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August 26, 2009

The life of an activist

An obituary in last week’s Herald reflected on the life of John Kerr – a community activist from Cranhill in Greater Easterhouse.   An enduring commitment to his community and the all round humanity of the man shone through. It seems that he didn’t have much of a public profile beyond Cranhill and that was as he chose it.  Just like thousands of other local people across the country who are actively trying to improve their communities –  and working beneath the radar of government

Bob Holman, The Herald

Community Activist.

Born December 14, 1937 Died July 26, 2009.

John Kerr, who has died of heart failure aged 71, was a great Scot, although insufficiently recognised by the press and politics.

Born in 1937, he was brought up in Blackhill. Glasgow, and his parents’ large family of one girl (who died aged four) and five boys meant money was always tight. His dad survived fighting abroad during the the war and returned to exhausting jobs in the steel and gas industries. Somehow his mother, provided for them all, while the close-knit family looked after each other.

Kerr became known as a street fighter and was spotted by the law. A policeman, Big John, drew him into a boxing club where he became a lightweight champion. Just as important, he learnt discipline and control which probably diverted him from nearby Barlinnie Prison.

On leaving school, Kerr worked as a cutter in the clothing trade and later as a taxi driver. By this time he had met and married Ellen and eventually they brought up nine children. Kerr fell into debt with the Provvy and at this point he met Bert Mullen, a working class Christian who believed in community co-operation not individual selfishness. He had formed a credit union, a financial co-operative, owned and run by members. The Kerrs joined, got out of debt and saved for their first holiday.

The family was rehoused to Cranhill in Greater Easterhouse and Kerr’s Christianity and socialism made him a community activist. He started the Cranhill Credit Union in his flat with 13 members while brother, Joe, recruited more and served as a front-line worker. Making low interest loans unlike the legal and illegal loan sharks, the credit union grew steadily. Today members take out loans not just for cookers and fridges but for holidays and even mortgages. Kerr estimated that up to £15m had been recycled back into the community.

He was also involved in launching a food co-op. I moved to Easterhouse in the mid-1980s, and, with a number of local residents, visited Cranhill. Kerr and his colleagues could not have been more welcoming and helpful. The result was that we established a food co-op and credit union in another part of Easterhouse. By this time, he had become almost a missionary for credit unions, which he promoted all over Scotland.

John Kerr was able, articulate and committed to communities. Perhaps even more unusual in these days of selfishness and greed, he was a man of principle who argued that our beliefs had to be applied to our lifestyle. He could have risen up the poverty career ladder’ to a high salary and large house. Instead, he remained in Cranhill on a modest income. His brother, Joe, stated, I always looked up to him and admired his way of life. You could not fall out with him.

But he was often critical of what he called the poverty industry, the quangos, the think tanks, the massive regeneration agencies, the national voluntary societies, whose highly-paid leaders decided what was best for the poor but never lived amongst them.

He insisted that local residents had the abilities to find solutions for their areas but were never trusted with the resources and power. He saw their rejection as a reflection of the rejection of the working class by the Labour Party with the number of working class MPs in sharp decline. He left Labour and stood against them in an election – and nearly won.

When asylum seekers were placed in his part of Easterhouse, Kerr was among the first to welcome them in his small office. He liked to tell of those who did return to their own countries and continued to send small amounts of money to pay off their loans from the credit union.

Perhaps his driving force was religion. As a Roman Catholic, he was appalled at legislation which, in his view encouraged abortion. Sometimes he would snap his fingers every few seconds and say another young life taken’. He joined the Christian Alliance Party and stood as one of their candidates.

Yet he disliked being seen as a Holy Willy’. He worshipped regularly and said he saw Jesus as a kind of communist with a message about loving your neighbour, especially the poor and excluded. Perhaps appropriately, he collapsed and died on the steps of his church.

Kerr was never offered an honour by the establishment – not that he would have accepted one. But he was honoured and loved by hundreds if not thousands of ordinary, working class people.

Ellen died in 2007 and he is survived by eight children and numerous grandchildren plus his four brothers, Patrick, John, Joe and Charlie.