The Social Distance Between Us – How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

Darren McGarvey

Ebury Press, £20

“I REMAIN close to working class concerns,” says the Orwell Prize-winning author of Poverty Safari, “My cleaner is working class”.

Darren McGarvey made his name writing about poverty and class. Now he’s in the top 8% of earners. He’s only too aware of the ironies of his own pilgrim's progress through the cultural elite.

Nor is he foolish enough to pretend that life isn't a lot better when you're upwardly mobile. “My physical health has never been better."

This is a disarmingly honest book, as well as a powerful argument for returning social class to the centre of radical politics. McGarvey writes with style and maturity, and though he's cleaned up his act, he hasn't lost his edge.

He worries that his own success was built on “my willingness to regurgitate my own 'lived experience' of class, addiction and trauma”. He's right of course – publishers love what they call misery lit, though it's wrong to think this is all he’s brought to the table.

McGarvey dragged himself out of a world of poverty and addiction by becoming a rap artist, successfully splicing the language of the Scottish street to black American music. Now he finds himself feted at book festivals by the very people he ridiculed.

“Often, touring the country, I feel like a living art installation that middle class people pay money to interact with,” he writes. He particularly hates journalists and book festival types asking: “Where did you learn to speak so well, Darren?”

The trouble is, he does speak well. He writes well too. And he does rap and stand up comedy. There's nothing wrong with being talented – it's what you do with it that counts. McGarvey has lent his talents to Glasgow’s Violence Reduction Unit and helping prisoners discover their literary abilities.

He's not afraid of talking about “personal responsibility” and self-help and rejects the idea that the “low born” as he calls them must remain prisoners of their social circumstances. “Recognising individual agency within the context of systemic inequality should not be taboo”. Self-reliance is not right wing.

He's still on safari, though now often accompanied by TV cameras. He interviews prison governors, criminologists, millionaire philanthropists, Scottish landowners. He's read a lot too, everyone from Plato to Paulo Freire, Roger Scruton to Tony Blair. During lockdown he had a lot of time to think about the links between inequality, capitalism, addiction, self harm. But his conclusions may come as a surprise.

He condemns the usual suspects – Tories, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, private schools, tabloids – but he does not to reach for the bromide of socialist revolution, lapse into the incomprehensible jargon of intersectionality, still less does McGarvey wander into the kaleidoscope of identity politics. What he really wants us to do, it seems, is talk to each other.

The single most frequently used word in this book after “class” is “proximity”. The problem with politicians, prison governors and social workers is that they lack “lived experience” – proximity to the people they are supposed to be helping. We are divided by a common language, as they used to say about Americans. He wants us to get up close and personal so that the people making the decisions speak the language of the people.

McGarvey has been speaking to a lot of people and finding that they don't necessarily fit their stereotype. The philanthropist, Tom Hunter, one of Scotland's richest men, is someone, “a washed-up pampered leftist [like himself] with radical pretensions should never meet.”

Hunter is an apostle of self-help who believes in enterprise as much as any Conservative MP, but he has proximity to his class background.

McGarvey has found that many supposedly right wing ideas, family, personal liberty and self-reliance, even patriotism – he supports Scottish independence after all – aren’t just a front for capitalist exploitation – false consciousness to fool the masses, as the Marxist left has it.

Nor was Brexit just about stupid uneducated people who hate foreigners being manipulated by “Steve Bannon and dark money”. He says: “For working-class people, it was a false choice between two types of elite hypocrisy.”

McGarvey despairs at "inward-looking ideological obsessives” of the left going down “theoretical rabbit holes”. He is clearly fed up with journalists and academics twittering about “trigger warnings” and "white privilege”.

“The fact that so many were surprised that working class people who live in conditions of economic humiliation would resist the notion that they are privileged is evidence of how socially remote many of these activists were”.

It's hard not to agree. Importing the divisive discourse of American culture wars has been a disaster for the British left. They need to get off Twitter and speak to real people about real things, instead of heteronormative patriarchy and the narcissism of small gender differences.

The obscure language of the left, he suggests, is a new way of keeping non-university educated people in their place. The “class ceiling” as it's sometimes called that blocks working class advancement has a lot to do with language.

“If the best people are in the top jobs,” he writes, “why is Britain such a f***ing bin fire”.

It’s hard to disagree after Partygate. However, the only problem with arguing that we need more working class people in power is that it doesn't always make a difference when they get there.

Scotland has been led for nearly a decade and a half by a politician who has proximity to her working class roots: Nicola Sturgeon, as FM and deputy FM. Yet the Scottish Government’s record on the very the issues that concern McGarvey isn't much better than the Tories.

More children are in poverty in Scotland than 20 years ago, the attainment gap in education is still ocean-wide and, according to Oxfam, Scotland is just as, if not more unequal, than the UK as a whole. And of course we lead the European league on drug deaths.

Nicola Sturgeon's Covid performance, presentation aside, was little better than Boris Johnson's. The death rate was the same as the UK's. The Scottish Government made the same mistakes, like not protecting care homes.

But look, this book is not about Nicola Sturgeon or about Scotland. It is really about a state of mind, which is what makes it so unusual in the literature on social deprivation. It is also about the stupidity of educated people who think they know everything about poor people – except how to speak to them.