Few have the guts to speak like John Kerr

When I moved to Easterhouse in the 1980s, one of the first people I visited was John Kerr, the founder of the Cranhill Credit Union. He also had a reputation for being at loggerheads with the Labour Party from which he was eventually expelled.

I expected an abrasive militant. By contrast, he was genial and enthusiastic yet with a character like steel. Brought up in the tough Blackhill district, two Glaswegians were to shape his life. One was big John Henderson, a policeman who saw him street fighting and drew him into a boxing club where he became a lightweight champion. He also learned discipline and control which probably diverted him from nearby Barlinnie prison.

A taxi driver for 18 years, Kerr and his wife, Ellen, had a large family and debts. He then met Bert Mullen, a working-class Christian who preached community co-operation rather than individual greed. Mullen had started a credit union which was owned and run by its members. The Kerrs joined, saved, took out a loan and enjoyed their first holiday.

By this time the Kerrs were living in Cranhill in Greater Easterhouse.

They launched its credit union in their flat with 13 members. Offering low interest rates, instead of the excessive ones charged by legal and illegal loan sharks, it soon gained members, most of whom were on benefits.

Other initiatives, including a food co-op, followed. When I recently visited Kerr, I could not help notice the numerous comings and goings of residents, for they are both the helped and the helpers. They express what is meant by the word “solidarity”. Kerr has also been involved in planting credit unions all over Scotland.

He believes that residents of disadvantaged areas know most about poverty. He criticises what he calls “the poverty industry”, the huge regeneration agencies, the quangos, the national voluntary societies. He argues that billions of pounds have been poured into the industry which have benefited the careers of the experts and have expanded the empires of the welfare institutions without bringing much lasting return for residents.

Kerr is no celebrity and will never appear on Question Time. But his values and arguments are important.

First, he confirms the existence of many people of talent in the places that are sometimes dismissed as dominated by the so-called underclass. Two questions arise. Why are statutory bodies reluctant to fund residents to run local projects? And why do national voluntary societies still campaign about poverty and social deprivation instead of enabling those at the hard end to take the lead?

Second, the likes of Kerr have spent decades in their locations, building the trust of local people. National voluntary bodies, which have skilled workers and resources, should offer their services to residents with the possibility that some of these staff would live long-term in deprived areas and work with residents to improve matters.

Third, Kerr is a window through which we should examine our own lifestyles. He has never used his abilities to enrich himself, has never sought positions from the establishment. He does not pretend to oppose poverty while reinforcing it by his own income and wealth.

Kerr has completed more than 40 years of social activism in Scotland. Gongs and titles have been given for less. I asked him whether he would accept an honour. He roared with laughter.

Then he pinpointed some serious aspects. He said that to accept an honour is to collude with the class which bestows it. He added: “It [that class] should be concerned not with honours but with seeking the forgiveness of the people it allows to be in poverty.”

In the world of welfare, few people have the guts to speak like Kerr. We – and I include myself – should listen to him.

Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow

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