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Sunday, 9 February 2014

Poverty - The Curse Of Scotland

The Nine of Diamonds playing card is more commonly known as "The Curse of Scotland", for various reasons, none of which has ever been confirmed to the satisfaction of historians. One version is that Butcher Cumberland wrote "no quarter" on the back of a Nine of Diamonds on the eve of the Battle of Culloden, as an order to his officers as to how the Jacobites should be treated. Alternatively, the card is supposed to strongly resemble the Coat of Arms of the Earl of Stair, who ordered the Massacre of Glencoe. There are others but the only "fact" about which we can be certain, the Nine of Diamonds is generally referred to as "The Curse". Used as a verb, it means to "wish evil or harm on someone or something", as a noun, it is something which can be classed as an evil or generally harmful and used in that sense, poverty certainly fills the bill.

The definition of poverty has changed over the generations and certainly does not mean the same today as it did, two or three generations ago. I use that timescale because it is one to which I can relate personally and from the personal experience of watching how it has changed quite dramatically. Today, using the figures taken from a paper produced by Poverty Alliance (October 2012) a person is living in poverty if the household has less than 60% of median income. This translates as:-

* A single person is living on less than £125 per week
* A single parent family with two children aged 5 and 14 is living on less than £258 per week
* A couple with two children are living on less than £349 per week

It is estimated that 910,000 people in Scotland or 18% of the population are living in poverty, while 220,000 children or 21% are living in poverty. It is claimed that poverty is higher in Scotland and across the UK than in other European countries, with Denmark and Sweden having fewer than 10% of their children living in poverty. Unfortunately, after a decade of improvement, current cuts in welfare and public spending generally, are reversing the trend and poverty is again on the increase. Despite the improvements, the old familiar areas are the ones where poverty is still prevalent and for some parts of Scotland, social mobility has come to a standstill and the poverty that was so much a part of the existence of the people there, is still there and increasing.

With a father who spent over 40 years as a bus driver, my immediate family was quite overtly working class, as was all of our extended family, but we could not be considered poor, as my parents ensured we never were without the basic comforts although holidays were unknown. That was not the case with all of the extended family and was light years away from the experiences of my parents and grandparents. My maternal great-grandmother Mary (nee Robertson) was a feisty Highlander who worked in the Dundee jute mills and was left a young widow to raise a girl crippled with polio and two sons. While her two sons were serving abroad in WWI, my grandfather in Salonika and his brother on the Western Front, she was committed to the "poor hoose" or the work house, the final refuge of the poor in those days. On her last visit to see her, accompanied by my mother and her older sister, neither of whom were yet at school, my grandmother, Jane McGregor, asked about the severe bruising on the old lady's face. She was told she had fallen, to which Mary responded with a wry smile, "Aye Jean, people fall a lot in here". Three days later she was dead "of old age and natural causes".

War wounds and the economic conditions after WWI, meant it was some years before my grandfather was able to work.His two eldest daughters, my mother and her sister, had the task of lining up outside the local bakers every night, in an effort to buy day-old and two-day old tea bread. If they were among the unlucky ones, they went hungry. My father did not know what it was to have a pair of shoes that were bought for him, until the day he started work at 13. The second youngest of 16 children, 13 of whom lived to adulthood, he wore cast offs, occasionally his mother's or his sisters', or he went barefoot if the weather allowed. Compared to them, I was lucky, but going to the only Catholic school in Perth, I experienced a greater mix of social classes than I would have, had I attended a non-denominational school where residence determined the mix. Some of Perth's poorest, were my classmates or were at other stages up and down the school, and they mixed with the children of some of the more affluent citizens of the town. There is a hierarchy, even among the poor and it wasn't until later years that I appreciated the demeanor and the look in the eyes of the worst off, that signified not just a lack of material basics but a completely broken spirit. It is a look I have seen more times than I care to remember and my God it hurts.

My Glaswegian cousins stayed in the old Royston Hill, two adults and six children in two rooms. Evacuated to Perth during WWII, they were more like brothers and sisters to me than cousins, so that after the War, I spent several years as a youngster running about the Hill, where the back middens were the playground of generations of kids. That was where I first discovered what real poverty meant and why aggression was so much a part of the daily grind. Years later, as an office bearer in the SNP and during a parliamentary by-election in the area, I re-visited the Hill to find that while the old houses were no longer there, the poverty, the attitudes, the aggression and above all, the broken spirits were all still present. While in the SNP, I campaigned in every constituency in Scotland to find that Drumchapel, Ferguslie Park in Paisley, the Raploch in Stirling, Beechwood in Dundee and Friarton and Hunter Crescent in my home town of Perth, may have had different names but the poverty was just the same, generation after generation after generation. An education and a degree helped me to break the mould but that opportunity was denied to so many of my contemporaries throughout Scotland, that social mobility did not exist for them and poverty was their's and their children's constant companions.

In March 2013 a report by The Breadline Britain Poverty and Social Exclusion, showed that poverty in Scotland was at its worst level for over 30 years with over 29% of Scots lacking three or more of the necessities for basic living. This report was said to be the largest and most authoritative study of poverty and deprivation ever conducted in the UK. The necessities included a winter coat and shoes, a dry warm house and the ability to buy the food needed to provide an adequate diet. That almost 30% of Scots cannot eat properly nor keep warm in winter, is a massive indictment of successive Labour and Tory governments and is a complete mockery of the notion that somehow Scots are better off in a Union that cannot provide the most basic necessities for our people. In the decade up to 2012, poverty in Scotland was reduced by approximately 9% but that trend has now been reversed and the forecast is that under the present policies, poverty will continue to increase, both in terms of numbers and severity. More importantly, the planned changes are not to improve the situation but to continue with austerity measures in order to cut public expenditure and debt.

Poverty does not mean simply a lack of material benefits, it means poorer health, lack of job opportunities, poorer, unskilled jobs when they exist at all, lower education opportunities leading to lower aspirations and an almost total destruction of the human spirit. Poverty dehumanises and destroys the will to climb out of the pit of despair that generations of thankless effort has created. It also determines that a boy born in the most deprived 10% of areas, has a life expectancy of 68 - 8 years below the national average and 14 years below boys born in the least deprived areas of the country. When men and women are forced to queue in line to receive food to feed their families, in full view of friends and neighbours, there cannot be much self respect left. But it is what this Coalition government and the previous Labour government have forced thousands of families in Scotland to do. At the same time, they have the gall to proclaim we are Better Together, while the majority of MPs who fiddled their expenses, in other words, stole from the public purse, have escaped any kind of punishment. Bankers who stole millions, yes millions, from their customers and who still pay themselves exorbitant rewards for continuing to steal, have escaped being named and shamed, never mind jailed.

Why is it that child poverty is less than 10% in Denmark and Sweden, that is, it is less than half the level it is in Scotland? Neither country has the natural resources that Scotland enjoys but they do have the one thing that we in Scotland lack; they have control of their own country; they have independence. Perhaps that is the connection.

ENDS



2 comments:

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