unique contribution. Following this, we explore the ‘international turn’ that gave rise to the emergence of European gang research and how UK scholars remained resistant to the ‘gang’ label for a number of years. We delve into the great UK gang debate that has often been characterised by a subculture–gang division, as well as the recent empirical insights that provide overwhelming evidence that the street gang is a real and (in some contexts) growing phenomenon in several parts of the country. We draw attention to recent issues of concern in England and Wales where 2018–19 was a watershed period for street violence. We examine the nature of the government’s ‘Serious Violence Strategy’, the emerging focus on adopting a ‘public health’ approach to violence reduction and prevention, and how Glasgow, located in the west of Scotland, has increasingly been drawn upon as a site of interest in this regard.

In recent years, much political and media attention has been placed on the issues of knife crime and violence across the UK (and particularly in its capital city, London). There has also been a great deal of emphasis on the recognised need for a public health approach to tackling these issues, and an ever-growing interest in Glasgow and the wider west of Scotland’s transitional journey in relation to street gangs and knife crime. Given this, we believe that this book is extremely timely.

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In this chapter, we critically examine recent statistical trends relating to the general issues of violent criminality and offensive weapon-handling in Scotland. We also provide a brief history of street gangs in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, from their roots in sectarian rivalry to the territorial and recreational focus adopted in the post-industrial era. We examine how knife crime has traditionally been a defining feature of street gangs in Glasgow and of street-oriented violence governed by expectations around masculine honour. Insights into the recorded motivations for knife-carrying and gang violence among young people are explored, drawing from previous research as well as the emerging evidence suggesting that gangs may have evolved in the west of Scotland. The chapter concludes by outlining the methodological approaches that we drew upon for the current study, detailing the sampling methods, access arrangements, geographical locations, ethical protocols and data analysis methods used.

Rates of crime, especially those against the person and, to a lesser degree, vandalism have historically (1950–84) been considerably higher in Scotland than, for instance, in Sweden, which shares many of its population characteristics (McClintock and Wikström, 1990). It may be that feelings of shame and stigmatism among lower-working-class youth cultural groups are greater in areas of Scotland, and through gang membership and activity these feelings are transformed into pride and solidarity (Moran 2015). The youth street gang, Moran (2015) proposes, offers an esprit de corps through expressive violence and symbolic praxis factors that ward off threats such as injury and prison; possibly this phenomenon that transforms shame into pride helps to explain higher rates of violence in parts of Scotland with heightened criminality and youth gangs.

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In this part of the book, we present the insights from our qualitative research fieldwork. In so doing, we revisit the phenomena of street gangs, weapon-carrying and violence in communities in the west of Scotland, more than a decade on from Deuchar’s original work, and explore wider contemporary challenges impacting young people.

We begin in this chapter by examining the way a public health approach to violence prevention has been put in place in Scotland over the last 10–15 years and has had a particular focus on addressing the social determinants of gang violence and weapon-carrying. We share initial insights from our interviews with practitioners in and around Glasgow to present case study illustrations of pioneering and high-profile projects and initiatives associated with the SVRU as well as complementary educational and youth outreach initiatives. Drawing on these insights, and as a prelude to the wider discoveries from former gang members, adults and young people that we present in subsequent chapters in this section of the book, we suggest that these interventions have contributed to the alleged decline in gang violence. However, we also draw on practitioners’ perspectives to begin to suggest that entrenched systemic issues such as poverty and social inequality may be throwing up an intersection of wider adversities for disadvantaged youth.

The public health approach to violence and its prevention was set out by the World Health Organization (WHO), a specialised agency of the United Nations responsible for promoting international health and wellbeing, in 2002 in its ‘World report on violence and health’ (Conaglen and Gallimore, 2014).

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Building on the initial insights from practitioners outlined in the last chapter, in this chapter we share the perspectives of adult members of communities in the west of Scotland who participated in our fieldwork, most of whom were former gang members and some of whom were now working as practitioners. We share the interviewees’ recollections of lived experiences in the housing schemes at a time when territorial gang violence was particularly pronounced, and the factors that enabled them to transition, change and desist. We also share their viewpoints that suggested (like those outlined in the previous chapter) that, as territorial street gang violence has continued to decline in the west of Scotland, other pressing issues – most prominently associated with drug use and drug distribution – have come to the fore.

In the last chapter, we documented how discussions with members of our practitioner sample had drawn our attention to the changing and evolving nature of their organisations’ services in recent years. We began to uncover the contextual backdrop to this in the form of rising poverty rates, an increased prevalence of ACEs and trauma, escalating issues relating to mental ill-health, and increasing levels of drug use, drug distribution, suicide and drug-related deaths. As we referred to in Chapter 2, in our desire to explore these issues further we revisited some of Glasgow’s housing schemes that had been explored by Deuchar (2009a) over a decade earlier, as well as other socially disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the west of Scotland.

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The previous two chapters sought to provide a reflective account of gang and youth violence at the turn of the twentieth century, exploring how interventionist strategies, cultural and political changes, contributed to tackling knife crime and violence in Scotland. Drawing predominantly upon the voices of teenagers and young people, this chapter explores the difficulties they face today. In accordance with emergent themes from the data, and given that the Scottish Government, Police Scotland and the National Crime Agency have all highlighted the significant threat posed by drug abuse and serious organised crime related to the illegal supply of narcotics, it was perhaps not surprising to find drug supply, and drug misuse, at the forefront of the young people’s narratives. Therefore, this chapter explores drug supply and the impact on young people, as well as their own descriptions of their roles in drug distribution networks.

Building upon insights that looked at the implantation of the public health approach as a means of effectively tackling Scotland’s gang problem, the previous two chapters drew upon the voices of ex-offenders and practitioners. Doing so enabled a periodic comparative analysis that explored the true impact from the perspectives of those involved in and addressing gang and youth violence in the west of Scotland. Discussing what life was like prior to, during and immediately after the implementation of the public health approach to violence prevention, Chapter 4 demonstrated the way immersion in interventions with a focus on inclusion, support and compassion supported desistance journeys.

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In the previous chapter, we drew on insights from interviews with our sample of young people to shed light on the role that drugs play in contemporary youth culture in the west of Scotland and young people’s involvement in drug supply and distribution. However, our extended discussions with young people also threw up additional insights relating to an array of wider influences and challenges impacting their lives. This chapter, therefore, outlines the remaining perspectives emerging from our interviews with young people in the west of Scotland, as well as some complementary insights from practitioners. We examine their views on the continuing issues relating to street-gang culture, weapon-carrying and violence; the longstanding (and, to some extent, re-emerging) issues associated with football bigotry; and the amalgam of newer issues relating to and emerging from social media engagement.

In Chapter 5 we suggested that, by helping to break down territorial barriers, public health interventions have on the one hand helped to reduce street gang violence while at the same time allowing increased social mobility and thus perhaps unwittingly allowing gangs to evolve and become part of existing drug supply chains. However, throughout the book, we have also made intermittent reference to the evidence suggesting that reported numbers of violent incidents have plateaued (or even increased slightly) in recent years (particularly in socially disadvantaged communities in the west of Scotland), following a lengthy period of decline (Batchelor et al, 2019; Scottish Government, 2019b, 2020b, 2020c). It is evident that, to some extent, street gang violence may still have a presence in some geographical locations, alongside wider contemporary challenges facing youth.

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In the interest of clarity and consistency of treatment, this concluding chapter aims to offer a faithful and detailed synthesis of the research findings from earlier chapters. Following this, we explore implications for policy and practice. We then conclude by reflecting on the limitations of our research work and propose directions for new research into the subjects addressed in the book. As each chapter has a distinct identity, our conclusion uses each one as a frame within which further analysis and synthesis are advanced. The bulk of the conclusion emphasises the framing of youth experience, after which we re-conceptualise perceptions through a more critical and less descriptive analysis.

We begin with a recap and further synthesis of the granularity of our empirical contribution against the scholarly context set out in the introductory chapter. The purpose of a conclusion is not to introduce substantially new material into the landscapes examined. There is, however, legitimate space for originality as we draw out and reinforce observations made in the book’s chapters, individually and across them.

It could not be doubted that the landscape of criminality associated with young people (and particularly young men) typically domiciled in areas of intergenerational disadvantage evolves with such speed that it often eludes the capacity of criminologists to keep pace (Girling et al, 2013). Seen as an intervention into the contemporary world of gangs, violence, illegal drugs and their contested interconnection with organised crime, this book, based on research conducted in Scotland, has devoted its gaze to change and continuity in the lives of those who have first-hand experience of troubled urban landscapes.

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