Her latest tract, described by the author as a ‘scenesetter’, has a rather ponderous title: ‘Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland?’, and compares Scotland to ten small European countries including Switzerland and Denmark.
Sturgeon’s new opus attracted mixed reviews, with some folk hailing it as the best thing they have read since 2014, while others dismissed it as a re-tread of tired, old themes. It’s not expected to be a best-seller.
The second publication, however, is rushing off the shelves, and deservedly so. Darren McGarvey’s book, ‘The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain’, was published by Ebury Press on Thursday. Now this is a significant work.
Described in this newspaper as both “timely” and “powerful”, I would suggest it is an essential read for every politician, civil servant, councillor, charity worker, police officer and teacher. In fact, every middle-class Scot should be made to read this book, or if they prefer, they can listen to it, as it was Radio 4’s Book of the Week.
McGarvey won the Orwell Prize for his first book, ‘Poverty Safari’, and in his latest work he continues his angry, but controlled, expose of the wide gap between Britain’s decision-makers and those most affected by their thoughtless, stupid or selfish actions.
“Why, for generations, has a select group of people with very limited experience of social inequality been charged with discussing and debating it?,” he asks, as he sets out how social division is reinforced by everything from health spending to housing and education policies.
And through the powerful testimonies of people like Andy, who lives in Possil, a post-industrial community in north-west Glasgow, the book chronicles the realities of modern Scotland.
While middle-class, middle-aged professionals enjoy free prescriptions for ailments such as acid reflux, people like Andy, who had his first heart attack at 29, and is unlikely to survive past 60 years old, struggles to get the support that might save his life.
The evidence of the social divide that splits Scotland is all around us. A report by the National Records of Scotland shows that a woman living in an affluent part of the country will enjoy 24 years more of healthy life than a woman in an area of “multi-deprivation”.
Even the SNP government, responsible for education these last 15 years, admits that the attainment gap between children and young people living in our most deprived communities and their peers from wealthier postcodes is “unacceptable.”
And only this week, a survey by Places for People Scotland showed that 40% of Scots believe that neighbourhoods with social housing tend to have higher rates of crime and anti-social behaviour.
As someone who raised her two sons in one of Edinburgh’s large peripheral housing estates, Wester Hailes, I can testify to the social distance that divides our country, even more than the constitutional question.
Scots like to think of themselves as egalitarian. We argue that we are a more progressive and fairer society than England. “Scotland is now… a beacon for progressive values – equality, opportunity, diversity and fairness,” is a regular refrain from the First Minister.
But as McGarvey’s book reveals, and as many of us know from personal experience, this is an urban – and rural – myth. Scotland is as divided by class as any part of the United Kingdom. In some places, the divide is deeper. We have, after all, the worst drug-related deaths in Europe.
Accidental overdose may have been the official cause of death for the thousands of Scots who have died prematurely in recent years, but the root cause of this national tragedy is poverty and alienation, just as it is for health inequality, the attainment gap, and the many other benchmarks that characterise our divided nation.
McGarvey’s book inspired me to turn to another important work, which I first read while living in Wester Hailes and about to embark on my short-lived political career. First published in 1992, ‘The Culture of Contentment’ by eminent economist John Kenneth Galbraith, argues it is not the uber-rich elite that divides Western societies, but the “socially and economically advantaged majority”. He suggests that a complacent middle class has undue influence over the political process, and it is they, not the elite, who determine economic policy.
He could have been describing Sturgeon’s Scotland, with its middle-class bribes like free tuition for university students, while further education languishes on the sidelines.
The First Minister and her strategists decided a long time ago that it is Scotland’s contented middle class that she needs to woo if her teenage dream of independence is to come to aught.
The SNP calculate that Scotland’s poor can be depended on to vote for ‘freedom’ as their lives are so bereft of hope. Any alternative future – even one as risky as leaving the UK – is better than the present if you’re dependent on Universal Credit, living in a damp high-rise and struggling with the onset of lung disease.
So what is to be done to end this social distance that shames our nation? McGarvey is right when he writes that class remains the primary dividing line in our society. Class, not nationality. And he is also correct to argue that transforming society begins with education.
But I suggest that the first thing you, dear reader, can do is to educate yourself. Read Darren McGarvey’s book. And JK Galbraith’s – it’s short and not too laden with jargon. I wouldn’t bother with Nicola Sturgeon’s effort, though. It’s just the same old story.