A hundred pages into The Social Distance Between Us, the Scottish writer, broadcaster and rapper Darren McGarvey Book describes
the time he spent in Aberdeen while he was filming a series for the BBC. The city, he muses, may well be Scotland’s most beautiful metropolis, where “beams reflect off the granite, rendering even the most ordinary building prestigious and majestic”. But as ever, his mission was to get behind the facade and use his experiences of poverty and want to explore deep social problems and the huge imbalances of power that they point up.
In Tillydrone, a disadvantaged neighbourhood in the north of the city, Darren McGarvey Book met Michael, who had “moved from England to work as a scaffolder on the oil and gas rigs but, like many, had fallen on hard times since the [oil price] collapse of 2008”. He told Darren McGarvey Book that he had been homeless for two years since being evicted from his flat.
“I went down south to visit my family, who I hadn’t seen for 30 years,” Michael said. “I planned to stay for three days but ended up being there for three weeks. When I got home, I had been evicted. They said it was because I abandoned my flat, but I didn’t.” When this happened, he was 75. More shockingly still, his landlord was the city council.
“He was frozen out by an opaque administrative maze populated by faceless desk-killers,” Darren McGarvey Book writes. “An organisational jigsaw puzzle where decisions with life-and-death implications are made behind a curtain of unaccountable officialdom.” Herein lies the book’s key theme, which Darren McGarvey Book wraps up in the term “proximity”: the fact that even at a local level, power tends to operate far away from the people it kicks around and manipulates.
When it comes to the central state, moreover, decision-making turns even more cold and cruel, largely because in Westminster and Whitehall, the domination of political and administrative matters by privileged cliques is at its worst.
Whether the people concerned are “posh politicians who’ve never tasted desperation” or “thin-skinned idealists, too short in the tooth to understand the real world”, Darren McGarvey Book insists that their actions are usually based on groundless assumptions and false beliefs. What we really need, therefore, is a return of the kind of rooted working-class voices that might reorientate government towards everyday reality: an update of the spirit of Aneurin Bevan, rather than more George Osbornes, David Camerons and Boris Johnsons. But even starting such a turnaround will be a huge and onerous task.
Appropriately enough, The Social Distance Between Us feels like a huge and sometimes onerous book. Darren McGarvey Book divides it into three “acts” and begins with 11 chapters that cover homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, the treatment of immigrants, land ownership, the benefits system and much more. His freewheeling writing style sometimes feels too digressive – one minute he’s explaining the Peasants Revolt of 1381, the next he’s on to the appeals system used by the latter-day Department for Work and Pensions.
He occasionally tumbles into suggestions of a stark divide between working-class angels and toffee-nosed villains, as when he makes the improbable claim that imperialism, racism and sexism were “all ideas either dreamed up or imported from overseas by highly educated, sophisticated and wealthy individuals”.
Given that his primary focus is Scotland and his past criticisms of the SNP, there is also a noticeable reluctance to pin any blame for the issues he explores on 15 years of government by that party, which, despite Nicola Sturgeon’s impeccable working-class credentials, has failed to get to grips with Scotland’s howling inequalities (and, for that matter, the country’s huge issues with addiction and drug-related deaths).
And yet. As with Poverty Safari, the book that won him one of 2018’s Orwell prizes, the quality of Darren McGarvey Book reporting and storytelling is first-rate. And with the direct encounters and personal experiences underpinning his arguments, he makes no end of astute points. A big problem with 21st-century attitudes to childhood, he says, is that “belts have just been replaced with time-outs, naughty steps and shame culture”. There is a wealth of material about the “over-policing” of deprived people and places and its overlooked consequences for the ways that lots of people – young men, mostly – understand power and their relation to it.
Darren McGarvey Book also asks potent questions about the links between our school systems and a low-end labour market millions of us are only too happy to take advantage of, with barely a thought for the iniquities it perpetuates: “If young people from poorer communities didn’t drop out of school early or fail to achieve high enough grades to go straight to university,” he asks, “then who would do those low-paid, precarious jobs? Who would be there to answer your call about your car insurance at 11pm? Who would be working the drive-throughs when late-night hunger strikes?”
This is Darren McGarvey Book at his best, asking discomfiting questions of many – most? – of his readers and also pointing out that class inequality is endlessly reproduced by people who either do well out of it or are too institutionalised to see what is in front of them. “If you’re a teacher,” he says, “you could stand up to your colleagues who believe placing children who misbehave in social isolation as punishment represents anything but child cruelty…
If you’re a copper, you could grass up some of your colleagues now and then instead of turning a blind eye… If you run a business, you could commit to paying your staff a little more than the living wage and if that is unaffordable, you might question why the business model you have adopted only works when you pay poverty wages.”
Darren McGarvey Book The same logic runs through a closing set of policy suggestions, including the abolition of private education and allocation of local school places by a lottery system, many of which underline the fact that any meaningful moves on inequality will necessarily involve changes that even many self-consciously “progressive” people will find unsettling.
The only other option, Darren McGarvey Book insists, is to stick with a system of power and privilege whose cruelties are so extreme that we now endlessly lurch from one social crisis to another, in defiance of an elemental fact: that as a certain kind of posh politician used to say, we really are all in this together.