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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

XVII. Economic and social conditions

125. Poverty and Deprivation in Scotland, 1983

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  • 12 William McIlvanney (b. 1936) graduated from Glasgow University and worked as an English teacher be (...)

1In the following text, William McIlvanney12, contends that Scotland in the 1980s was a society of chronic injustice; he gives the example of a forty-one-year old woman who struggles to bring up her two children in decent conditions.

2William McIlvanney, “Being Poor” in Gordon Brown, Robin F. Cook (eds.) Scotland, the Real Divide: Poverty and Deprivation in Scotland, Edinburgh: Edinburgh Mainstream Publications, 1983, p. 23-26.

Ours is a caring society, people think vaguely. Steps are being taken. Provision has been made. Such bromide thoughts minister as effectively to the conditions of our society as an aspirin would to cancer. The truth is that the Welfare State is often less panacea for the poor than valium for the rich, more concept than reality, more psychic palliative than physical cure.

Scotland is still a society of chronic injustice. In some ways its condition has worsened precisely because the more superficial manifestations of poverty have been cosmetically treated while its root effects remain. We do not see children barefoot in winter now. But the disease of poverty is still rife among us in its subtler forms. Its effects aren’t always dramatic but they are always destructive. Numerous statistics testify to its presence. For example, it has been estimated that 800,000 Scots live below the government’s own poverty guideline (that is, a family of four on less than £56 per week).

The statistics are there. Unfortunately, they’re not all that is there. For being poor is never merely statistical. It is specific and individual and sore enough, even in its milder form.

Take as an example a woman living in Livingston new town, to whom I was directed by a social worker as representing an ordinary kind of hardship. I’ll call her Kathy, because it isn’t her name. Her circumstances are hardly exceptional. Stated baldly, they have a dull familiarity to them in the present epidemic of dissolving families, as arresting as a hyphen in a graveyard.

She is forty-one. Six years ago her husband, who was twenty-nine at that time, lefther, ironically, for an older woman. Their daughter was seven at the time, their son six. There followed one of those periods of social disorientation that tend to be experienced by such an amputated half of a couple. The nerve-ends seem to be on the outside of the skin and the hurts home in. Paranoia hovers near and the insensitivity of others feels like a plot.

Her own incredulity at the behaviour of others had its justifications. She remembers a couple of them with special clarity. During her first Hogmanay alone, her estranged husband and the woman he was living with arrived at the door at 2 a. m. on New Year’s Day to wish her a Happy New Year. At another time her father-in-law turned up with a tenner to help her out. Wrapped in the note she found a durex, which he had apparently thought was a tasteful way of suggesting what he had in mind.

After almost a year of emotional confusion she moved to Livingston with the children, having come to the admission that she had to work out her problems for herself. She’s still trying to do that. Central to the difficulty of doing so is simply lack of money.

Her ex-husband pays her nothing. But every week she receives £46.12 supplementary allowance, £13.80 child benefit and she is allowed to make £12 per week from part-time work. It’s hardly the stuff of which a tear-provoking Victorian print might be made. There are hundreds of thousands far worse off than she is. It’s all the more significant then that her life shows a lot of the corrosive effects of being even mildly poor.

One of these is the sense of defeat, of being trapped in a self-perpetuating set of circumstances. Her part-time work earns her £21.13 a week. She is allowed to make £4 clear. Beyond that, up to £20, she is allowed to keep a half of her earnings. Above £20, anything she earns is taken back. In other words, no matter how much part-time work she does, she can’t earn more than £ 12 from it in any given week.

That sense of helplessness is exacerbated by some of the attitudes of others and by a conscience about as tractable as a piece of heavy engineering. A friend has remarked to her, “You’re nothing but a sponger”. (“If that’s what a friend thinks of me, what are other people thinking?”) Feelings of amorphous guilt grow like a fungus in the secretiveness the dread of such reactions promotes, choking off her natural sociability. Her only apparent indulgence, smoking, is something she’s not keen to let other people see her doing.

The guilt that waits in ambush in some of the simplest actions has promoted in her a hypersensitivity to the complex and largely incomprehensible rules she feels governing her life. She mentions the thought of the police coming to her door, for a reason she can’t and doesn’t want to imagine, and the moment is like a child trying to contemplate the bogeyman.

Even the obeying of the rules can lead to guilt. When the family was moving to Livingston, she consulted with the housing authority to make sure it would be all right to bring the family pet, a golden labrador called Tanya. She was informed dogs were forbidden in the type of housing she was moving into. Advised by the vet that the dog would pine in another house, she had it put down and told the children, who had an extravagant affection for it, that it had been taken by other people. Arriving at Livingston, she found that several neighbours living in the same type of housing kept dogs. “I can still cry for it.”

Breaking the rules certainly leads to guilt. About three years ago, she started doing extra shifts at her part-time job as a kitchen-assistant. The additional money she was making became addictive. “It’s not as if I was spending the money on drink and bingo,” she says, watching for a reaction. “It was to get things we needed.” But she knew the money was more than she was allowed to make and the guilt grew like compound interest.

At the end of the year, she could cope with it no longer. Having confessed, she was greatly relieved not to be prosecuted. Instead, she agreed to pay back £327.13 at the rate of £6 per week. It took her just more than a year. Talking about it now, she has no self-justifying analogies to make with other people’s financial fiddles, just an immense thankfulness that it’s over and a determination not to do it again.

That determination seems to imply her acceptance of being immured indefinitely in her present circumstances. She can see no significant alleviation of them in the foreseeable future. The children, at thirteen and twelve, are at that stage when the young grow like the Incredible Hulk in a bad mood, with a corresponding need for new clothes, unfortunately not supplied magically by the props department. She says she gets no clothing grant. It looks as if they’ll be outgrowing their mother’s purse for a long time yet. Paradoxically her ambitions for them threaten to lengthen that time. She is determined that if anything thwarts her daughter’s desire to be a teacher or her son’s desire to be a civil engineer, it won’t be their financial situation.

Such long-term ambition by proxy seems to be the only kind Kathy can afford to indulge. Talking of herself, she gives the impression she has a horizon of about six inches. She hopes to hold on to her part-time job. She hopes, by scrupulous managing of money, to be able to let the children go on such school trips as are on offer. Asked what her greatest ambition is for herself, she claims it is to have the house redecorated, “To get it the way I want it”. She admits how badly the paint and the furniture need renewing, but she’s too used to them for her embarrassment to be more than token.

She has had a long education in learning by daily rote the acceptance of diminished dreams. Her father died when she was thirteen and she can remember her partially blind mother going to collect her 13/6d. a week to keep them both. She expresses no bitterness about her circumstances, as if even that were something the rules perhaps don’t entitle her to.

She simply stays at home except for the few hours she works each day and one night a week when the local amateur dramatic society is preparing its pantomime. On those nights she and the children go along to help in the rehearsals and perhaps get a small part. It’s an economical activity, involving only the bus fares and the price of coffees.

Kathy’s case is unremarkable. It is at least partly the result of personal experiences no one could have legislated for, but its most definitive element remains insufficient money to live anything like a reasonably fulfilling life and no apparent possibility of getting more. She is one of very many trying to fight a rearguard action of personal decency against the economic odds in a society where the principles behind the distribution of the available wealth have developed, it should be acknowledged, beyond the logic of the fruit-machine and the morality of a Monopoly board, but not far enough beyond them.

She and others like her are able to maintain a superficial appearance of sufficiency and to do it successfully enough, in many cases, to convince not only others but themselves. They may live in different types of areas. They will have little sense of sharing a common condition with one another. They will assuredly have no sense of a common voice. They’re rather like a reservist army of the poor, uniform only in a kind of discreet malnutrition of the spirit, not yet mobilised into an open acknowledgment of their shared state. For many of them perhaps their greatest pride is that they have not yet had to make such open acknowledgment. In a truly caring society it would be made for them.

Notes

12 William McIlvanney (b. 1936) graduated from Glasgow University and worked as an English teacher between 1960 and 1975. His first book, Remedy is None, was published in 1966 and won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. Docherty (1975), a moving portrait of a miner whose courage and endurance is tested during the depression, won the Whitbread Novel Award. William McIlvanney is also an acclaimed poet, and is the author of The Longships in Harbour: Poems (1970) and Surviving the Shipwreck (1991).

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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