Euan McColm: Pollok rapper who says Yes to grown-up debate

Darren McGarvey has seen his book about the impact of deprivation become a bestseller. Picture: John Devlin
Darren McGarvey has seen his book about the impact of deprivation become a bestseller. Picture: John Devlin
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A couple of weeks ago, some of the most dedicated campaigners for Scottish independence gathered to discuss how best to achieve their ambition of breaking up the United Kingdom.

More than three years after the 2014 referendum, members of the Scottish Independence Convention met in Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with the intention of reinvigorating a movement that’s suffered its share of knocks.

Welcoming delegates who packed the rows of that grand theatre, the co-convener of the SIC – Rab C Nesbitt star Elaine C Smith – was eager to share her wisdom. It’s been three years since Smith and her fellow travellers endured the bitter taste of defeat; surely three years is time enough to come up with something new, something inspiring.

We won’t win over No voters, Smith told her audience, by calling them quislings and traitors.

Well, blow me. Three years of reflection and this was the level of banality the Yes movement’s brightest and best had reached.

The pro-independence campaign produced a number of loud and confident voices. Unfortunately most of them have been loudly and confidently repeating the same tired old lines about a Scotland held back by the Union.

Those, such as Smith and her SIC co-convener Pat Kane, who have high profiles and, thus, influential roles in the Yes movement, continue to display a lack of understanding of why a majority of Scots rejected the nationalists’ offer in 2014. And the irritation of being called quislings isn’t the half of it.

The nationalist movement, speckled as it is with “free” thinkers whose thoughts must always accommodate the “truth” that independence is always the solution, is all but intellectually moribund. But, from among the ranks of “creatives” – those minor novelists, bloggers, vloggers and “performers” – who formed such a substantial part of the Yes campaign three years ago a truly interesting new voice has emerged.

The rapper Loki – real name Darren McGarvey because he was born in Pollok and not in a Spider-Man comic – has enjoyed an increasingly high profile over the past three years. McGarvey, a recovering alcoholic and survivor of childhood abuse, was – at first, anyway – a darling of the Yes movement.

Authentically working class, with the diction and the furrowed brow to prove it, McGarvey was a gift to the nationalist cause. Here was an articulate, passionate young man whose experiences – and compelling retelling of them – gave weight to the idea that, if independence was about anything, it was about social justice.

McGarvey’s status as darling of the independence cause was to be short-lived. Soon, he began to question the motives of some of those he had once stood beside. Had he been a less interesting character, McGarvey might have found his level as a critical friend of the independence movement.

Last Monday, McGarvey appeared on Radio 4’s Start The Week and announced himself as one of the United Kingdom’s most provocative social commentators. If 2014’s indyref produced a new public intellectual, he is a rapper from Pollok. Who’d have thought?

In a dazzlingly articulate and powerful contribution to the programme, McGarvey spoke about the corrosive impact of stress on those living in poverty and about taking personal responsibility for one’s decisions.

Shortly after the broadcast, McGarvey’s newly published Poverty Safari, a book in which he looks at the impact of deprivation – and at efforts to address it – went to number one in the list of best-selling memoirs on Amazon. It raced into the top 10 across all genres.

I was especially pleased by McGarvey’s breakthrough not because I respect him as a writer and thinker (though I do) but because he gives me hope that Scotland’s debate might move on from the constitutional swamp through which everybody has been wading for a decade.

McGarvey may have stepped into the spotlight as a pro-independence campaigner but the issues he is now discussing are bigger than petty constitutional politics.

The impact of stress on people living in deprived areas and on those working in vulnerable and low-paid jobs is the sort of big subject we should be talking about. Technology continues to transform workplaces, making increasing numbers of traditional jobs obsolete and the inevitable consequence of this will be even more people living in the kind of circumstances which McGarvey so vividly describes.

By challenging the views of some of those who share his ambition to see Scotland become independent, McGarvey has won his share of criticism from the screeching fury chimps of the internet. He is the pet of “Yoons”, goes the attack, a man who, because he is taken seriously by unionist campaigners and politicians, betrays the cause which acted as a catalyst for his new found fame.

The last few years of political debate in Scotland have been depressingly crap. Uber tribalism, a lack of talent at Holyrood, and the ubiquitous tendency for politicians to represent the views of opponents as malicious have combined to make the prospect of joining our national discourse fully unappealing.

McGarvey, with his great clarity – and admission of uncertainty – is, for my money, the most engaging and provocative new thinker to have emerged in Scotland in recent years. He is – or, at least, has the potential to be – someone to whom unionists and nationalists alike should listen.

It will be fascinating to follow McGarvey’s position on the independence question. Unionists who respect his thinking will, doubtless, hope that he reaches an epiphany and repents. Nationalists – the more excitable ones, anyway – will be watching for further evidence that his thinking is impure.

One thing is certain, we’ll hear much more from Darren McGarvey. Last week, he introduced himself to a UK audience and they responded by sending his book soaring up the best-seller list.

Good. This angry, articulate, chippy, argumentative, foul-mouthed, funny, humble, cocky man is worth listening to. And you can’t say that about many of those who came stumbling into the light during the referendum campaign.