Book Review

Scottish Unemployed Workers Network, Righting Welfare Wrongs – dispatches and analysis from the front line of the fight against austerity, Common Print, £10.00.  

Reviewed by Stephen Smellie

When I spent time on the dole in the 1970s and1980s, we had to sign on at the buroo every two weeks. The queues were large and you met your friends there. We would occasionally visit the Job Centre to see if there were any jobs to apply for. We would advise each other on what you needed to do and what you could claim for. There were unemployed workers centres where you could get advice; sometimes access some training or just hang about with your mates for a while. Whilst queuing to sign on you could buy the Militant newspaper from the guy who was also there to sign on and have a political discussion, or wind him up if that was your mood. It was a kind of collective experience. We knew we were unemployed because there were no jobs and it was the government’s fault.

This book written by activists in SUWN describes a very different experience where unemployed people are isolated and put through a series of processes designed to humiliate and make people believe that it is their fault that they are not in work.   SUWN

The mainly Dundee activists responsible for the stories and facts within this book have campaigned against the modern day benefit system that seeks to force people into zero-hour minimum wage jobs; which forces people to take part in bogus training and job experience placements for no money; that puts crushing pressure on people who are ill so that they come off the register and so live on the lowest form of benefit or no benefit at all; and threatens and bullies people with sanctions, i.e., stopping all financial support, for failing to comply with rules, appointments that they either are not advised of or are minutes late for.

Based on stories heard and lessons gained from standing at stalls outside the Dundee buroo talking to the victims of this system, this book is a record of our times. These are harsh times and the victims are made to feel that they are the problem. To stand with these people, to support them in meetings with the employees of the system, be threatened by the ‘security’ and the law for doing so takes character, determination and a political understanding that changing the system takes people to stand against it.

The book is partly made up of postings on the SUWN Facebook page where over a period of several months reports of the encounters with the system are recorded. Human stories are told of misery and resilience. Political ideas are presented and practical advice on how to cope with the system is dispensed. After a while, you realise you are reading a handbook on the system as well as a call to arms.

Other sections of the book are essays on aspects of the history and theories of the welfare state. These sections are informative but is the details of, on one hand, the struggle to survive in twenty first century Scotland without a decent job and, on the other, the struggle to build a resistance to the brutality of the system that doesn’t care for the individual.

Throughout the book unpleasant experiences are described with staff in the buroo or in the ‘training’ agencies or in the medical assessment companies who behave in a brutal and uncaring way towards claimants. Some of these claimants have severe health problems, mental health conditions and significant needs and yet all are treated like scum. The book doesn’t dwell on this but the resistance that SUWN are seeking to inspire amongst the unemployed needs to be matched by a resistance within the system amongst workers whose circumstances are not that far removed from the people they are supposed to be serving. An excellent read; an excellent guide to a brutal system; and an excellent call to arms.  

Stephen Smellie is the branch secretary of UNISON South Lanarkshire   

Righting Welfare Wrongs is also available as a free e-book at