Book review: The Social Distance Between Us, by Darren McGarvey

Given the scale of the cost-of-living crisis now shaking British society, this book is both timely in its powerful description of poverty and exclusion, and at risk of losing track of the speed of change, writes Joyce McMillan

Darren McGarvey PIC: John Devlin / The Scotsman
Darren McGarvey PIC: John Devlin / The Scotsman

In 2018 Darren McGarvey’s first book, Poverty Safari, won the Orwell Prize for political writing, perhaps the most prestigious prize available for British writers who deal with themes of social justice. It was a telling moment, in at least two ways.

In the first place, it recognised something in McGarvey’s writing – perhaps the pure rage and grief that drives his social commentary – that recalls the social writing of the 1930s, in both fiction and non-fiction. Not since Orwell himself published The Road To Wigan Pier, in 1937, have British writers had to strive so mightily to describe the world of the poorest in their own country to a middle and upper class with no experience of that world, and no feeling for its impact on the human mind and body.

In the second place, though, the Orwell Prize also confirmed McGarvey’s unique place in current UK political discourse, as one of the very few British writers about poverty who have themselves suffered the extremes of deprivation and exclusion that they describe. Born in Glasgow in 1984, McGarvey suffered a disrupted family life, poverty, homelessness and serious addiction problems, before he began to emerge, in his twenties, as a leading Scottish rapper and social analyst; and it’s that increasingly entrenched social distance between the world he came from and the one where he largely now lives – and its huge consequences for British politics – that forms the theme of McGarvey’s new book, subtitled “How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain”.

The Social Distance Between Us, by Darren McGarvey

He therefore begins with eight powerfully-researched chapters on how disadvantage and social inequality are reinforced by existing systems in criminal justice, education, land ownership, housing, the treatment of addiction, wider health care, the welfare system, and attitudes to immigration; then four chapters of further analysis on the attitudes that underpin inequality, in areas that range from our apparent automatic deference to wealth, to the perennial subject of accent and speech.

It’s difficult to overstate the eloquence and even the tenderness with which McGarvey describes the situation of some of those he meets, from a man called John begging on the streets of Aberdeen, to the young boys without connections or prospects, on a “sink” housing estate, bonding into a gang culture with each other through “unconscious commiseration, and ritualistic self-sabotage”.

This passionate description of people in destitution and misery, and of their struggles, is the heart and soul of McGarvey’s book; but he also continues with searing analyses of conservatism, leftism and Blairism as responses to the problem, and then ends with a few suggested solutions, including the abolition of private education, a return to grass roots trade union organisation, Scottish independence if we can get it, and radical reform of the UK’s creaking constitution, including its now notoriously weak protections against corruption and influence-peddling.

Given the scale of the “perfect storm” cost-of-living crisis now shaking British society, McGarvey’s book is both timely in its powerful description of poverty and exclusion, and at risk of losing track of the speed of change, as a whole new class emerges of people in steady and salaried employment, who nonetheless are now struggling to meet the basic costs of food, housing and fuel.

As a guide to how we reached this critical moment, though, McGarvey’s book is vital and indispensable. It documents how, out of sheer prejudice, we never heard the voices of those with most to tell us about how to heal a broken society; and how we succeeded in creating a 21st century ruling class who – in their complacency, their lack of engagement, their blinkered ideology and dead-hand managerialism – are themselves, now, the principal source of the social problems they so confidently locate elsewhere, and which they therefore cannot even begin to solve.

The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain, by Darren McGarvey, Ebury Press, 400pp, £20