In a Twitter post on finishing his new book, The Social Distance Between Us, the Scottish writer, rapper and TV host, Darren McGarvey, reflected that “after 3 years of crazy ups and downs, false starts and moments where I felt I might throw in the towel, my second book is complete”. Well, here we have it and what an angry little beast it is.
McGarvey springs from a challenging background which formed the backbone of his 2018 Orwell Prize-winning Poverty Safari. Deprivation, drugs and alcohol addled his Glasgow youth. Once again, he ventilates the resentments of those who continue to be held back by disadvantages he himself once suffered.
He is preoccupied with “class” as the key to understanding modern Britain. That said, this is a very Scottish-focussed study, notwithstanding excursions into wider Britain. It took shape, largely, whilst McGarvey was making a series of Scottish television programmes about poverty and its broader social impacts. Sometimes the seams show all too clearly.
McGarvey uses a thesis about social proximity, or rather its absence, in an attempt to explain what he sees as wrong with contemporary Britain. The social landscape he depicts is almost unremittingly bleak, shading into the dystopian. For him, only those with a “lived experience” of deprivation and its effects are qualified to speak about them.
He counts himself as among the authentic voices able to articulate parts of society that middle-class commentators cannot truly reach. His voice is unwaveringly sarcastic, often bilious. Any uncertainty does not constrain him; his is a righteous anger. The Social Distance Between Us is less a work of advocacy than an unapologetic scream against what he considers decades of societal neglect: It is not a work for the fainthearted or sensitive.
The book is at his strongest and most persuasive when taking the reader into discrete worlds where inescapable poverty grinds down families and individuals, where unemployment and mental stress generate patterns of homelessness, crime, imprisonment and drug abuse, each reinforcing the other. Drawing mainly on Scottish examples known to him but also on research by academics and NGOs in wider Britain, McGarvey makes his readers (whom he often addresses directly) conscious of the odds stacked against many of his fellow citizens locked in repetitive patterns of comparative disadvantage.
He dismisses claims that modern Britain enables social mobility through educational opportunity, demonstrating effectively that where someone is born and brought up is highly determinant of their subsequent lives. He shows how a person’s postcode directly affects the quality of education and health service access and even the types of employment available to them. He shows also how law enforcement is more readily applied in deprived areas as is evidenced in the make-up of the prison population.
However, McGarvey is at his weakest regarding potential solutions and policy proposals for the problems he identifies. Though he vents his spleen on almost every page, his anger is an outcry and a bitter rage against class divisions. He will brook no objection to the limits of an analysis based on class alone. For him the working classes are the disregarded victims — whether unintended or not — of complacent and self-satisfied middle and upper classes intent above all on looking after their own interests.
Brexit was, to his mind, an expression of deep social resentments built up over many decades and focussed on a plaintive bid to regain control, not of national borders but of deprived lives. Though the book’s title points to social distance and remote politics as a core explanation for a “wrecked Britain”, the driving thesis is startlingly “old Left” or what McGarvey calls “radical Left”.
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Though McGarvey doesn’t seem to have a plan or subscribe to anybody else’s plans for addressing the social injustices he describes and articulates, the undertow of his argument favours wealth redistribution and radical equality. The canvas on which he draws and the examples he deploys are moreover narrowly national and largely Scottish. There is nothing wrong with that as such, but it is very limiting. There is no sense of how other European countries are handling not dissimilar instances of deindustrialisation and social deprivation.
There is little sense either of the social impacts of an increasingly diverse population, possibly because that is more readily or extensively evident in England than Scotland. Neither is there much recognition of the importance and significance of intermediary groupings in society, not least religious ones, whether Christian or Muslim. And although there are nods to the economic and other effects of social media, there is no real analysis of what might, after all, be thought especially relevant to any argument about forms of social distance.
McGarvey and his publishers have undoubtedly produced a book that resonates with the times in which we live. Post-Brexit, post-Covid-19 and in the midst of the global economic downturn hastened by the war in Ukraine, the growing level of poverty in Britain is unavoidably and rightly a core political concern. Inflation is rising rapidly with government spending and taxes at historically high levels. Energy costs are doubling and prices of basic foodstuffs are on a substantial upward curve. The social fabric is strained and in places fraying.
Nonetheless and even though societal strains are all too apparent, McGarvey’s apocalyptic headline about a “wrecked” Britain is hyperbole. He is surely right to look behind the immediate problems to the deeper sources of deprivation and their long-term effects.
His anger may well be understandable but it is not sufficient. In terms of policy choices, the circle to be squared is how to structure sustainable public expenditures on housing, education, health and so on in ways conducive to poverty alleviation whilst growing the economy to pay for them. That is the key question and not a fixation on class division as an explanation for everything.