February 22, 2020

Understanding Britain’s Underclass (Part 1)

I was looking forward to reading this book after hearing so much about it. I was hoping this was going to be the UK’s answer to the brilliant Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance. Written by Darren McGarvey, a native of Pollock, Glasgow, this book was everything I hoped it would be, yet with a sad finale (at least from my Christian perspective). Before we were even out of the preface, the book was pulling at my sympathies.

“I know that sense of being cut off from the world, despite having such a wonderful view of it through a window in the sky; that feeling of isolation, despite being surrounded by hundreds of other people above, below and either side of you” (p. xix).


This is a man well familiar with the designation ‘deprived’, and communities “where there is a pathological suspicion of outsiders and of the authorities; where there is a deeply ingrained belief that there is no point participating in the democratic process because the people in power do not care about the concerns of the ‘underclass’” (p. xix). This is a book written by a bloke who doesn’t write books and, from the off, it is a brutal five-round, full-contact, UFC heavyweight affair. This is a book that takes you to the mat and holds you in a chokehold just long enough to feel the life leave you, but never enough to fully extinguish the flame. This is Trainspotting for the millennial generation. This is the book I would have written had it not been for the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Darren knows full well the ins-and-outs of scheme life, from not grassing to being mocked for reading or showing any interest in learning at school. He also knows that for many of us in these communities, our criminal life didn’t just appear in a vacuum. It was the result of physical and/or sexual abuse and neglect, which often led us on a downward spiral to prison. His chapter on A History of Violence was particularly pertinent for me. Listen to what he says here: “The key to enduring a violent episode at the hands of someone you can’t evade or fight back against, is usually to submit and hope that you don’t sustain a serious injury” (p. 11).


These are the exact tactics I used with my abusive stepmother. Over the years I developed a technique to minimise the damage, but slyly enough that she wouldn’t notice and become further enraged. I always took a couple of punches to the head first, before falling to the floor. Sometimes I’d yelp a little bit to let her know she’d caught me.

Once, when I was feeling particularly defiant, I just stood there while she punched me in the head about a dozen times. I was bleeding heavily and she began to tire, so I just smiled at her. The upshot was that she got a brush handle and beat me with that until I passed out—lesson learned there! The best place to fall (I learned this through painful experience) was with my back to a wall or door. This protected the kidneys. Curling into a ball helped protect my testicles and, if I was lucky, I only came away with sore shins and forearms. By the time I was in my early teens, I didn’t feel the pain anymore and these beatings were as normal to me as having a bowl of cereal. Darren captures it well.

In a home where violence, or the threat of violence, is regular, you learn how to negotiate from a young age. You become adept at reading facial expressions and body language as well as scanning the tone in people’s voices to detect and deter possible threats. You become a skilful emotional manipulator, able to keep an abuser’s anger at bay by remaining intuitive to their needs and triggers and adjusting your behaviour accordingly. (p. 11)

Frighteningly true, I am afraid, and for far too many children in the schemes and council estates of our land. Hardly surprising, then, when they are brought up on a diet of anger and violence, that they resort to such tactics themselves as they enter into their teens and early adulthood.


Chapter 4, entitled Gentlemen of the West, is equally enlightening. In it Darren describes the time he went to the city and saw people of different colours walking around. For him, as for me, the only time he’d seen people of colour was behind the counter in the local shop. Scottish schemes, unlike London and Birmingham council estates, were not bastions of multiculturalism in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. They were predominantly white and overwhelmingly racist (and often still are). Things are changing in my scheme but many of those coming in, far from being benefit scroungers, appear to be hardworking folk from Africa, Brazil, and various parts of Europe. Very few would be categorised as underclass in the way many of our young white men and women are.

Darren insightfully describes feeling dumbstruck by the lack of community he observed in more upmarket neighbourhoods (at least on superficial appearance). In contrast to the schemes, where people are always about in the street and smoking and chatting over the fence, these places were pristine but empty, as everybody was out at work. Again, he captures middle-class people perfectly, at least my experience of them.

Some ‘middle class’ people—despite being ‘middle class’—don't regard themselves as ‘middle class’, so they find it offensive when you call them ‘middle class’. They require a definition, not because they are especially interested in accuracy or specifics, but so they can exclude themselves form whatever type of ‘middle class’ people they think you’re going to criticise. (p. 31)


A Question of Loyalties is one of the shortest chapters, yet it packs a vicious punch. In it, Darren informs us that, “In poorer communities, there is a pervasive belief that things will never change: that those with power or authority are self-serving and not to be trusted” (p. 48). A case in point on this was the Scottish referendum. It was the first time in years that I’d seen so many people taking an interest in national politics. There was a buzz in the air as the mainly nationalist scheme communities felt that they had a voice in changing and reshaping their nation. Of course, we lost the vote, and you could feel the collective air leave several million lungs. More than that, all it did was cement the ‘what’s the point’ mentality of our communities.

Then, when the European referendum came around, the mainly Leave-voting scheme population just didn’t bother. After all, what was the point? They screwed us on the Scottish referendum when we voted in our millions. Even though Brexit won, Scotland’s majority voted to remain. Why? I think that the low turnout from our disaffected constituents skewed the voting. What was even worse, so despairing were we after the referendum fiasco, the conservative party won a majority in Niddrie at the local council elections!

Whichever side of the tracks you come from, it is likely that you harbour unconscious beliefs and attitudes about the issue of class; about yourself and people across the way. For me, it was the idea that middle-class people have it easy, are born with a silver spoon in their mouth and benefit from a plethora of unseen advantages that I do not. For you, maybe it’s a belief that people stay poor because they don’t work hard enough, or that the system is fair and people’s negative attitudes are holding them back. The problem is, these false beliefs about each other, often based on stereotypes and hyperbole reinforced over generations on either side of the divide, make dialogue in the political domain extremely challenging. (p. 50–51)

Too Much Help

In A Tale of Two Cities, McGarvey discusses the modern-day phenomenon of the numerous care and community professionals assigned to the neediest people in our communities. He tells us, “I had a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a cognitive behavioural therapist, two support workers and a neurolinguistics programmer” (p. 71). The whole upshot of this was a lot of confusion and, very often, conflicting advice from well-meaning people trying to speak into his life. It’s a constant problem on the schemes.

On the one hand, as Christians we don’t want to become another ‘key worker’ in someone’s life, and on the other we run into all sorts of trouble with sometimes hostile key workers from other agencies. We diagnose people’s spiritual problems only to have a particular care worker violently disagree, which sets some of our people back. So, for example, when we challenge people to accept responsibility for their behaviour and their sin—teaching them to hate their sin—many times they come back and tell us that their key worker told them that they needed to love themselves more and that their choices were culturally conditioned. And in scheme culture, the easiest thing to believe is the thing that is easiest—and that isn’t taking responsibility for your sins and life choices!

Next time we’ll look at the issues of gentrification and what it means to be among the poorest in Scotland.

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