The Anger of Britain’s Underclass

Posted by in November's Magazine

There are 22% of children in Edinburgh living in poverty. In Leith ward it is 25% while Leith Walk ward is 26% and Forth ward is 30% (the second highest in the city). Which is to say that between a ¼ and a 1/3 of children in this part of the city live in poverty.

Edinburgh has a population of 502,000 of which 79,550 live in poverty. Astonishingly more than half (41,100) are working. In work poverty impacts on 2,600 people in Leith Walk, 3,700 in Leith ward and 4,900 in Forth ward. A total of 11,200 – which is more than the 10,500 people unemployed in Edinburgh according to the Office of National Statistics. More than half of those unemployed are in the 16 to 21-age category.


We have pensioner poverty too around 12% in the city. Changeworks produced a map highlighting fuel poverty in Edinburgh and once again Leith and Forth ward feature prominently.

Bearing all of this in mind is useful when reading Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey aka Loki. Although he is writing about Pollok in Glasgow he could be writing about Leith. The book, an attempt to ‘understand the anger of Britain’s underclass’, does this with brutal honesty and a large dose of self-criticism. It is an essential read for those who wish to understand/combat poverty. One of McGarvey’s aims for the book is that “those who shape the discussion about poverty often lack the necessary insight to accurately represent the issue.” He does so with honesty, insight, humour and some killer lines.

His description of his environs will be recognised in Leith and other parts of the UK. Growing up where physical and verbal violence is the norm and where debt is incurred by ‘acting like we had more money than we did’ as ‘the price of looking poor was always far higher’ is an experience that is very rarely ‘represented, reported and discussed’.

The author’s direct experience of this life led to him being involved in BBC documentaries but when he tried to bring a class perspective into discussions it was made clear that being descriptive of the symptoms was fine but analysis or even being prescriptive is not what was needed or wanted. The need to tackle the way working class life is represented will not be easy but it needs to be done.

It cannot take the form it did before, where decision makers while excluding the community decide what is good for the community. That has failed, as the tower blocks in Pollok named A.B.C by the architects/planners (and ironically dubbed Alcatraz, Barlinnie and Carstairs by the residents and locals) have shown. He is aware that, ‘in the tension between the concerns of locals and the aspirations of the middle class there would only ever be one winner’ because ‘political participation was not about the community making its voice heard, but rather about corralling the herd to a pre-determined destination’.

The lands of Pollok Park, which were gifted to Glasgow as open space woodland, have the M77 running through them. Which divided the community and led to the Silverburn shopping centre being built there. Benign patriarchy did not work in the 20th Century and, in my lifetime, I have seen Fort, Grampian and Cairngorm built and demolished.

A good example of the type of change needed is the involvement of Fort residents in the design of what would replace Fort House. Working with residents led to the ‘colony style’ design by Malcolm Fraser being delivered by a joint partnership between POLHA and City of Edinburgh Council. The density of housing is similar to that it replaces but working with people has led to a development that has seen over 5,000 bids for the 32 council homes here. A small step forward but more council homes need to be built if poverty is to be tackled effectively. It is the large-scale return of Council Housing that will break the grip of poverty and exploitation by landlords who now own 29% of all housing in Edinburgh, more than the Council and Housing Associations put together.

Using the insights and anger in Poverty Safari and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level to motivate and teach us that the bigger gap between rich and poor is bad for all, including the well off, will help us find positive solutions which work for the many not the few. However that means we all have to face up to the fact that taxation is a public good and we need to pay more. We have the power in Scotland to do this what we need is the will to use it. If you can’t afford to buy Poverty Safari ask your library to stock it. The statistics are growing and we need to work together to halt and reverse them.

Poverty Poverty Safari – Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass by Darren McGarvey (Luath Press £7.99)

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