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Left out of the conversation? Listening to Scotland’s ‘left behind’
Since the 2016 referendum, UK political discourse has spotlighted the alienation ascribed to post-industrial ‘left behind’ communities – but its focus has been almost entirely on England. For his recent PSA-funded project, James Morrison spoke to people from a range of groups affected by social, economic and other inequalities in a country largely left out of this ‘national conversation’: Scotland.
How does it feel to be truly left behind: to be neglected and ignored in media-political debates about economic growth, global competitiveness and even elections, as if one’s views and experiences simply didn’t matter? How must it be to encounter endless discussions about the predicament of people from ‘left behind’ groups when their positions are so much more narrowly defined than one’s own: as a synonym for post-industrial communities, the ‘traditional’ working class or young people from this area or that ethnic background? What if one’s own disadvantages were less ‘neat’ than this – and the country where one lived was routinely omitted from debates about inequality?
In researching my PSA-funded project Left Behind North of the Border, I spoke to 20 people from across Scotland who would have every right to define themselves in these terms – though many used very different language to describe their situations and some took understandable exception to being labelled ‘left behind’, or anything else. While several of my interviewees lived in towns and suburbs heavily impacted by deindustrialization (the ‘left-behind’ areas of lore) others were dotted here, there and everywhere – from remote Highland fringes suffering from weak infrastructure and underinvestment (but often ignored in public debates) to relatively prosperous cities like Edinburgh and Stirling. More importantly, the nature of the disadvantages affecting these people went far beyond their experiences of living in places blighted by low wages, lack of jobs and run-down high streets. Though most had experienced such disadvantages, almost all were affected by a medley of other intersectional inequalities much more profound and complex than these.
The stories I heard were of lives disadvantaged by disability, long-term illness, complex mental health issues, racism, gender discrimination, demanding unpaid caring responsibilities, unemployment, precarious work and (especially) the inequities of the benefits and asylum systems. Some had experienced many or all of these – often at one at the same time. Many painted pictures of being locked out of society or severely limited in their life chances by multiple obstacles to accessing the basic opportunities most of us regard as rights. These hurdles ranged from the important but crushingly mundane (lack of family support, affordable childcare and/or flexible working hours) to the downright sinister (faceless bureaucracy, impenetrable application forms, delayed and conditional financial support, benefit sanctions and, in extremis, refusal of citizenship).
In considering the range of interlocking forms of experience outlined to me I began to identify patterns pointing to the following tentative taxonomy of ‘aspects of left-behindness’:
• Complexity, conditionality, unfairness and stigma in the benefits system
• Precarity, inflexibility and discrimination in the job market and workplace
• Cuts, delays and lack of responsiveness in health and social care services
• Bureaucracy and inadequacy of support in the asylum system
Of the many horror stories relayed by people left behind by the social security system – that is, impoverished and/or humiliated by punitive approaches to awarding, withdrawing or withholding working-aged benefits – those that stood out invariably related to the insensitivity with which their disabilities or long-term health conditions were treated by assessors and jobcentre staff notionally employed to support them. I heard numerous accounts from people with debilitating, even life-limiting, conditions who described being gaslit into believing they were ‘on the cadge’, and those enduring long-term unemployment who had been left feeling ‘worthless’ and ‘a pain in the arse’.
A common recollection was the stigmatizing experience of being forced to ‘prove’ one’s disability and/or mental health condition during tick-box ‘fitness for work tests’ (Work Capability Assessments) and applications for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs). When 68-year-old Andrew attended a hearing to determine his eligibility for PIP, he was forced to park a few doors away from the assessment centre, because of a lack of disabled parking bays. He managed to stagger painfully down the road, only to be told he would not be awarded the payment because he had ‘walked in excess of 200 yards’. Multiple sclerosis sufferer Brian described similarly callous treatment when he dared to arrive for his appointment in a taxi. After being ‘videoed’ alighting from the cab, he was greeted by an assessor who said, ‘I want you to climb up those stairs’, before adding, ‘get a bloody move on; I’ve got another appointment in a minute’. Despite struggling with even the most basic tasks on a day-to-day basis, Brian was awarded only the lowest rate of PIP.
Others had been left behind (for want of a better term) by any number of other deficiencies in Britain’s frayed safety-net: by a punishing and precarious job market; degraded and inadequate social care services; and/or a selective, at times brutalizing, asylum system. Moreover, while many of the underlying policies responsible for disadvantaging them had been imposed by Westminster and Whitehall under reserved powers, it was striking how often the individual decisions imperilling them had been taken at devolved, local or hyperlocal levels. By failing to embrace Scotland, the current national conversation about ‘“left behind” Britain’ is therefore flawed in two key respects. Not only does it fail on its own terms – by omitting a nation disproportionately impacted by deindustrialization. It also lets Scotland ‘off the hook’, by avoiding difficult questions about a long-cherished shibboleth: the notion that Scots inhabit a land characterized by exceptionalist attitudes towards inequality that are more progressive than those normatively held across the rest of Britain.
Of course, the term ‘left behind’ presents much wider discursive problems – not least the fact that it is just as often weaponized to stigmatize certain groups (e.g. to frame them as socially abject or culturally backward) as to privilege the economic injustices afflicting them. As UK in a Changing Europe argues, one way to correct such discourses would be to find a new, more inclusive, public vocabulary for discussing problems of inequality and disadvantage. Nonetheless, the more well-intentioned interventions in the ‘left behind’ debate that have been mounted are so far too limited in the definitions they apply – by aligning the concept with post-industrial decline, rather than society-wide precarity, and with northern England, the Midlands and perhaps Wales (not Britain as a whole). Tangled up with this, since the 2016 Brexit referendum and subsequent general elections, has been a more party-political debate about the crumbling of Labour’s Anglo-Welsh (though not Scottish) ‘red wall’. Tragically, only when we begin to find ways of (re)conceptualizing the true complexity – and universality – of intersectional disadvantage are we likely to begin addressing the most important question of all: how should we set about rectifying them?
- James Morrison is an Associate Professor in Journalism at the University of Stirling and the author of The Left Behind: Reimagining Britain's Socially Excluded (Pluto Press).