MARK FRANKLAND

The picture? Well the picture says that anything is possible. As in anything. The town is Darwen. And of course the guy is Gandhi. And those around him are unemployed cotton workers. When he heard they were all but starving because of his Indian boycott, he insisted on going to see them. Before he got off the train they were all ready to lynch him. By the time he got back on board he was their guy. Like they say - form is temporary, class is permanent.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

WHY ONLY A 'YES' VOTE IN THE REFERENDUM OFFERS ANY HOPE TO SCOTLAND'S MOST DESPERATE PEOPLE



When I first posted this blog a week ago, my main intention was to try and shine a light on the utterly desperate plight so many will face over the coming months in the most deprived corners of Scotland. My focus is on the old coal mining village of Kirkconnel, but I have no doubt the dismal same stories will be played out in all of the crumbling towns and villages that once upon a time hosted the Industrial Revolution. These places are not just about to be affected by Whitehall's vicious Welfare Reforms: they about to be hammered. Thousands of people are about to experience the kind of hardships that we naively thought had been left behind long ago. No heat and no light and no food.

The blog was widely read and many readers asked what possible answers there might be to the growing poverty that now grips forgotten little places like Kirkconnel: places that are so obviously beneath the notice of those with offices far away in London.

Only when I was asked did it become so crystal clear that the only foreseeable hope for Kirkconnel and places like Kirkconnel is a 'Yes' vote next year. I find it impossible to believe that any Edinburgh based politician would carry on with the Bedroom Tax or order Job Centre Plus staff to 'sanction' three clients a week for such heinous crimes as being 10 minutes late for an appointment. They wouldn't dare. And they would be right not to dare. Such beaurocratic cruelty is almost always ordered by people sitting in offices hundreds of miles away from their victims.

The coming winter is about to be a savage one for many, many people. Only a 'Yes' vote offers any hope of a return to compassion and decency. Here's the blog. 

Yesterday I took a ride up the Nith valley to deliver a first consignment of food parcels to our latest satellite outlet. My destination was Kirkconnel in name and ‘Post Industrial’ in nature. ‘Post Industrial’ is one of those new phrases that has crept in to the way we speak over the last few years. Detroit of course is the ‘Post Industrial’ pin up. Post Industrial describes all the places that the world has left behind. The old engine rooms that once drove and fuelled the Empires and World Wars of the West. The towns and cities where once upon a time coal was mined and ships were built and cars assembled. Places which don’t do much of anything any more. Places which nobody has the faintest clue what to do with.

The American way is to leave them be and let nature run its course. The driven apple pie baking housewives of the Tea Party will fight like demented cats to stop any tax dollars being squandered on keeping post industrial basket cases like Detroit on life support. In the years after the war, Detroit was the shining symbol of a bright future where shift workers would join the Middle Class. It was cars and TVs for all. Nobody could have guessed that the end was a mere 50 years in future. The crash has been almost biblical. A house which would have cost some poor sod $100,000 in 2005 can now be had for $10.

On this side of the pond, we tend to be less brutal in allowing the consequences of red raw capitalism to run their course. Ever since 1948 we have broken the bank to pay for feather-bedding to soften the blow of a lost Empire and a lost industrial heritage. To compensate for all the mines and mills and shipyards being shut down, we parked up millions on the sick and gave them the wherewithal to pay their Sky TV subs with Family Tax Credit.

But nobody has ever found the energy to even start to look to answer the Kirkconnel question. There are places like Kirkconnel to be found in all the forgotten corners of the fading West. Small blighted places where once there was mine or factory that employed the whole town. Small blighted places where the mine or factory was closed down leaving nothing. What remains is what we now call Post Industrial. Clusters of people stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time with no chance whatsoever of finding a way to make a living.

Some of these post industrial places offer a sliver of a chance. Old coal villages or mill towns within a bus ride of a city where there are still chances to be had. Coal villages in County Durham and South Lanarkshire offer the chance of a commute to and from work in Newcastle or Glasgow.

Then there are the post industrial places in the middle of nowhere where an hour on the bus in every direction only takes you to similarly doomed towns.

Post industrial places like Kirkconnel.

An October drive up the A76 from Dumfries to Kirkconnel is a dream come true for any wannabe postcard designer. Visit Scotland could easily fill a whole online platform with images of the valley. Autumn treescapes to match anything from New England. Craggy moors set in front of hurtling clouds. Soaring buzzards and a Walt Disney river crashing down to the sea.

In the middle of the nineteenth century Kirkconnel was just a hamlet surrounded by sheep farms. Then they built a railway from Carlisle to Glasgow. And steam trains needed coal, so a small pit was dug in the village to fuel them up and send them on their way. And them a bigger pit was sunk to fuel the factories and ships of the Empire. People were sucked in from the countryside to earn a regular wage. The population shot up to over 4000. World Wars came and went and many of the young men marched away to be slaughtered.

The brave new 1948 world of the Welfare State came to town and changed everything. The miserable hovels were bulldozed and a bright new village on a hill was thrown up. On paper it must have all looked like a dream. Airy streets gazing out over the brooding hills. Shops and schools and a church and lots of recreational space to be had for young and old. Playing fields and wide boulevards. A trillion cubic metres of bracing fresh air for men who spent their working lives hundreds of feet down in the belly of the earth.

Then they closed the pit and everything and everyone was suddenly redundant. On the scrap heap. Post industrial.

Now Kelloholm is Detroit light. It hasn’t been allowed to fall to pieces. It has been kept on life support. The population is down to just over 2000 and thankfully a food processing factory still provides jobs for quite a few. But not nearly enough. For years the rest were parked up and given just about enough to get by on. Sick pay and dole and housing benefit and child benefit and tax credits. Those with the right number of kids and issues did pretty well on their maxed up benefits. Others merely kept body and soul together. Hard drugs came to the valley in the 90s and soon heroin was the new coal. Shops closed and were boarded up and slowly but surely the place crumbled. Those who could leave, left. Those who couldn’t were beached.

And then of course a bunch of bankers in London and New York took everything down and we all entered the era of austerity. The agenda changed and changed utterly. All of a sudden the poor were people to be mocked and belittled and despised. The poor were deemed to be responsible for the sudden end of the West being the biggest kid in the playground. The answer to our faded position in the world was to beat the poor with as big a stick as we could lay our hands on.

Of course the new ‘hate the poor agenda’ was always going to hit the likes of Kirkconnel the hardest, and my has it ever. Over the last few months we have seem more and more folk from the valley calling in for food parcels and it has become clear that the situation is becoming increasingly desperate. All of those cosmetically stretched Tea Party ladies from the Corn Belt would thoroughly approve.

Westminster has sent a wrecking ball up the valley and things are falling apart at an alarming rate.

You see, the problem is that the fabric of Kelloholm and Kirkconnel is hardly robust. These are places built without foundations. These are places that were only viable for a few brief years of history when the countries of the West discovered how to do an Industrial Revolution. Places like Kirkconnel are fragile houses of cards held together with string.

For years they have been nothing more than an inconvenience. Annoying accidents of history. Embarrassing places to be quietly swept under an ever fading carpet. Well, as Dave and George never tire of telling us, those days are gone. It is time for the Kirkconnels of our green and pleasant land to get a dose of the Detroit.

And everything has changed.

People who were told they were too sick for work for years and years are now deemed to be fit as fleas and suitable for any kind of job. No longer are they kept out of sight and out of mind by being asked to sign on the dotted sick-pay line once a month. Now they are expected to stick to the new hard regime of the Job Centre Plus.

Hard times have meant that the Government says it can’t afford to run a Job Centre in the Upper Nith Valley. The unemployed of Kirkconnel have to take the bus 30 miles down the valley to Dumfries. Sometimes once a month. Sometimes twice. I had a lad in Monday who had been told to come three times. Three times at a tenner a trip. £30 out of a gross income of £240.

I was told yesterday that there are now about 300 unemployed men and women in the village. I guess a few years back that figure would have been about 50 or 60 with all the rest signed off sick. The 300 are now expected to log onto their online Job Centre Account every day and they are expected to leave digital evidence of 17 job searches each and every week. I guess that must look a pretty good idea in the gilded corridors of the Department of Work and Pensions HQ in London. It doesn’t look like such a good idea in a rain swept post industrial valley. Not many can afford £30 a month to rent a landline and a broadband connection. Not many can run to a laptop. The vast majority of the 300 will have to get time on a public computer to hit the Job Centre targets. And here is where the logistics of the thing get tricky. There are a mere 15 publically available computers in the village. It needs a pretty slick operation to find a way to get 300 people onto 15 computers every day. Once they get there, they are expected to fill in umpteen applications and send off their CVs far and wide.

But where do you apply when there is a whole lot of post industrial nothing all around you? And what of the ones who can’t type? Or the ones who can barely read? Not surprisingly, many stand less than a snowball in hell’s chance of meeting the demands of the new regime. They have been parked up and forgotten for years and years and completely lack the wherewithal to do what they have to do to be allowed to stay on the life support system of the Welfare State.

And so they are being sanctioned. One by one. First a month. Then three months. Then six months. And nobody seems to be remotely interested. Kirkconnel is out of sight and out of mind. What exactly is going to happen in February when an icy wind rips through the valley? How many will be sitting in tired houses devoid of heat and light and food?  Will anyone notice then?

Yesterday morning I dropped off 20 food parcels at the Action for Children charity at just after ten in the morning. By the time I logged onto my e mail account at 3pm there were only eight left. Tomorrow, I will have to take another trip up the postcard valley to replenish the stocks. How many food parcels are going to be required in the cold months that are all of a sudden just around the corner? Suddenly the idea of getting food parcels up the valley feels uncomfortably like it might turn into some kind of a relief effort. As someone born and bred in Britain, the logical part of me sees such a thought as ridiculous. I mean, surely not. That sort of thing doesn’t happen here. That sort of thing happens to places on the news. But the feeling in my gut hints at a different story. An hour in Kelloholm was more than enough to see that decisions made hundreds of miles down the road are about to wreak absolute havoc in places like Kirkconnel. Apparently there is a road up at the top end of Kelloholm where there are now 13 empty houses, all in a row. Only a few months ago all of them were occupied. Then the Bedroom Tax made them economically unviable and the tenants were driven out to private sector bedsits.

How long will it take for them to be broken into and stripped bare? Just like all the doomed and redundant houses in Detroit and Cleveland. A year ago those 13 houses were providing an income of £50,000 a year for the Housing Association that owns them. Now they will become a drain on the coffers as tradesmen are paid to board them up and board them up again and eventually knock them down. Had those 13 houses been in London there would have been a queue at every door. There will be no such queue in Kelloholm. Just a dismal empty wind whistling through a dismal empty street.

When I got the e mail yesterday afternoon, a cold feeling ran through me. I had just driven up the valley and promised that First Base could come up with the food that the people of Kirkconnel would need to get through a long hard winter. When I said it, I meant it. Because surely things couldn’t get that bad. Not here. Not in Britain. But by the time I drove back down the valley I didn’t feel quite as confident. And when the news landed that 12 food parcels had shot out of the door in less than half a day, I didn’t feel any confidence at all.

To get enough food up the valley to see people through is going to be one hell of a task. If we are going to manage it, we are going to have chase in a stack of food donations and a stack of cash. To do this we are going to have to get people interested enough to help us out. Will they be interested? Or will they buy the tabloid ‘hate the poor’ agenda hook, line and sinker? All of a sudden things feel more than a bit scary. I don’t mind admitting that I feel pretty bloody daunted. We all fail at things all the time. And most of the time it is no big deal. But failing at this suddenly seems like a very, very unacceptable option.

Scary.

Is anyone about to seriously look at the Kirkconnel question? I hope so, but I doubt it. Speaking up for places like Kirkconnel has become politically poisonous. Politicians of all colours are now locked onto the General Election in two years time. And that election will be decided in forty or so constituencies in the Midlands and South of England. It will be decided in leafy towns where house prices are rocketing. Places where the Poles clean the drains and serve the coffee in Starbucks. It will be decided by people who have bought into tabloid propaganda that has taught them to hate the poor. And to hate places like Kirkconnel. And to pledge their votes to parties who promise to beat the poor with big sticks. So no politician is about to ruin their chances by looking at the Kirkconnel question. The most convenient answer to the Kirkconnel question will be to simply pretend the place doesn’t exist. The problem is that this time it looks like the only life support system will be down to stone broke little charities like First Base.   

Scary.          


8 comments:

  1. I read
    "no comments"
    and felt a stab of guilt I could not let that post go unremarked,
    the shame I feel in my country right now is bottomless,
    and while I live nowhere near Kirkconnal I will be committing to helping as much as I can to bring food to those who need it,
    It is simplistic and morally lazy to find those people in this position responsable for their own plight and the people who voted these creatures into power should hang their heads in shame

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  2. So depressing. Really what this needs is a massive combined effort from people to come together and support our neighbours against the best efforts of the Westminster government to effectively leave them to die. The problems with that are, first I'm not sure enough people would do it and second, if they did the government would only use that as proof those people didn't really need their benefits.

    Welfare works a bit like witch-burning at the moment. If you don't starve to death, that will be taken as proof you have another source of income; if you do well, oh dear, you did need it, right.

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  3. I found myself having to morally support a friend, a medical doctor, who was extremely distressed in his role of having to review fitness for work. He is immigrant to the UK. I was horrified to hear him say, though not surprised, 'this isn't Great Britain'. His distress, for himself and the folks he reviews, is a pollution to my soul.

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  4. This piece certainly brought a tear to the eye.

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  5. Soul destroying......And I agree That for this numerous other reasons I will be saying YES in the referendum next year

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  6. I'll be sharing your blog far and wide, Mark - ashamed that this is happening on our doorstep, but know it to be true. The Camerons and Osbourne's of this world have not a clue.

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  7. Any capitalist . . . who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn't each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don't you go and do it?”
    ― Charles Dickens, Hard Times
    What did Dickens mean? I think he was telling us that Capitalism is a Ponzi scheme, whereby you recruit others to make goods or services to ensure you have a margin of profit in the process, they in turn recruit others and so the enterprise flourishes until there are no more to recruit. Then the pyramid collapses.
    How can you ensure continued participation? Debt and compound interest . This ensures they remain trapped. In India it can stretch from one generation to another.
    Another method is slavery.

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