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June 28, 2016

Bob Holman

In 2002, Iain Duncan Smith had what he called his Easterhouse Epiphany.  He claimed that his eyes had been opened by what he witnessed on his visit to the Glasgow housing estate and that he now understood what it meant to experience poverty. Bob Holman, who died last week, and had dedicated his life to living and working on the estate, hosted that visit and claimed he was convinced that Duncan Smith was sincere in what he said. After witnessing the impact of Duncan Smith’s welfare reforms, Holman’s opinion of him had changed. 


Malcolm Dean, The Guardian

I first met Bob Holman, who sadly died last week aged 79, more than 30 years ago. By then his audacious decision in 1976 of giving up a comfortable academic life as a University of Bath professor to create a community action project in one of the city’s poorest wards was well under way. He had moved with his wife Annette, a lecturer in social work in Bristol, and his two children into a house that had been a GP surgery. It became both a home and a community centre which local people could turn to for help, or turn up to, to help others.


Our first meeting was bound to be tricky. He had been a dedicated Labour party member since 1961 and I was a former Labour party member standing as the SDP candidate in Bath. But as founding editor in 1979 of the Guardian’s Society section, dedicated to covering social conditions in the UK and all aspects of the welfare state, we were united by our concern over the devastating cuts by the Thatcher government. His move in 1987 from Bath to Glasgow, where he co-founded a now famous community action project in Easterhouse, was based on a simple principle: poor people are best helped by people who live with them, rather than lecture at them.

Almost to the end Holman was initiating new research. He set out a challenge to update the Our Towns poverty report published in 1943, which dramatically changed public attitudes to the welfare state, with the words, “Now, just as it was 70 years ago, some live in poverty because others live in luxury.” Our Lives: Challenging Attitudes to Poverty in 2015, found that modern Britain failed to understand poor people’s lifestyles.

Holman became a regular contributor to the Guardian. Here are some extracts from his writing:

In 1987, a few residents in Easterhouse, a postwar suburb six miles east of the Glasgow, that had become synonymous with deprivation, took over an abandoned shop as a club for unemployed youngsters. When I moved into the neighbourhood, with my Glaswegian wife, I went along. Being English, I felt threatened – but I gained street cred by beating the teenagers at table tennis.

About 18 months later we were kicked out of the shop, and 30 of us formed Family Action in Rogerfield and Easterhouse (Fare) as a charity in a tiny room in the tenants’ association premises. I was appointed part-time leader. We ran youth clubs in the nearby school, and I also helped some families to claim benefits and others that were having difficulties with their children.

Within a year, the funds from Barrow Cadbury Trust were exhausted and I worked for nothing, supporting myself as a part-time academic researcher. I sometimes wrote for the Guardian and readers sent money. Through this we set up the Friends of Fare, and these donations (which continue) were vital to our survival in the early years.

In 1996, the council offered Fare a tenement block of six flats, which had become “hard-to-lets” following three drug-related deaths. Having premises made it easier to obtain grants. I became a volunteer, and the new leader, Rosemary Dickson, oversaw expansion. A breakfast club provided meals for children before school. The biggest challenge was gang warfare. Staff went into schools to discuss the pros and cons of gang membership. Then clubs were started in other neighbourhoods. After three years, Strathclyde police reported a 58% drop in violence, vandalism and youth disorder.

Fare has 30 “workers”, made up of full-time staff, sessional workers and volunteers. Most are from Glasgow’s east end. They have experienced Fare’s services as children and can relate to the families they work with because they come from similar backgrounds. They provide expertise in leadership, youth work, community organising and sports coaching. They are appointed by a local committee that sets the policies.

It is difficult to explain the reasons for Fare’s endurance, but in a nutshell it is because of its local involvement and the alternatives it has provided.

I thought I knew Iain Duncan Smith

I no longer recognise the Iain Duncan Smith with whom I have had a cross-party friendship for eight years. In 2002, as the Conservative party leader, he visited the project I helped to found in Easterhouse. He has described the visit as a kind of epiphany: “I saw the poverty among a swath of forgotten people. I felt I had to do something and came away a changed man.”

Since becoming work and pensions secretary he appears to have accepted old Tory policies on every crucial issue.

My long experience in deprived areas tells me that the number who make a rational decision to live on benefits is tiny. I know others who cannot face working: those with mental health problems, for instance, or severe behavioural difficulties. These are the very people that the small voluntary projects can help. But this involves building relationships and providing support, not compulsion.

The IDS I knew was a politician who almost wept at the plight of the poor. My guess is that, in order to reach his costly goal of a universal credit scheme, he has had to mollify the chancellor, George Osborne – and that can only be done by being like those Tories who take pleasure in punishing the poor.There is an alternative. I have observed his rare gift of being able to listen to and communicate with people crushed by social deprivation. I believe he should leave the cabinet and devote himself to those at the hard end.

Why I rejected my MBE

The danger is that in writing about my reasons for doing so, I will come over as an inverted snob: “I am more radical than thou”. But that isn’t my intention. I decided to write about rejecting the MBE for two reasons. One is that I want to thank and explain my reasons to the unknown people who nominated me. Second, perhaps it will encourage others to do the same. The honours are bestowed by the monarchy. As a democrat, I am opposed to a queen and other royals who wield great public influence in spite of never having been elected. I am an egalitarian. I believe that a socially and materially equal society is more united, content and just. The royal honours system is designed to promote differences of status. It is made clear that those who are made knights or dames are socially superior to those given CBEs, OBEs or MBEs. But all are socially above those without honours. These imposed differences hinder the co-operation, interaction and fellowship that are the characteristics of equality. Refusing a royal honour is a small step but one in the right direction.

Last words

Hospital in Glasgow in July, 2015. A consultant speaks frankly to me: “Mr Holman, I am sorry to say that you have motor neurone disease.”For several months, I had been under several departments for difficultities in swallowing and coughing fits, loss of use in my right hand, breathlessness and problems with my voice. Then it was brought together by the neurology department – motor neurone disease, a rare but deadly disease. It involves the decline in use of nerves and muscles, with the victim usually unable to carry out basic tasks. There is no cure, it is progressive and usually leads to a shortened life span. I am in the early stages but my life style has changed considerably. My diet consists of easy to swallow food, well prepared by my wife, Annette. The slow chewing means that it can take 50 minutes to consume breakfast, often accompanied by coughing. Consequently, I cannot eat in cafes or restuarants. My voice is difficult to understand and will eventually go altogether. I can no longer speak at public meetings. I do insist on going to buy the local papers at the local co-op everyday where they know about my illness. But the short walk can make me breathless. To sleep, I have to sit upright. For all this, I do have a certain contentment for these reasons. The illness has brought me even closer to all our family. My loving wife Annette and I accept the likelihood of my soon-to-come death. At my remembrance service, I want not just hymns but also We’ll Meet Again by Vera Lynn. My dad, in the war, dug out many bombed people, dead and alive, and the song always brought tears to his eyes. In addition, I believe Annette and I will meet again.

Our son, David, a professor at Manchester University, comes every other weekend, often with his Glaswegian wife, Janice. He hugs me, tells me he loves me, takes me out. In a local park we walked through the gardens. I reminded him that years ago I climbed a mountain with him on my shoulders. He had taken my arm and was now guiding me. We laughed together. Our daughter Ruth lives nearby. Often she brings our two grandsons over at the weekend. Lucas is just 18 and, when both parents went to work, I frequently cared for him from the age of six months.

Since 1987, I have attended the Baptist church in Easterhouse where I have many friends including West Africans and asylum seekers from the Middle East and East Africa. Our church supports and welcomes them. The home secretary, Theresa May, claims that immigrants divide communities. She is so wrong.

I am happy to be in the hands of the Scottish NHS. It is not just the expert doctors at the hospital, I also receive help from a specialist nurse, dietician, speech therapist and occupational therapist at our home. They are both expert and friendly. No doubt I will not continue to be so content. What one consultant calls “the cruel disease” is progressive and I will lose my voice altogether, perhaps lose the capacity to swallow and have to be fed through a tube, and lose my physical mobility. But I will not lose my Christianity. It came before my socialism. The example and values of Jesus Christ led me to seek a societal implementation through politics. The writings of Richard Tawney and the practices of Keir Hardie and George Lansbury led me into the Labour party. But Christianity is more than politics. It will be with me to the end.

A message from India

Bob Holman, for us, underlined the global nature of poverty. He was that rarity, a professor, author and academic, who opted, on principle, to live with a disadvantaged community. Anything less, was to him, hypocritical, conflicting with his Christian faith. Bob chose to practise what most of us profess.

In 1994, my husband Stan and I, were invited to study poverty work in the UK from an Indian perspective. Easterhouse shocked us. Unemployed people had homes with hot and cold running water, piped gas, cookers and refrigerators, all considered middle-class luxuries in India. But, as Bob pointed out, below that surface things were quite grim. Children were growing up an inch or two shorter than their Scottish grandparents because their diet was so poor. Unemployment was rampant. The community survived because they were closely knit.

The world is full of poverty pundits. Bob didn’t just sit and analyse the problems of poverty. He wrote and lectured, but mostly he just got on with the job. It’s what made him one of a kind.

Mari Marcel Thekaekara is a human rights activist


A memorial service for Bob Holman will take place at Easterhouse Baptist Church at 3pm on 25 June. Donations can be made to Fare at