Our Hidden Shame - The terrible truth about the state of the nation
Scotland on Sunday 8th January 2006
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On paper Scotland is a truly terrifying place to live. Those born in our
small country will generally die sooner than other west Europeans, are
three times as likely to contract lung cancer and are several times likely
to be murdered.
It's an image impossible to reconcile with the Scotland to which Londoners
relocate, seeking and finding a far superior quality of life.
Nor would the millions of tourists leave the country believing that Scots
are worse off than Bosnians.
For years I didn't believe these figures either, and I ploughed through
reams of reports trying to solve this socio-economic mystery. I came
across the horrific answer two months ago, and even now, I have trouble
taking it in.
The answer comes in code: behavioural, social, health and economic
statistics for 830 postcode areas in Scotland. When fed into a computer,
they can be manipulated into runes from which the state of the nation can
It became clear that the very word "Scotland" is useless when analysing
the situation. Our tiny corner of Europe contains two distinct countries
with almost nothing in common: Prime Scotland and Third Scotland. They can
be identified by finding the 100 best and worst postcodes in the nation.
This exposes the fact that each Scottish town and city is an amalgam of
huge inequalities - and that the city average figure obscures the picture.
Take Glasgow, for example. Its life expectancy at birth - 69 - is the
worst in the UK, and probably Europe. It's worse than the Gaza Strip.
Shocking enough, but it comes nowhere close to the true scandal of
inequality. In Prime Scotland, salaries are at London levels but the
property is a third of the price. If it were a country its life expectancy
would be the highest in the world. State schools are good, the countryside
The Glasgow "dead by 69" figure was produced by merging the Prime Scotland
outposts of Bearsden and Cathcart with the welfare ghettos like Carton in
the east, where the life expectancy figure seems hardly credible - 53.9.
Finding this statistic felt as unreal as encountering a pterodactyl
hibernating in the garden. Hasn't that kind of thing been extinct for
years? And, yes, Scotland as a nation passed this mark in the 1950s.
I went to see for myself. Carlton is within walking distance of central
Glasgow but a world away. Prosperity seems to drain with every step of
that eastwards walk along Argyle Street to a bar where I foolishly thought
I might blend in. My cover was blown when I ordered a pint, and I was
asked if I was carrying a Bible.
A local assumed I was some form of missionary. I protested not. "But you
are religious?" A question to duck in this quagmire of sectarianism.
Within half an hour of conversation, I was asked if I would like to buy a
handgun. I declined but had by then aroused enough suspicion for a
pensioner to summon me over and suggest I leave before I got my head
kicked in. I needed no second telling. Violence is a characteristic of the
east end of Glasgow, where hospitalisation is six times that of the
The next pub, the Treble Two, was an oasis by comparison. Its locals
offered me beer rather than firearms and had witty, articulate and
trenchant analysis of why government policies had destroyed the work
ethic. "Why work for a tenner when you can get it on the dole?" summed up
the main curse of the area: worklessness.
Jobs are there for those who want them, but the most lucrative skill
nowadays is claiming the maximum welfare payout. The number of under-25s
on incapacity benefit (IB) has jumped from 52,000 to 83,000 in seven
In Scotland, just less than one in 10 of the workforce is on IB - a golden
lining to a new ceiling which is keeping the poor down.
Scotland's poverty is a special brand - almost invisible. Visitors to
Delhi can see deprivation in run down houses and begging, but the average
boy born in India will live almost a decade longer than a boy born in
Scotland is good at keeping such people out of sight. Our cities are
designed in such a way that motorists can whiz past the Easterhouse and
Drumchapel estates on a motorway which has an exit straight on to leafy
Woodlands Road. In this way, it is possible to traverse the length and
breadth of the country, knowing each of our major cities, while never
leaving Prime Scotland. This is why the picture of deprivation can seem so
Even places like Carlton look fine from the outside. People are
well-clothed and don't go hungry; the council houses are refurbished and
in good repair.
Indian-style poverty is conquered here but Scottish-style poverty has
taken its place. This means a drugs-death ratio running at seven times the
national average; three in five adults having no qualifications; a third
of children growing up in workless households; a quarter of pre-school
children being obese.
It hangs together on one devastating statistic - 57 percent of Carlton
adults do not work at all. This is not because of a bad economy. Only 8
percent are classed as unemployed; the rest are in a state of permanent
The terrible truth is that Scotland has incubated a new breed of
deprivation. It is like a hideous experiment where the State wants to see
what happens if the incentive to work is removed for the most deprived in
What is most baffling is that such avoidable poverty has become
politically accepted and seen as somehow inevitable. It has been ignored
by the Tories and portrayed by Labour ministers as the side-effect of a
capitalist society. No, this is the side-effect of a welfare system
designed to solve the poverty of the last century but which is fuelling
the new poverty of this century. Deprivation is being perpetuated by the
party devoted to its abolition.
Labour would howl with protest at such a charge. Has Gordon Brown not
introduced the minimum wage? Lifted a million children out of poverty?
Written off Glasgow's housing debt? A calculator could back up the claims.
But this "let them eat tax credits" attitude is exactly the problem. The
solution to welfare ghettos is not more welfare - the solution is
fundamental welfare reform.
A green paper is being published this month. It is a once-in-a-decade
chance to change the tax and welfare incentives to make work pay for Third
Scotland in the way it so emphatically does for Prime Scotland.
Third Scotland still exists because we shepherd the poor into council
estates and pay them to stay there.
Scotland is a rich country and a small one: these are our people. It can
no longer do to write a welfare cheque and then look the other way. Only
radical welfare reform can free the trapped.
© Scotland on Sunday 2006