The ‘War on Neds’ and contradiction: 1995–2008

Gavin Brewis traces the history of Scotland's 'War on Neds'. At the centre of a nation-wide moral panic targeting working class youth, Neds created a complex culture that was a direct response to material conditions of poverty, violence, and exclusion.

By Gavin Brewis

Originally published on DRad. Republished here with author's permission, with editing by Interregnum.


Glasgow is a city that is well renowned for its poverty and violence. From the slums to the schemes and the hooligan to the gangster, Glasgow’s reputation for notoriety has been almost cyclical. In an effort to rebrand itself in the 1980s, Glasgow City Council brought billions of pounds in inward investment through various service industries. As a result, Glasgow would be named the City of Culture in 1990. This seeming success, however, brought with it glaring socio-spatial disparities, with the wealth in the city unevenly distributed, simultaneously worsening inequality. By the early 2000s, some areas of Glasgow were amongst the poorest in Western Europe, and there was a growing problem with crime across the city.

In response to this, First Minister Jack McConnell of Labour announced his ‘War on Neds’. The result was a nation-wide moral panic that resulted in police brutality and a restriction of rights and freedoms for the poor working-class youth of the city. Through use of data gathered from primary research which includes several semi-structured interviews and observational methods, combined with a range of archival material and secondary literature, this post will explore the history of Glasgow and its relationship with class conflict, youth cultures and moral panics.

It will then examine the experience of Neds and Ned Culture in the early 2000s in response to this moral panic, as they tried to exist in the face of systemic violence and oppression. In doing so, the article will work through the themes of injustice, grievance, alienation and polarisation to reveal the material struggles of the poor, young, working-class Ned.

History of Glasgow

Glasgow’s history is replete with economic disparities and working-class struggle. It has been marked by centuries of injustice, grievance, alienation, and polarisation. While the city thrived during the Industrial Revolution, the wealth generated through this period of prosperity was unevenly distributed; a trend that continued for several decades. Following WWII, the 1950s brought about more economic decay as the city’s main industries such as shipbuilding and engineering rapidly declined and to a large degree were made redundant as new technologies entered the now global market. Between 1961–1981, 142,000 jobs were lost as businesses cut their labour forces, closed, or simply moved to ensure they could maximise profits in a new era of international markets. Thus, left with a relatively ageing, at times sick, and unskilled workforce, de-industrialisation hit Glasgow particularly hard. This led to mass unemployment and economic hardship, ultimately exacerbating existing inequalities.

By the 1980s, Glasgow was on a mission to rebrand itself, and welcomed neoliberal policies with open arms. With the opening of the Burrell Collection in 1983, followed by the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign (1984) and the prestigious Garden Festival (1988), the city earned itself the title of ‘European City of Culture’ in 1990. In 1990, the City Council boasted of £2.5 billion in investment, much of which had come through finance capital. The investment was put to work in infrastructure, with a major clean-up of the city taking place. Such initiatives would also play a role in boosting employment, as figures rose from 94,000 to 158,000. Wages for these roles were enough to survive on, but not enough to change the impoverished conditions of the city in its entirety. The £2.5 billion that had been reported was not injected into the same communities that had played a role in the city’s rejuvenation, and the schemes across the city that had suffered prior to this neoliberal regeneration continued to suffer as the socio-spatial issues deeply ingrained in the fabric of Glasgow’s geography became glaringly obvious.

Thus, by the year 2000, Glasgow was suffering from a long history of economic inequality, deprivation, and huge wealth disparities marked by socio-spatial and geographical polarisation. Many members of the emerging working class found themselves in alienating roles that couldn't liberate them from poverty under neoliberalism. The population were largely deskilled, not only through neoliberalism but as a hangover from the sharp deindustrialisation implemented by the Conservative Government. Glasgow’s child poverty rates were still some of the worst in Europe. Beyond being materially hindered, this was a population that was also severely impacted on an emotional level. It was a community shattered and in many ways living in despair through intergenerational poverty, which in turn created intergenerational desperation. These factors were to be worsened by the stigmatisation, othering, and moral panic that culminated in the ‘War on Neds’.

Injustice and grievance

Just two years after Scotland’s First Minister Jack McConnell announced his ‘War on Neds', Glasgow was dubbed the ‘Murder Capital of Europe’ (UN Report, 2005). With Glasgow's socio-spatial disparities becoming glaringly obvious through its regeneration project, the ‘War on Neds’ was an ideological addition to the circumstances of an already marginalised youth living in some of the worst conditions in Western Europe.

What was so unique about this, however, was the approach of the government at the time, who essentially employed the Daily Record to assist them in this campaign. They wanted the Daily Record to ‘reach out to listen to the communities’ and their thoughts on these Neds. Therefore, this was not just a case of the media creating a frenzy in order to push for new policy: instead, this time they had been actively encouraged by the government. On September the 1st, 2003, the paper wrote: ‘In a unique step, the Executive have asked The Record to help ensure your voices are heard’. A few days later, the Daily Record read: ‘Ministers have promised to read every letter, email or text you send’. It was a move away from systemic and analytical research, and towards what was essentially a mob rule, as the government of the day asked the public what they wanted done about the Neds.

The responses were everything one would expect at the height of moral panic. Some spoke about national service, others about curfews, tags and even microchips; some spoke about harsher sentences, bringing back corporal punishment and birching, and some even encouraged police brutality. One letter in particular, which was written by a ‘top Scots surgeon’, suggested that the police should simply ‘draw their batons’ and ‘knock f*ck out of these Neds’.

This politically-driven narrative was able to divert the public’s attentions away from the failings of the neoliberal model encouraged across the city, onto the most disenfranchised who could not vote or challenge their conditions in any way possible. The moral panic encouraged harsher policing and longer, more severe sentencing in the courts. Numerous instances of police brutality resulted in deep resentment toward those who had once claimed to protect such communities and it was through such injustice that grievance was created.

While those of the general Ned population were not politically conscious, or even interested in the media narratives that surrounded them – largely because very few actually cared what was in the news – they were not numb to their conditions, and class was very visible for them, even if they were unable to articulate it. They knew they were poor and some of this resentment for those who were deemed to have had more, was reflected in their behaviours. For example, treatment and relations with other subcultures such as ‘Moshers’ or ‘Goths’ was for some Neds a way of expressing their anger at the ‘middle-class’ children who had come from wealthier areas, and who had more stable homes and families. Of course, many of those who were Moshers or Goths were not middle-class, but they did not tend to speak like Neds, or rarely hung around in the same areas (schemes) as Neds, and their very distinguishable dress codes made them easy targets for Neds to vent their frustrations and anger at their circumstances.

These conditions also gave way to a very strong anti-authority sentiment that was ever-present in the graffiti and the language used by Neds. ‘ASC’ and ‘LCC’ were regularly painted alongside gang signage. ASC meant Anti-Screw-Crew (anti-police) much in the same way as ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) is used now. LCC was in reference to legalising cannabis through the Legalise Cannabis Campaign. Many of those who would write such things did not smoke cannabis, but that sense of anti-authority was a reason in itself for it to be painted on a wall of any random shop or building.

Nevertheless, there was also a strong moral code connected with the graffiti and destruction of buildings in the locality. So, while painting on walls or writing with thick pens (inky markers) across shops, bus stops and any other surface possible was acceptable, there was also a strong sense of relationship with this environment, at least on a material basis. The schemes were essentially places of belonging, and that extended also to the local populous. Where one might fight members of a rival scheme, that same individual might ensure that the elderly lady on the same street could climb the stairs with her shopping. Thus, there is a complexity evident here that shows one must be cautious of relating anti-authority with a lack of morality – something the media had intentionally tried to do.

This anti-authority sentiment played a role to some extent in the education system too, with many of the youth unable to settle in the strict and regimented classroom setting. Neds would often find themselves at odds with teachers, who were very often working to their limits in an underfunded and unsupported sector. Teachers in this period were very often overworked and underpaid, whereas the children, who were on the receiving end of a moral panic, faced systemic oppression from the police, the Government, and the media, often with little support from home. Thus, the working-class adult was met by the poor working-class youth, both in situations of crisis but on different levels, but both as a consequence of the economic climate and the mode of production.

The education system, therefore, was not perceived as a place of education and empowerment, but yet another domain where Neds felt that they were unable to express themselves and their identity freely. Unfortunately, for those children who could not adapt to the academic setting, they would find themselves alienated and at times even expelled indefinitely from school. Such measures meant that numerous children would leave school with no formal qualifications, essentially worsening their situation and consigning them to a lifetime on the periphery of society. With no formal education and very little trades available, the workplace was rarely an option, and thus the outcome was to head back onto the streets and conduct themselves in the same manner that would simply worsen their existing crises.


The Antisocial Behaviour Scotland Act (2004) provided new powers to the police. Amongst others, it introduced the electronic tagging of children, orders obliging parents to tame unruly children, and measures to tackle noisy neighbours, litter, graffiti, and landlords who ignore tenants’ behaviour. The act also extended the use of Antisocial Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) to children as young as 12, down from the age of 16 since 1999.

However, it was with the introduction of the Dispersal Order that politicians gloated the most. Margaret Curran, the Communities Minister, said that the bill stood up for the ‘ordinary decent hard-working people of Scotland’. Here, of course, the othering language is ever-present; this was an assault on the unordinary, the indecent, and the non-working population of Glasgow – everything the Ned was deemed to be. What was less mentioned was the lack of access for such people to break into the labour market, and to enter higher education to try and change these circumstances. Emphasis remained largely on the individual, rather than the systemic issues which determined their fates.

Under the terms of the order, groups of two or more people causing alarm or distress could be dispersed. Of course, what was causing alarm or distress was entirely subjective and at the police officers' discretion. Nonetheless, anyone refusing to comply with the order would be committing an offence and, if convicted, would be liable for a fine of up to £2500 and could face up to three months in prison.

There were several areas across the city were Dispersal Orders were implemented. Often these would begin from 6pm, so they were essentially a curfew for the youth. It is particularly important to note here that these measures were specifically introduced in extremely deprived areas – some of the worst in Western Europe. Many of these youths were already unable to access leisure and nearby amenities; their parents were often unemployed or suffering with in-work poverty due to the already problematic conditions they existed in. Furthermore, at this time, many children were also living with parents who were drug or alcohol dependent. As explained, they were already feeling alienated within the classroom, and a place that may have provided them with some escapism and support was simply not there. Consequently, they often had no support networks, and certainly less than children from more affluent areas across the city.

Dispersal Orders therefore constituted a violent removal of the space and place that this young population had come to exist in, and meant that they were to be criminalised for wishing to be part of the only community they really knew in their friends and in their territory. This was about more than just polarising language like that expressed by Curran: it was the perpetuation of the existing polarisation experienced by those in the working-class areas of Glasgow. The socio-spatial issues that had already existed in terms of wealth distribution were now extended to the removal for working-class children of the same rights and freedoms enjoyed by the youths in more affluent areas.

However, while these policies were created to hinder and deter these young working-class Neds, they refused to be dissuaded. Phrases such as ‘born an’ bred a Glesga Ned’ highlight a reclaiming of the narrative. The behaviours which became central to their demonisation were also a form of resistance to social and cultural norms. The drinking, the fighting, the underage sex, and the same anti-authority sentiment remained, and in many ways intensified the polarisation of Ned Culture. If they were problematic, and if they were scum, and if they were everything the Government, the media, the education system and society had told them they were, then they were so by their own terms.

So, while Ned Culture was far removed from anything political – arguably the Mosher and Goth scenes were far more politicised and to some degree class-conscious – their struggle itself was a political one. Through their community, they fought to defend themselves on their own terms through the only means they had, which was very little. It may not have been a class-conscious effort, but the material conditions through which they existed, and the few tools that they had at their disposal to fight for change, were very much a product of the class system, and a conflict which arose from within it.

Alienation and resistance

The Ned experience was more than just stigma initiated by language. It was an extension of the systemic violence that they had already experienced as a consequence of their working-class-poor roots that existed in the city for centuries; it was polarisation through socio-spatial issues that were worsened by neoliberalism and regeneration policies; it was physical punishment from police and harsher sentences in court; it was moral panics and policies that directly targeted this poor working-class population. Ultimately, it was an attempt not only to silence and keep them hidden away from the ‘ordinary, decent, hard-working people’ of the city, but to entirely remove this working-class subculture by any legal means possible.

Like the Hooligans and Gangsters of the past, the youth did not have a union behind them to organise and fight the systemic oppression they faced. As has been demonstrated, the poor, uneducated working-class were denied access to the labour market as well as the right to exist or express themselves freely across many areas of society, including the schemes in which they lived. Even though they had no bargaining power, and many did not even have the power to vote, this does not mean there was no reaction to their alienation. If one analyses their culture in more depth, there are evident signs of resistance in almost everything they wore and how they existed.

From the bright colours of the Berghaus Mera Peak, to the loud tracksuits and flashy jewellery (often borrowed or purchased through early credit schemes like the Catalogue or Provident), one could argue that this was all about being seen and heard. From the loud, fast, Happy Hardcore music, to the roaming of the streets in crowds, there was an element of ‘we exist’ in every performative action and in every manner of being.

The police ensured they could not exist in the streets with the new powers they had been granted; they were often expelled or at best alienated in the education system; there were very few youth clubs, and where they did exist, staff were on short supply which meant such clubs were rarely opened. These same Neds had problems at home and money for anything other than necessities was a luxury many could not afford. With no money, they could not take trips to the cinema, or weekends away to escape their surroundings and find that another world existed. Even trips to the swimming baths were rare because even if they could afford to go, this carried with it a risk of bumping into a rival scheme because baths were usually situated in a leisure centre within a specific scheme. Therefore, the streets became the place in which the youth could show who they were, and even in the face of police aggravation, they continued in this same, loud, and at times aggressive manner. However, there were other ways in which the youth would reject this oppression they had faced, where they could try to reclaim who and what they were.

Pirate radio was not a phenomenon unique to Glasgow, but in Glasgow it played a vital role in the city’s exposure to Ned Culture. While the city had always had a strong relationship with music, it was Rave music that had gripped it since the early 1990s and would become a central feature of this youth subculture. Pirate radio stations such as 103.6 Club FM would play fast Happy Hardcore, Spanish Hardcore and Dance Music as listeners tuned in across the city. However, several stations, including Club FM, added a cultural slant to their show – again, in relation to gangs. Live ‘phone-ins’ allowed for rival gangs to call the radio station and have arguments live across the waves in-between the music. There were insults, offers to meet for fights, as well as the now well-renowned song requests and ‘shout outs’. There ensued a constant battle of wits between pirate radio station owners – who were essentially just young working-class boys and girls sitting in a high-rise flat with a cheap transmitter, an antenna, a bottle of alcohol, and a set of decks or even just a tape player – and the police, who tried desperately to hunt the location of those polluting the airwaves with such vulgar language and music.

In 2003, music in Glasgow changed for almost an entire generation through the emergence of PC-DJing. DJs introduced a mixture of Happy Hardcore and Italo Dance, sped up to the point the track was barely recognisable compared to its original format. From there, an ‘Acapella’ was placed on top of the track through the use of various programmes such as Acoustica and Acid Pro. Various stars of the schemes emerged. DJs such as Pulse, Gillies, Smith and Rankin, are a few notable mentions – some of which also feature in Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team. Again, this was just young boys and girls, sat in their homes, on their computer, speeding up tracks and adding to them an Acapella – sometimes they were ‘beat-matched’, although sometimes they were not. However, it became a sensation and people would sit patiently, week after week to hear these ‘new tunes’, introduced to the rest of the scheme via tape or CD. Shortly after this introduction though, there developed the infamous ‘Diss Tracks’.

Diss Tracks or ‘Disses’ were created through similar methods to the initial PC-DJ music. However, as opposed to Acapellas being placed on top of the track, rival gangs would create rhymes to insult one another through a computer microphone, as the scheme warfare was transferred from the streets to creative media and music. Rival gangs such as the Y Pen (Penilee) and the HYT (Hillington) were some of the earliest to create these tracks. Again, this became a way of expressing their feelings and hatred, extending beyond rival schemes to include the police and the system too. These tracks would often feature on ‘Freewebspace’ websites that were a celebration of gangs and Ned Culture.

What is often overlooked in this process is the fact that by doing this, young working-class children were learning coding, and even in some cases hacking through online tutorials, in an age where the internet was still very young. There were clearly skills there to be developed, but due to a lack of access to formal education, this was never possible. And, of course, not everyone had access to these sites or computers at all, but clearly, the youth were finding ways to express themselves when all other avenues had been exhausted.

Nevertheless, for this young and poor working-class subculture, the more they explored their existence within their material surroundings, and the more they found themselves promoting and reclaiming their own identity, the more they became alienated, isolated, and marginalised. The music, the dress codes, the pirate radio stations, the websites, and even their language were all products of their material conditions, and as such, became a folk devil for middle-class fear and fascination. The fact that they could be identified in these various ways, through their dress, music styles, language, and even the simplest of things like haircuts and mannerisms, meant that Neds remained targets for mockery, shame, fear and disdain. This played a role in their treatment by police, their experience in education, sentencing in courts, and their reputation in the media and society.


Glasgow has a long tradition of poverty and socio-spatial inequality, and it was through such inequalities that Ned Culture grew central to a new moral panic. Often too young to vote, and with very little representation in the political arena, Neds became an easy target during a period of economic uncertainty in Glasgow. They found themselves victims to harsh policing, discriminatory government policies, and systemic violence on various levels. In an unconscious response, Neds rebelled against these conditions in various ways. From the clothing they wore to the music they played, from their engagement with graffiti and violence to the pirate radio stations and PC DJing, the anti-authoritarianism that they expressed was inseparable from the conditions they suffered. Indeed, their expressions were by no means a conscious effort to challenge their conditions, and their own choices did result in harm for others and themselves. However, with little at their disposal, and without the education or the confidence to organise in a more productive manner, they reacted in the same way they were socialised: often violently, and with little direction. Distasteful as they were to so many, their behaviours were a direct response to their alienating, polarising and unjustly impoverished conditions. To understand why and how Neds behaved in the way they did, it is important to understand Ned Culture, and the material conditions and history through which the culture was born.

Gavin Brewis (GfB) is a PhD researcher at GCU. He is a community and socialist activist, a member of the Scottish Poverty and Inequality Research Unit, and an associate member of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice (SCCJR). His research interests include Neds and Ned Culture (1995–2008), Psychosocial Trauma, Systemic Violence and Social Class.

Twitter: @Gavin_F_Brewis