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Darren McGarvey: The chickens are coming home to roost
We continue our new interview series looking at the future of Scottish politics
This week, we continue our new interview series taking place throughout the SNP leadership election in which we reflect on the Sturgeon era and the future of Scottish politics. The feature started last week, with Roza Salih. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect my own.
In this edition, we speak to Darren McGarvey. Darren is the author of two widely acclaimed books. His first book, Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain's Underclass made a huge impact on Scottish public life. It won the prestigious Orwell Book Prize in 2018. His latest text is The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain. As well as writing, Darren’s Addictions programme won best Factual Series at the BAFTA Awards Scotland ceremony on the 20th of November 2022. Darren is a regular public speaker, and you can find out where his events are, and follow him, here.
Jonathon Shafi (JS): Darren, thank you for speaking to Independence Captured. I’m looking forward to hearing your perspectives on the shifting terrain in Scottish politics. Let’s begin with some broad outlines. How do you feel about the last period, almost a decade, between now and the 2014 referendum? Can you chart your experience since then and where you think things stand today?
Darren McGarvey (DM): On a personal level, Nicola Sturgeon, at least in terms of how she comes across, was definitely someone that I liked. In terms of demeanour, and coming from a working-class background which I thought was always obvious, I was on board with her as a figure. At the same time, I started to develop a bit of scepticism about the independence campaign, particularly the Arts side of it. Even pre-referendum, there were tensions and issues there. But I was still of the “wheesht for indy” sort of mindset. I’ll outline what I think afterwards when independence is won, I thought.
But obviously what then transpired with the SNP absorbing the political capital that was generated by the mass movement for independence, was something I was really worried about from the outset. Because what I saw was the formalisation of that movement and a kind of homogenisation of the entire discourse around independence. I just felt that when it became an issue dictated by the top of a political party, this regimented the idea in a way that was not sustainable. It creates a culture where dissent and criticism are viewed as harmful to the cause.
Both of us have had criticisms of the SNP and aspects of the Yes movement which go way back. I think some of these have been validated by recent events. Because now what you see with the SNP is this inability to deal with conflict. When it does start to break out everybody's asking, well what happens now? Because of the cult of personality around Sturgeon, and her very presidential style of governance, a lid has been kept on what’s actually there. And this includes a lot more diversity of thought and real divergence than it first appears. The minute that you remove that lid it all starts to spill out.
As far as independence goes, I have to be really honest, though I'm often frightened to be honest about it because I know the sort of criticism I leave myself open to. But I am so uninspired right now by the thought of it. For the first time ever, I feel like if this is what’s on offer - that status quo style approach where we are still pegged to Sterling and the Bank of England - then I can take it or leave it. People go on about having sovereignty. But that only matters if you’ve got the agency to exercise that sovereignty. So I can tell my son that he's got sovereignty and then give him a choice between cleaning the toilet with a toothbrush, or going to bed early without a tablet. I fear that is the sort of independence that was increasingly on offer under Sturgeon.
JS: You and I were involved in the referendum in different ways. But I certainly felt when speaking to people, organising public meetings, canvassing and so on, that the issues that we were discussing were far broader than the constitution and about the kind of Scotland we wanted to build. In 2014, class issues were central to the national conversation. Where do you think the discussion around these big issues - poverty, class and democracy - stand in the public debate in 2023?
DM: I mean, it’s not there at all. If anything, you're having to depend on the unionists and the mainstream media who are criticising the SNP to continuously bring up these other issues that we should have been focussing on the whole time. And obviously that all gets labelled as being simply “SNP bad” propaganda. But when we're looking at the health care system, and we're looking at educational attainment, housing, crime and all of the peripheral stuff around inequality there are obviously serious issues.
The Yes movement that I remember, and that I felt part of, was constantly focused on big economic issues. The emphasis was put on the negative social, cultural and political outputs of an unbalanced economy. We all had different ideas about how radical things could be. But the central thing was this: there was a space to imagine another Scotland. Now, if you look at the SNP leadership contest, it feels like there are no economic issues being debated.
Whoever comes to lead the SNP, there's going to need to be a moment where they decide that either they going to try and mobilise more working-class people by making some kind of offer that's going to incentivise them and get involved, or they are going to go for a middle-of-the-road neoliberal agenda that simply means that are unwilling to confront difficult questions.
Are they going to talk about the Ponzi scheme that is the housing market? About the ethical nightmare of the private education system, and how it guarantees that a very slender minority of the population is going to be overrepresented in all of the most influential jobs? The reason the SNP, or any other government for that matter, feels they cannot pose these kinds of questions is that years and years of entrenched privilege and advantage have framed the discussion of these matters as being an attack on those people's aspirations, leading to political retribution. And that's partly an environment that politicians, including I'm sad to say, Nicola Sturgeon, have helped to create by refusing to be honest about the conflicts of interest and the perverse political incentives that exist. For instance, on one hand, there is talk about reducing educational attainment gaps, while at the same time the preservation of an economic structure which produces them in the first place.
I think a lot of chickens are coming home to roost with a lot of the delusions that have been ongoing in public and political discourse for years. A lot of them are converging now into this absurd mess we are in, and that's what happens when politics is rooted in fantasy.
JS: One of the things that really shone through in 2014 was that people felt they had some political agency. We know the level of alienation from Westminster. But how do you assess the relationship between Scottish institutions, Scottish political parties, the Scottish Parliament, and citizens today?
DM: I think it splits into different categories, depending on your orientation on the constitutional question and your level of emotional investment in the SNP and the Scottish government. I think a lot of people who are emotionally invested in the SNP, can comfortably turn a blind eye and loads of things. In some cases, they don't even turn a blind eye as they don’t detect issues at all. It's not even a conscious thing. They've got this idea of the Westminster-Holyrood dichotomy, this good guy-bad guy relationship. And they don't realise that the SNP play politics with all of these issues in just the same way as the Tories do in London - and that this is the kind of political dynamic the SNP is really benefited from.
They’ve been in that almost unique position in politics in the western world in terms of having a level of political success by being able to be something of a two-headed monster. So down in Westminster, they play the role of the intrepid radical speaking truth to power and then up here it’s managerial centrism, and they just drive you absolutely insane.
So you've got that group of people who are very invested in Scottish institutions. They will be the ones that will be saying, “I know you've just been waiting two days to get an emergency surgery, but did you know Scotland still has the best healthcare system in the UK?” Then there are people who are politically engaged, but just don't have that same passion for independence anymore and have begun to see through the SNP over the years. They keep hearing about people in the community dying from issues related to drugs or the host of problems at every level of government. I think they are waiting for somebody to come in and reinvigorate them. But increasingly, I think you're going to see people being drawn back to Labour because I think for a lot of people deep down, that's their original orientation politically, and to be drawn towards the SNP was actually a divergence from what they really are.
It's a real challenge for whoever comes up next, particularly if the same status-quo style of government persists. I know Humza is an effective politician, in terms of the skill set required for a politician these days, in terms of appearing competent on camera, communicating effectively and so on. There's obviously going to be a racial dimension as well because we know there are a lot of knuckleheads out there, so I sympathise with the challenges that he faces every single day.
But I don't see how he's got any room to diverge in a meaningful enough way that's going to bring people back in who are sceptical of the current framework because he is Sturgeon’s preferred successor. And so for me, it's almost unthinkable to say this, but I think the SNP need to suffer some kind of defeat. They need to suffer some kind of blow, something that's going to humble them and something that's going to wake them up. They need to rediscover an oppositional posture politically. I know that extends the period in which independence might become possible. But anybody who ever thought independence was just around the corner was living in a fantasy in the first place.
JS: You talked about the lack of economic discussion. That is particularly jarring, given the cost of living crisis, the strikes and so on. How do you account for this glaring discrepancy?
DM: When people ascend to power, certain forces get around and start to influence how they think, and the SNP is no different. So what once would have seemed like something that they wouldn't have been prepared to do incrementally becomes something that starts to seem sensible. And that's what happens when elite interests and spin doctors and so on are surrounding you all the time. That’s how an establishment is maintained institutionally. Really what's happened is the SNP has been completely captured. It’s been completely captured by that kind of Charlotte Street Partners mindset. These organisations have got every right to be there doing what they're doing and working on behalf of lobbyists. It’s a legitimate occupation in a democracy. But it’s the politician’s job to make sure that that doesn't become the only hymnsheet out there.
Unfortunately, it means that discussion of any kind of alternative way of looking at it, not even necessarily a socialist way of looking at it, as we would understand the term socialism, is vastly curtailed. I know that everybody has the right to take their first political steps whenever it happens. And we can be gatekeepers. But what I can’t stand, and what I don’t tolerate, is people that have been grown in a test tube in 2015 running around trying to tell the rest of us exactly what the script is, when they've only ever known SNP dominance.
They only understand the contrast between the SNP and the Tories. And when you really get into the quantum mechanics of the economic ideology, there’s not much difference between the two of them in terms of what that overall path is going to produce in your society. Every now and then we get a bit too big for our boots, and I do more than anyone. And every now and then life will humble me, even if I have to take a sore one. That’s what needs to happen to the SNP. Then maybe they will come back to some of us who were warning them about these issues years ago.
JS: I think providing analysis is vital, and try to produce that here at Independence Captured. It is often more depressing than inspiring! But I do think providing positive ideas for the way forward is important too. Where do you find hope for the future?
DM: My own experience tells me that even within my lifetime, there have been periods where things seemed pretty grim. And then they turned the corner in a way that was unexpected. Or things got so bad that I suddenly became prepared to take action that would have been unthinkable to me before. And that's part of the adversity cycle. You go into a period of adversity you become consumed by it, you're confused by it and then it gets so sore, you get so sick and tired of being sick and tired that you're like, right, it's time to do something. That on an individual level just seems to happen over and over again in different ways. And you integrate what you learned in the previous cycle into how you address the new one.
I grew up on a housing scheme that was so visibly, and spiritually, derelict and violent, and hopeless, and people were so apathetic. I was moved in moonlight flitting from one part of Pollok to another because drug dealers were trying to kill us. This is the environment that I grew up in, and I wasn't even the worst off. And then people in the community started getting fed up, they started getting organised. They started occupying community centres, they started resisting sheriff's officers, they started getting more and more confident in their judgement of what the situation was and what they had to do, rather than waiting on the pronouncements of politicians to tell them.
This is what other people called militancy. But what was actually happening was a lot of real social bonding, connection and real meaningful community development. And so I always look to that experience for hope and optimism. Not this sort of hope that is fluffy and kind of self-helpy. But one that is absolutely practical. In order to move forward, you have to retain in your mind a powerful example and a light to follow when all around is thick with fog. Without that, you can’t actually move in any direction, whether that’s at an individual level or as a political movement.
I think there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. When you see this resurgence of trade union politics, trade union strategy and trade union thinking there is also a rise in understanding in relation to the basic principles of collective bargaining the language of industrial action, and the way in which it can be a mechanism for social change. Even these words re-entering our lexicon, and being grappled with by friends, family, and by workplaces and the wider community, is an advance.
The cost of living crisis has become so all-encompassing that the social classes who thought they were out of the quicksand are finding out it is a house of cards. The illusion of prosperity based on cheap credit, securing a mortgage through money from their granny’s death and so on is being exposed. What happens once those more electorally lucrative demographics start getting hit by worsening living standards, is that discussion about systemic issues becomes legitimised in a way that doesn't happen when it's poor people struggling. Because they can always be dismissed as making “bad choices,” having “poor character,” or being guilty of “moral failings.”
And so that's the only silver lining of this period. I do think that there is much more space for talking about the real dysfunction at the heart of the political and economic system. A system that requires inequality to authenticate itself. It is the fact that inequality exists that proves to those who own the economy that it is functioning as it should. It’s very ironic I think that there are a lot of discussions about Kate Forbes and her mad beliefs and her evangelical Presbyterianism. I don't really see any difference between the metaphysical beliefs bound up with religion and some of these cult-like economic beliefs that the people around her have got who claim to be rational, fair-minded atheists.
The truth is these fantasies are crashing against the rocky shore of reality. I think that is long overdue.
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