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Rikers Island

Rikers Island <em>Picture: US Geological Survey</em>

Rikers Island Picture: US Geological Survey

Sometimes I think that that the day of rationality has dawned and that humanity has finally achieved civilisation.

I had one of these epiphanies when I heard the radio tell me that the Head Bean Counter of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, had been imprisoned on Rikers Island.

At last, I thought, somebody is asking hard questions about the IMF’s doggedly monetarist approach – especially to do with the minor issue of brown people getting food.

About time, I thought, as I reached for the Cohiba cigar (Che’s favourite smoke) that I had been saving for just this occasion. I savoured the prospect of this phenomenon cascading, with David Cameron and Nick Clegg throwing each other to the shower daddies in Joliet. And Tony Blair starring in a new reality TV show called: “Britain’s got life sentences”.

But the radio bulletin explained that the less-than-delightful Dominique is being held not for his IMF activities but for attempted sexual assault. He was (allegedly) trying to do literally to a hotel employee what his organisation has done metaphorically to developing nations the world over.

Reality crashed in. Rampant unfree corporate capitalism roams unfettered. I extinguished my Exquisito in a mug of Campaign Coffee (it made it taste better) and put on the telly to make myself feel better.

What was on? The Scheme – a documentary about everyday folk in the charming Kilmarnock suburb of Orthanc.

For the first ten minutes I was convinced it was a work of dark comic genius dreamed up by Chris Morris and the Chewin’ the Fat team. “Recovering drug-addict Marvin is pinning his hopes on a stable life with a former girlfriend … when she gets out of prison.” (A high point for Marvin is when the methadone-addicted teenager gets her electronic tag changed so they can live together. I don’t think even Clintons have a card for that romantic milestone.) How about the chubby lassie who utters the immortal line: “I’m a pole dancer. If any of you want a go of me. £10 a go”? And who could forget: “He’s never been arrested sober”, or “He called him aw the Bin Laden bastards so they done him for a racial”?

All the comedy staples are there: unusual dentistry, Old Firm tops and Burberry aplenty, pregnant teens smoking heavily and disabled spaces for the clearly able-bodied. Every one a coconut. As for the use of the C word: less is more, chaps, especially in front of a five-year-old who’s supposed to be at school.

It is so tempting to laugh at these people off as neds, chavs, pikeys, schemies and junkie scum. It would be so easy to crack open a bottle of Tempranillo and ponder ethnically cleansing “them” through a combination of sterilisation and dramatically increasing the purity of street drugs.

It is also tempting to take the other course, pursing one’s right-on lips and writing off The Scheme as “poverty porn” that misrepresents the Onthank community or exploits the yadda, yadda, yadda.

We need to stop pretending that The Scheme does not happen on streets all over Scotland. And we need to realise that it isn’t funny. The bottom line is that there are many, many Scots who lead miserable lives made chaotic by an excess of drink, drugs, violence and crime and a deficit of education, opportunity and responsibility.

The tragedy is that many of these Scots are children: with a quarter of under-16s north of the Border living in poverty. 150,000 Scottish children have to deal with substance-abusing parents. Our care system sees too many young people graduate to prison – with more than 25 per cent of those in “jile” having been through it.

People in Scotland – one of the most advanced countries in the world – die of malnutrition. We drink too much, eat garbage and die younger than we need to. Our mental health problems cost the country more than £10bn a year. We have a disgracefully high suicide rate.

Ah, wha’s like us?

And what the hell are we doing about it? Poverty does not seem to be high on the political agenda, despite being the root of crime, ill-health, drug abuse and all the associated costs to society.

But by tackling these issues we’d slash billions from the health, welfare and crime budgets. Where are the radical ideas to solve these problems? As the tragi-comic Scheme shows us, we’re getting nowhere fast.

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