ONE of the features of modern society in the UK is the belief that that there are deserving and undeserving poor. In fact, it’s not just a feature of the modern world – it has been a common refrain for centuries as ruling cliques attempt to justify their position by claiming what they believe to be the moral high ground. It has often been the case that the Establishment has deliberately made life difficult for the least well off while insisting that it beneficial for them to dig themselves out of the problems created by their supposed superiors.
For Darren McGarvey in The Social Distance Between Us, the core problem is class – a much derided concept in recent decades with some prominent figures claiming that it no longer exists. But McGarvey – a writer with a working-class Glaswegian background – brings class back to front and centre. He writes: “Britain’s central problem is class and the distance it drives between those who have done well under the current economic settlement and those who are suffering because of it.” And a perfect storm was created by the marginalization of trade unions that contributed to the creation of the precariat along with a ‘depressing resignation, acceptance even, among vast swathes of a young twenty first century workforce that insecure work and poverty wages are normal’.
On the other side of the social divide, he writes, in a thinly veiled reference to Boris Johnson, that an ‘academically unremarkable boy may rise to the very apex of British society, despite being of very low character or ability, as a result of the resilient social connections, a sense of entitlement and relative protection from serious accountability that a fee-paying education can provide’.
Our ruling cliques do everything in their considerable power to discourage us from becoming critically engaged citizens – indeed, it could be argued that representative government is expressly designed to do that, as the fathers of the American constitution, people like James Madison and John Adams, knew only too well. And, writes McGarvey, it is in this smokescreen of ignorance that ‘politicians are given a free pass as poverty is broken down into bitesize sub-genres, each with its own poverty industry growing up around it, while the real story of its systemic nature is rarely told’.
For McGarvey it all comes back to class conflict, although the system always allows enough people to advance their aspirations to blunt the desire for radical change. But class ‘remains the primary dividing line in society’. McGarvey says this was demonstrated during the pandemic when ‘half the country went on to Zoom, while the other half delivered their alcohol, sex toys and bread-makers’.
A truly transformative society, he argues, begins with education, pointing out that the ‘various education systems across the home nations are broadly segregated according to social class and where pathways to further and higher education, as well as the labour market, are set’. What is needed is an education based on the ‘principle that every child has a right to the same quality of education, irrespective of the class position of their parents.’ To this end ‘all fee-paying in education must be abolished and replaced by a fully comprehensive system defined by equal access, where school allocation is lottery-based’. And if this is too strong then, at the very least as a first step we should start by ‘revoking the charitable status enjoyed by independent schools and pegging the funding of the state sector to at least 80 per cent of what private schools generate per head’.
McGarvey also urges ‘rebalancing industrial relations by strengthening worker representation’. He adds: “Why are citizens acting in a free market as consumers deemed to be behaving rationally but when they organize as workers for better pay, eyebrows are raised?” He argues for a Universal Basic Service, paid for by a new wealth tax, to improve and provide better public transport, childcare and free further and higher education for all.
His final recommendation relates to strengthening our representative form of government with greater accountability for the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Voting, he argues, should be made compulsory to increase participation – and some form of PR should be introduced.
The problem here is that McGarvey falls into the trap of assuming that what we have is actually democracy in its entirety rather than what should more properly called representative government. Anyone who has read previous blogs here will know that up until the end of the 18th century democracy as practiced in ancient Athens (the exclusion of slaves and women notwithstanding) was incompatible with representative government as practiced by the American republic. So, reforming representative government by making voting compulsory and introducing PR is a bit like moving the deckchairs around on the Titanic. What is needed is the introduction of deliberative democracy and Citizens’ Assemblies from the parish through district, county, regional and national governance, including a Peoples’ Assembly to replace the House of Lords based on the random selection of citizens, but stratified to ensure demographic balance.
Darren McGarvey will be delivering the Reith lecture on Freedom from Want on Radio 4 on Wednesday 14 December at 9am.