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Darren McGarvey: ‘Austerity was class war. I want to hit back’

Austerity is an attack on those with the least, says Darren McGarvey. Done with being a bridge between classes, he’s joining the fight.

We’re now 12 years into austerity. Since David Cameron took power in the wake of the 2008 global economic crisis, spending on UK public services has fallen. Poverty has increased. Gains in life expectancy have stalled. Household debt has reached mountainous proportions – UK citizens owed a total of £1,781.7billion in May 2022.

Inequality is up, as is inflation. Galleries, museums, youth clubs, libraries and pubs have closed. It has been nothing short of class war – waged by the wealthy on the poor – says performer, activist and writer Darren McGarvey.

“It was saying: look, we’re going to cut your public services that we set up because we know you’re poorer, and you depend on them. We’re going to cut health budgets, which we know is part of the reason why lower-class people have got healthier, why infant mortality was down, why life expectancy increased. We’re going to cut all that,” he says.

“We’re not going to hold any of the people responsible for the crisis to account. They’re going to continue to earn bonuses. And we’re going to work in collusion with mainstream media to make sure that you buy this and that you swallow this, because you are plebs and this is what you deserve.”

McGarvey is angry. Raised in Pollok, a rough estate in Glasgow, he has experienced poverty and addiction. But whereas with his last book, 2017’s Orwell Prize-winning Poverty Safari, he aimed to be a bridge between classes, this time he’s taking sides. In the follow-up, The Social Distance Between Us, he says: “I’m stepping into the class war. I want to contribute to landing a blow back.”

The book features first-hand stories that would break your heart and boil your blood, yet McGarvey is not arguing that those in power are acting out of spite. “This is not because people in government hate the poor,” he says. “It’s because they don’t understand a world where £20 is a matter of life and death.”

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Just as a plumber can’t fix your toilet without first looking to see what’s wrong, politicians can’t hope to come up with effective social policy when they don’t understand the people on the receiving end of those decisions. A lack of proximity is the problem.

But, as we found when we took McGarvey out onto the streets of his home city for the first walking edition of BetterPod – The Big Issue’s weekly podcast that asks how we can act today for a better tomorrow – that distance isn’t always geographic.

In Glasgow’s West End, we take a 15-minute walk that brings us from one of Scotland’s most deprived areas to one of the most prosperous. Against that backdrop, McGarvey explains the complex causes and consequences of inequality.

You can listen to Darren McGarvey’s appearance on BetterPod here, or wherever you normally get your podcasts.

Darren McGarvey walks through Partick with BetterPod interviewer Katerina Sivitanides. Credit: Peter Byrne
Darren McGarvey walks through Partick with BetterPod interviewer Katerina Sivitanides. Credit: Peter Byrne

‘A stone’s throw away from a completely other world of affluence’

It’s a freakishly warm Glasgow summer’s day when we meet Darren McGarvey outside Partick Library in the west of the city. It’s a bustling, vibrant area, overserved with bookies, offies, air pollution and noise.

Running from most to least deprived, the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation – the government tool for identifying areas with relatively high levels of deprivation – goes from one to 10. This bit of Partick ranks as a two.

“Partick is one of those interesting communities because it’s a stone’s throw away from a completely other world of affluence – fruit and veg, clean pavements and good transport links,” says McGarvey.

“On a bright day like this, you might not actually be able to imagine that it ranks so highly in the deprivation statistics. But if you take a walk down the main street, you start to see some of the tropes associated with that. Overexposure to gambling advertising, alcohol sales points, even just the air quality here is reduced because of the proximity of all the residents to the roads. For a sociology student, it’s a real treat.”

Officially, life expectancy in this area is basically in line with the Scottish average – 76 for men, 81 for women. But that figure tells us little, since where we are standing is lumped in with the extremely privileged bit of the city we’re about to visit, rather than its more socially similar neighbours in the rest of the Dumbarton Road corridor. Overall, Glasgow City has the lowest life expectancy in Scotland, while Scotland has the lowest life expectancy in the UK.

A recent study from the University of Glasgow and the Glasgow Centre for Population Health showed that increases in the UK’s life expectancy have stalled for the first time in 200 years. If you live in a poor area, you’ll have seen your life expectancy drop. The study put the blame at the door of government austerity policies. Put bluntly: if you’re born round here, your chances aren’t great of reaching your late 70s.   

“You know, the amount of funerals I’ve been to just in the last few years, of people who are my age or younger, who died because of a dodgy tablet or died because their respiratory system collapsed or their liver failed or they hung themselves or they threw themselves into the River Clyde. I mean, it’s unbelievable,” says McGarvey. “And there is an anger that builds and a sadness that builds.”

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‘Removing the only engine room for social mobility’

Though the sun’s splitting the sky, the library beside us is buzzing. As McGarvey points out, it’s a place “where people can come and sit down, and not be expected to spend money. Where they can learn.” In a typical week, the library has requests for 1,500 books and welcomes 2,500 visitors.

Housed in an imposing 1920s listed building, with coving and corniced ceilings, Partick Library benefited from a £1.5m refurbishment in 2019. It was among the first to reopen after Covid lockdown, but other libraries nearby were less fortunate. Whiteinch and Maryhill libraries looked set to remain shuttered by the council’s arm’s-length cultural organisation Glasgow Life, until sustained local campaigns secured an intervention directly from the Scottish government.

Campaigners pointed out that the libraries that had failed to reopen following lockdown primarily served areas facing high levels of deprivation. “It’s a fight to keep some of these places open these days,” says McGarvey. “So, you’ve not just got all that to contend with – all the stuff we talked about – but then you’re potentially removing the only engine room left for any kind of social mobility to occur.”

Darren McGarvey pictured outside Partick Job Centre. Credit: Peter Byrne
Darren McGarvey pictured outside Partick Job Centre. Credit: Peter Byrne

‘An analogue welfare infrastructure for a digital problem’

Taking a short walk down Dumbarton Road, we pass hairdressers, pubs, a Cash Generator and the chippy, the bingo and a cosmetic dentures shop bearing the promise of “glamorous geggies”. Flats fill the floors above. Just off the main street, we stop outside Partick Job Centre, which is doing a steady trade.

One of the staff comes over to make sure we’re not filming any of their clients. People aren’t usually proud of coming here. They assume – frequently accurately – that they’ll be blamed for needing the assistance.

The blame is “misguided on a number of levels”, says McGarvey – the people who’ve been made unemployed can’t be held responsible for the economic decisions of their paymasters. And for those who are long-term unemployed, the Department of Work and Pensions isn’t really set up to take account of the “contextual circumstances”.

In 2018/19, 34 per cent of the working-age population in Glasgow was either unemployed or economically inactive. More than a quarter of households had no adults in employment.

“We have a welfare state which is very much an analogue infrastructure for a digital problem. Forgive the analogy, but poverty has changed, the nature of work has changed. We live in a much more flexible labour market, which means flexibility for employers, but not for workers. And so that means they are overexposed to economic shocks,” McGarvey continues.

“Obviously, that’s compounded by the fact that we have a welfare state which has been very much based on the model of the worst, corrupt American insurance companies that deny people their insurance even though they’re legally entitled to it.”

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‘The system is gamed for people born in the right postcodes’

The “myth of meritocracy”, as McGarvey describes it, tends to presume that everyone starts with the same chance to succeed. That just isn’t the case. “People talk about class, and I don’t think they really understand – when we’re talking about inequality, the system is very much gamed for people who are born in the right postcodes.

“Even just your weight when you’re born is a predictor of your health outcomes later. And that’s different depending on what postcode you’re born in. That then becomes formalised and accelerated in the education system, where what school you go to really depends on how much money you have.”

If you’re wealthy enough to live near a good school, or pay for private education for your kids, they can not only expect to have more money available per pupil, but they also “exist in a socio-economic context that is not under such immense strain. Stress isn’t expressed in the classroom as often. There tends to be more standardised behaviour. There are less learning difficulties to manage.”

Walking with BetterPod host Laura Kelly take the 15 minute walk from one of Scotland's least privileged areas to one of the most privileged. Credit: Peter Byrne
Darren McGarvey and BetterPod host Laura Kelly take the 15 minute walk from one of Scotland’s least privileged areas to one of the most privileged. Credit: Peter Byrne

‘No one here has to interface with a poor community’

Leaving Partick behind, we’ve walked 15 minutes up the road. The world looks very different. Cherry blossom trees provide dappled shade. We’re standing outside a house that recently sold for £1.5million. The air is cleaner, the loudest noises are children’s voices from a local playground. Every building we can see is a beautiful, pristine home. No one lives above a shop.

On the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, this street is a 10. It’s not maybe a literal stone’s throw from Partick Library – you’d have to have a good arm – but in just a few minutes, on foot, we’ve gone from one of the most deprived areas in Scotland to one of the wealthiest.

Which begs the question… how on earth can the people who live here not understand their less- privileged neighbours?

“It’s quite hard to imagine how you could come to some really wacky conclusions about the true nature of social inequality and its roots in the country’s economic structure and political decisions when you live so close to it,” says McGarvey. “But actually, if you even just consider the design of this community – the roads in and out, the transport links, no one from here really has to interface with a poor community. So you can confuse how the system is configured to accommodate you, with your own hard work and your own merit.

“I’m not saying people who have an expensive house don’t work fucking hard. I know they do. But there are reasons why people who are born in this postcode’s kids will go on to some of the top jobs, why they’ll live longer, why they’ll have less police involvement, why they will never ever experience the criminal justice system unless they’re a lawyer or a barrister. And it’s not all to do with the fact that they just are better people.”

Darren McGarvey in Hyndland - one of the most privileged places in Scotland. Credit: Peter Byrne
Darren McGarvey in Hyndland – one of the most privileged places in Scotland. Credit: Peter Byrne

‘A massive mental health premium’

These surroundings – Victorian sandstone townhouses, set back from litter-free pavements in their own private gardens – have a “a massive mental health premium” says McGarvey.

“You know you’re safe,” he explains. “People who live in more deprived communities, they might not recognise it, but they live in a state of constant awareness and vigilance and anxiety. That leads to a kind of mental health debt that’s expressed later in various health problems. It affects learning, decision making. It affects even just how our bodies metabolise food.”

Just as he doesn’t think the government is acting with malice, McGarvey isn’t accusing the people who live in areas like this of hating the individuals at the other end of society. Just of not understanding. So what can someone in a £1.5m house do to decrease their social distance from someone going into that job centre down the road?

“They can make more informed choices about their media literacy, for a start,” he says. And when it comes time to vote, they might have to “hold their nose”.

“I like the way Irvine Welsh puts it,” says McGarvey: “If you’ve done well, vote with other people in mind; if you’ve not done well, vote with yourself in mind. If you live here, you’re taken care of whether you vote Labour or Tory. You might pay more tax, you might pay less, but it’s not a matter of life and death, is it?”

The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain by Darren McGarvey is out now (Ebury, £20)

Listen to BetterPod here, or wherever you normally get your podcasts. Along with Darren McGarvey, recent guests include Love Island star Brett Staniland, mental health advocate and poet Hussain Manawer, and the world’s first Future Generations Commissioner Sophie Howe.

@laurakaykelly

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