Darren McGarvey has made a career out of excoriating middle-class wankers, then getting those self-same middle-class wankers to pay him for the privilege.
It’s an impressive feat. His first book, Poverty Safari, became a lightning rod for praise from across the political spectrum. Both Scotland’s First Minister and the nation’s most prominent billionaire, at odds on so many issues, agreed on the book’s merits. The author would go on to bag an Orwell Prize. His TV documentaries on class and addiction mix biographical candour and provocation with a persistent commitment to exposing the systemic roots of social sickness.
The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain, McGarvey’s difficult second volume, contains some of those winning ingredients. Clear-sighted memoir and reportage jostle for space with compelling observations about the resilience of class in contemporary Britain.
A veteran of many rap battles, you can’t review McGarvey without anticipating a counter-strike. There are various points in The Social Distance Between Us where the author has anticipated the critic: pointed reflections on his elevation to the big-league make you wary of being seen to demand a working-class writer stay in his lane. The poverty memoir is an old, popular, well-established genre. Attempts to break out from its constraints and compromises, to add intellectual heft and analysis to the more passive acts of giving voice and witnessing, are to be welcomed. McGarvey is aware that much of his readership is well-off and he is wary of catering to voyeuristic tastes with an excess of ‘harrowing’ or ‘brutal’ output.
But the main problem with The Social Distance Between Us is structural. The book creates its own kind of distance, building out from the immediate and tangible to the remote and vague. There are two ‘Acts’ to this book, but it reads like two separate works: the first presents crumbling social systems from the perspectives of working-class people, the second offers take-downs of various factions within British politics.
Early chapters on the degradations of labour in call centres, or the psychological abuse inflicted on welfare claimants, give way to general, broadly familiar observations about the rise of Thatcherism and New Labour. This means that by the time we get to a final menu of perfectly decent ideas for reform, the material or community basis for the kind of movement that could drive these is no longer present. Instead, there are lots of apolitical homilies in the second half, entitled ‘Fucked, Left, Right and Centre’—as though the author is glancing back nervously at his readership’s disparate political leanings. There’s polemic directed at the ‘The Left,’ particularly its approach to trying to leverage crisis amongst communities that have seen constant waves of disruption and chaos.
But such well-founded points sit alongside a reluctance to really consider who holds power: ‘thin-skinned idealists’ are lumped in with corporate elites as equally out of touch. There are cautionary notes against demonising Tories. ‘It is only because Conservative politicians are unaffected by the consequences of their policies […] that they persist with their bombardment of the poor and the vulnerable.’ Inverting that statement would land closer to the mark, but doing so would require a shift of emphasis away from the cultural markers of class and towards the dominant material project of British politics over the past three decades: the creation of security for asset-owning classes at the expense of any other form of social stability.
McGarvey muses, ‘As much as I loathe inequality, blaming rich individuals for it has never made much sense to me.’ We are warned against cathartic ‘billionaire-baiting’ then later told that ‘The Left’s central preoccupation must always be class politics.’ These contradictory instructions feel a bit like they’re designed to distract from a weak central argument: that Britain’s problems primarily stem from ‘proximity gaps’ rather than a fundamentally unjust distribution of wealth and power.
Meanwhile, the radical political project of marketising every conceivable aspect of life in contemporary Britain continues. This may not be the result of sheer malevolence or hatred of the poor. But it is the result of individuals who believe that the pursuit of rational self-interest offers by far the greatest boon for the rest of society. So while it’s not hard to reach a banal point of agreement that Tory politicians are not inherently evil, this should not distract from the extreme ideological assumption that governs Britain and is shared by many: exploitation is, in fact, virtuous.
There’s an old argument that all Scots writing prose in English translate themselves to some degree. In day-to-day life, as explored in one of the book’s most compelling passages, the capacity to modulate vocal chords and swap out vocabulary for different contexts is a matter of great social significance here; this can come across on the page too. For a writer with their ear to the ground in Scotland, the reality of a largely middle-class, anglicised readership is always problematic. McGarvey’s issue here isn’t so much one of style (he knows how to use language as a leveller) but rather position: he is constantly moving between the role of writer and translator.
‘I possess a frame of reference which a university-educated arts worker may not,’ he notes, before explaining that his work with young offenders is informed by his own lived experience of violence. Who, you wonder, is supposed to be surprised at the combination of authenticity and articulacy? Perhaps it’s included for the benefit of listeners to Radio 4’s Book of the Week. Either way, most of the writing in the first section of this book is eloquent enough to speak for itself.
McGarvey acknowledges at the outset that the Scottishness of much of the material is the result of restrictions in place due to the pandemic—his original intent was to travel more widely across the UK. Still, the author remains a creation of his home nation’s sometimes confusing approach to class. According to established narratives, elitism in Scotland is generally frowned upon and the hardscrabble rise of the ‘lad o pairts’ celebrated.
You therefore can’t understand the rise of McGarvey without considering an age-old hunger for organic intellectuals in Scotland. Such figures have the nous to defy humble origins and tangle with the big ideas of their day. In late-twentieth-century Scotland figures like Jimmy Reid, Jim Sillars, and Tommy Sheridan would all claim the inheritance of a proud, defiant, masculine, working-class politics. All of these three in turn became skilled communicators, at ease on both the shop and the studio floor; the community and the lecture hall. In bridging those spaces so often demarcated by class, all understood, like McGarvey does, that authenticity is a performance, a tool, a weapon.
But authenticity has its limits. Though older generations of working-class Scots radicals coalesced around social movements, communities and still living traditions of working class self-reliance and mutual aid, McGarvey cuts a lone figure. This is, primarily, a book about individuals. While the author attends to the power of community and connection half way through, these do not go on to become the building blocks of the confusing political manifesto that closes the book.
The Social Distance Between Us also slams the growth of the ‘poverty industry’—the range of initiatives that emerged following deindustrialisation to manage social problems in working-class communities. The rise of these interventionist projects, argues McGarvey, has created a kind of inverted culture of dependency, in which many organisations employing university-educated workers on good salaries require the ‘fuel’ of impoverished people to justify their existence. This anxiety speaks to two decades of Scotland being run by moderate centre-left devolved governments still shaped by New Labour’s founding assumptions and influenced by the rise of the ‘professional managerial class,’ a group increasingly framed as at the source of the nation’s ills by certain quarters of the Scottish left.
What’s puzzling about this is the fact that McGarvey himself is very much at home within Scotland’s roomy social sector. A significant marker of that sector is a tendency, initiated by Scotland’s former Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns, to view the social consequences of deindustrialisation through the lens of public health policy. Scotland’s lauded Violence Reduction Unit, recently emulated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan, employed McGarvey as rapper-in-residence. Its aim, based on rhetoric popularised by Burns, is to treat the cycle of violent crime as though it were a disease.
While salvos are fired at the Scottish Government too, there is nothing in this book that would be out of place in Holyrood Magazine, the in-house journal of the Scottish political establishment, which has featured the author on its front cover. The logic that has informed The Social Distance Between Us sees previously political problems become medicalised: ‘Social connection strengthens the immune system, helps us to recover from illness faster and can even lengthen our lifespans.’ Perhaps there are people from all walks of life who need to hear about these intuitive treatments for social ills, but they can add up to a form of class politics that is curiously apolitical.
What if the poor aren’t the problem? McGarvey asks, finally. He doesn’t marshal his considerable polemical powers to demonstrate that the rentier-class are. More challenging follow-up questions go unasked. Who will redistribute the hoarded wealth that has exploded beyond all reason in the author’s lifetime?
The Social Distance Between Us shows every sign of emulating the critical and popular success of Poverty Safari. It is best understood as a book packaged for export, stamped with the lived experience of working-class people in the West of Scotland but actually offering up many of the core ideas that dominate mainstream Scottish politics. Making policy happen at Holyrood is framed as a targeted, evidence-based, consensus-driven process, that often does incorporate lived experience and a wider range of voices than at Westminster. It doesn’t tinker with the underlying social settlement, however. This is partly because the remit of the Scottish Parliament is constrained, but mainly because middle Scotland likes things the way they are.
However, the long-standing holy trinity of cheap energy, cheap food, and cheap money that has kept the lid on a long-simmering social crisis across Britain is about to expire. Given all of these impending shocks, and the desperate need to defend the conditions for life everywhere against endlessly expanding markets, is it really such an indulgence to demand surgery instead of treatment?
Then again, as a middle-class wanker (certified as such by working-class family members), I would say that.