It is a longer piece than I usually post, but worth every word, every second of reading time. Credits at the foot.
As Wings reader may recall, (says Mark Frankland, writing for Wings) I work for a charity in the Borders. Our volunteer who does the Monday-morning food run up the Nith valley is away in Asia and Australia for a month, so my week now starts with a ride up the A76. The countryside is drop-dead gorgeous, particularly in the early morning when the newly risen sun paints the peaks of the hills all kind of glowing colours.
But the beaten up towns of the valley are like refugees. Only a few decades ago towns like Sanquhar and Kirkconnel had a genuine reason to exist. They mined coal. They helped keep everyone’s lights on. Then everything changed as Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill played out their poker game which eventually consigned places like Sanquhar and Kirkconnel to the scrap heap of history.
Back in the autumn we’d just established a new food parcel collection point at Action for Children. Ever since John has taken 15 food parcels up the A76 every week come wind, rain or shine.
Some basic, permafrost-cold statistics? Why not?
Number of emergency food parcels per year. 52 x 15 = 780
Population of the village – 2074
Enough said. If we gave out the same proportion of food parcels across the whole of Dumfries and Galloway we would be delivering 56,000 parcels in the next 12 months. In fact we’ll only be able to manage about 7000.
So we’re left with an easy conclusion: Kirkconnel is a poverty hotspot. There are two over-riding reasons for this. Number one, the UK government, once upon a time, shut the coal mine and put nothing in its place. Number two, the UK government is now in the process of shutting down the benefit system.
Let’s assume that you live and breathe in Kirkconnel and right now you lack gainful employment. You are in fact on the dole or the “buroo” as it tends to be called in these parts. This means you get £60 a week to live on from the caring state.
So long as you head down the A76 to Dumfries twice a month to sign on the dotted line (and make sure you don’t arrive more than a second late for your appointment), you can look to receiving your buroo money for the foreseeable future.
Housing is no great problem. There are plenty of empty houses in Kirkconnel. However they’re not like all of those empty houses in Kensington. The houses of Kirkconnel tend not to sit in the investment portfolios of Russian gangsters. They’re empty because nobody wants to live in them.
Heating and lighting your house is a problem. The wind lances through the valley in the cold months of the long Scottish winter. The surrounding countryside would be ideal for filming a movie of Macbeth. The hard ridged moors that stare down on the village are pretty ideal for planning dark deeds.
But I digress. It’s a cold place. It’ll take half of your buroo money to keep your house anything approaching warm, especially if you’ve reached an age where the doctor tells you to swallow an aspirin every morning to avoid having a coronary.
So you’re left with £30 a week to clothe and feed yourself, and life gets particularly hard for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves stranded in a post-industrial town. Out of sight and out of mind, this is where we can see capitalism at it most savage.
When I say such things, people immediately call me a Marxist. The fact is that I’ve never read so much as a page of ‘Das Kapital’ and I have no political affiliations whatsoever. As far as I’m concerned it’s no more than a cold, hard fact.
Look at it this way:
Where on planet Earth is the urban area where people are most desperate for food? Probably in those besieged suburbs of Damascus where the Syrian Army seems hell-bent on starving to death people who don’t much like the Assad family. And where on planet Earth is the place where you’ll pay the highest price for a pound of rice? The smart money would be on those very same besieged suburbs of Damascus where the Syrian Army seems hell-bent on etc.
These two facts are forever locked together. The more desperate people are for a particular product, the more that particular product will cost. It is the religion of the market. Supply and demand. And there’s nothing that capitalism loves more than a controlled market. A monopoly. Because if there’s only one supplier, and people absolutely need what he is selling, then he can more or less charge what he likes.
If there’s more than one supplier, things are somewhat different. These suppliers have to complete with each other and they will strive to be able to sell their goods and services at the cheapest price whilst still turning a profit. So if you live in a place where there are lots of suppliers fighting each other tooth and nail, then you’re a lucky punter. But if you live in the place where there’s only one seller, then you’re going to get well and truly ripped off.
(This is why drug dealers are so fond of shooting each other given half a chance. Those boys really know the value of a monopoly.)
Way back in 1844 this particular iron-clad rule of capitalism got a bunch of people very wound up indeed. They were the good folk of Rochdale, a town in the next valley but one from where I cut my Lancastrian teeth (Blackburn). These were cotton-mill workers who were grafting sixteen hours a day and they were still more or less starving to death. Not a good look.
What really got their goat was the fact that their local shop was charging three times the price for a stale loaf of bread than the bakers of Manchester were charging for something fresh out of the oven. Why? Simple. A good old fashioned monopoly was in place. They were expected to work all the hours sent by their God and then spend every penny in the local store whilst continuing to doff their caps. Their average lifespan was 37.
But they didn’t doff their caps. Instead they pushed a wheelbarrow to Manchester and back and started up their own shop. It was a 20-mile wheelbarrow commute that changed the game. They co-operated. They became a Co-operative. They became THE Co-operative.
In theory, the mothers in those shell-scarred suburbs of Damascus could do the same. In theory they could set out on a wheelbarrow convoy and clear the shelves of rice in a supermarket in one of the Assad parts of town. And the price of rice would fall by hundreds of percentage points. The only problem with that idea is that Assad’s soldiers would mow them down with Putin’s machine guns.
Thankfully the disgruntled storekeeper in Rochdale all those years ago wasn’t able to whistle up a company of dragoons to chop the uppity cotton workers into bite-sized pieces and the rest became history.
The Co-op was born. Cue uplifting music and a cosy montage of images showing how much better everything is now compared to those dark days when the mills and mines were truly satanic.
So our man in Kirkconnel is a lucky man indeed. Why? Because the one and only food shop in the village is a Co-operative and there’s no way that the Co-operative movement would ever abuse a monopoly to rip people blind. That would be against everything the Co-op stands for. It would be against the very spirit of those gallant men and women of Lancashire who pushed their wheelbarrows ten miles there and ten miles back again. It would be against 170 years of history and progress.
But things change with time. Once it would have been hard to imagine a Labour Prime Minister hooking up with a far-right American president to invade every country they could find. But that all changed, and sadly it seems like the Co-op has changed too.
Yesterday I did a bit of research. I parked up and did some shopping. The Co-op in Kirkconnel has a nice electric door and inside music from the in-house Co-op radio station for a cosy, family sort of ambience. The shop was bright and clean and the bloke behind the counter couldn’t have been more friendly.
I bought 17 items, enough to put together a four-day food parcel. In each case, I chose the very cheapest option available. But when I got the final total I was gobsmacked.
Those are the cold, hard facts. This is the price you pay for living just 26 miles away from competition, even in a peaceful democratic country that isn’t being torn apart by bloody civil war. This is what it looks like when capitalism achieves a monopoly.
It’s exactly how things looked 170 years ago in Rochdale, when Britain was industrial. When those ten miles that separated Rochdale from Manchester made all the difference. Well, we’re post-industrial now and things look pretty well the same. It’s 26 miles down the valley from Kirkconnel to Dumfries. Too far to push a wheelbarrow.
And the Co-op really should be ashamed of itself. But then, like its political partner Labour south of the border, its market has nowhere else to go and – doubtless with the best of intentions – it’s taken advantage of their captivity just like the hardest-hearted capitalist would. If only something better was coming over the hills.
The words of course are so good they’re clearly not mine. The article was written by Mark Franklin, and posted at Wings Over Scotland