JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 13.12.08
IS THERE, FOR HONEST POVERTY, that hangs his head, an’ a’ that? Well, yes, frankly, there are millions. When Burns first asked his famous question, back in 1795, it may have seemed clear to him that those who were born poor had no reason to apologise for their plight. But the fact that he had to ask the question at all demonstrates the persistence of the idea that poverty is a matter for shame and self-hatred; and for the past generation, since the beginning of the Thatcher age, that harsh and unkindly notion has been on the rampage through British and American society, with people at the bottom of the economic heap actively encouraged to blame themselves, and to believe that if they only had the talent and the get-up-and-go, they could hoist themselves out of the poverty trap in a matter of months.
What is clear, though, is that this view of poverty is always easier to sustain in times of plenty, when jobs and incomes are relatively easy to come by; and much harder to embrace in the depths of a Depression of the kind we now face. To put it bluntly, it now seems possible that one, two, three or even four million British people who have always worked, or who tried to save prudently for their old age, who are not members of the “underclass”, and who may even at times have enjoyed high levels of middle-class prosperity, are about to find themselves out of a job or stripped of an income, and struggling to survive on the pittance provided by the state, because of a crisis plainly caused by the greed and incompetence of others; and under those circumstances, views of poverty are bound to fracture and shift, in unexpected and explosive directions.
So how will it look, this new poverty that is coming so fast towards so many of us? Will it be like our sepia-tinted image of the 1930’s, all hunger marches and fiery socialist oratory and warm social solidarity in the slums? Will it be like the grim reality of that decade? Or perhaps, most likely, it will be nothing like the 1930’s at all, but rather a new and shame-ridden kind of private poverty, in which people gradually strip their homes of comforts, and live in increasing chill and immobility, while refusing to reach out to their neighbours for help, and trying to keep up appearances in a society which places such a huge and neurotic value on the idea of personal privacy and self-sufficiency.
There are, though, amid so much uncertainty, a couple of things of which we can be sure. First, if the politics of the 1930’s is any guide, then we can expect the ideological battle over political responses to the recession to gain spectacularly in bitterness and venom over the next few years. On the left, there will be mounting anger over the plight into which millions of blameless ordinary people are about to be thrown; on the right, there will be increasingly savage rearguard actions to defend the system that precipitated the crash, even at the expense of essential public spending, and the basic decencies of a compassionate society. This week, for example, Gordon Brown’s government announced with some apparent pride a classic right-wing response to economic crisis, in the shape of its “crackdown” on state benefits; and of that kind of victim-blaming right-wingery, from those who could never imagine their own loved ones experiencing the penny-pinching humiliations of the benefit system, we can expect plenty more, before the slump is over.
But secondly, there is clearly also a chance that the hardships and injustices to come will bring with them as a slow rebirth of some long-lost forms of solidarity and compassion. In Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep, that great slum drama of the 1930’s, there’s a key moment when the unemployed husband, tired of gossiping neighbour women, asks his wife whether the family can’t just “keep oursels tae oursels”; Maggie replies tersely that only rich folk can afford to keep themselves to themselves, a lesson that we may be about to learn again.
One thing which is striking about the story of the 1930’s Depression is the extent to which the aspects of the age that seem most vivid to us now – the powerful new cultural movements, the strong communities forged in adversity, the fierce political activism, the reshaping of the minds of a whole political generation, and the great, great popular movies, from The Wizard Of Oz to Mr. Smith Goes To Washington – were all hotly contested at the time, and often reviled as bordering on sedition. For most people in Britain, after all, the Thirties was a period of gradually increasing prosperity; and about the plight of the Jarrow marchers and their kind, most voters at the time didn’t give a damn.
But somehow, out of that experience of savage poverty visited on millions of ordinary Britons, a new world of equality and opportunity was born, the world in which – after the Second World War – some of us were privileged to grown up. The depression we are facing will be terrible, in other words, and will almost inevitably hit hardest at those who deserve it least. But if it impels us to reach out to one another in ways for which we had no time during the fat years, if it encourages us to share what we have, to face our poverty without shame, to be creative, and to spend more time with our families and neighbours – well then, it may not be all loss; and it may even empower us to lay the foundations for a better future, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and beyond the slump.