Sunday National, 14th February 2021.
“All my life, people have been insisting that social class is no longer relevant” Darren McGarvey says in the opening of Class Wars, a new documentary series whose first episode aired on BBC Scotland this week. Darren’s mission? To “prove to you just how entrenched social class is in Scotland.” The hook for episode one is a personal sense of crisis. With the success of his book Poverty Safari, he now finds he has “been afforded the very lifestyle I spent much of my life slagging off.” So what now?
I was once one of those people who would have strongly resisted this kind of class analysis. Until Iwas in my mid-20s, I saw it as an inherently reactionary way of looking at the world. Just as there could be no intellectually respectable version of racism, I once believed that obsessing over class simply got in the way of treating other people as individuals, entrenching divisions and encouraging people to focus on their differences and alienations from one another, rather than the common ground of our common humanity. It seemed to me egalitarianism demanded that ideas of class should simply be discarded.
I retrospect, I realise this feeling came from a place of privilege – the other end of the telescope from the one Loki is looking down. I was arguing with other middle class people that they should be less preoccupied by the markers and exclusions of class – not experiencing those exclusions. I hope I’ve kept hold of my egalitarian sensibility as I’ve grown older, but on the need to admit and understand the power of class in modern Scotland? Life’s taught me a thing or two. I’m no longer so naïve.
Much of the first episode of Class Wars focuses on the power of accent and language immediately to locate us on the social pecking order. I imagine we’ve all shared this experience. When I was studying in the south of England, one of the most familiar questions I’d be asked is “are you from Edinburgh?” This question wasn’t motivated by a keen ear for the intonations and emphases of accents east and west of the Falkirk line. When I confirmed I was not, this usually led to a conversation about a prior encounter with an indecipherable Glaswegian. Edinburgh symbolised the safe and comprehensible Scot, Glasgow was shorthand for a menacing word salad. Not being from Glasgow was the socially correct answer. The programme is at its most convincing when it reflects on these exclusions, and perhaps at its least in how it depicts middle class Scots today.
There are three more episodes to go. No doubt the show’s argument will be develop. This isn’t so much a critical review, as a reaction from someone seeing things from the other side of the tracks. And what interests me about the framing of this first episode is that, if anything, helps insulate Scotland’s middle classes from really thinking about their objective social position. By presenting an essentially aristocratic picture of who middle Scots are, I wonder if Darren isn’t letting us off the hook.
The modern documentary maker has no option but to submit to playing dress-up, and McGarvey submits with good humour. “The innocent abroad” is a well-trodden cliché of the genre, taking your host out of their comfort zones, pulling them into uncomfortable costumes, play acting. This goes with the territory. But when its demands are applied to class – we find Darren thrown into a range of situations which – at least to this middle class Scot – felt caricatured and strangely disconnected from the kinds of middle class lifestyle which presumably prompted Darren’s reflection on his identity.
McGarvey orchestrates the first episode from Lauriston Castle in Edinburgh. This handsome 16th century tower house is identified as a “living time capsule” expressing the “upstairs-downstairs world” of social class. From the outset, this analysis locks us into a curiously polarised – and even old-fashioned – series of class touchstones. When was the last time the average middle class Scot played croquet or horse polo? When was the last time most middle class professionals were fitted up for full tweeds and plus fours? How many of Scots earning in – say – the top 20% of the population have ever contemplated attending elocution lessons, dispatching their luckless sons and daughters to have their epiglottises trimmed?
A man who trains butlers for a living isn’t a “conduit between social classes” – or at least, not the kind of conduit which leads most Scots into the conflicted sense of class identity which McGarvey’s growing prosperity has cause him to reflect on here. How many bourgeois households in Scotland live in gloomy granite piles, have guillotined stags in the stairwell and keep a clutch of shotguns locked away in the loft, surrounded by Georgian portraiture and heavy damask curtains? If we’re talking about the middle classes, why is all the iconography so aristocratic, so haute bourgeois, so Edinburgh, so basically different to the lifestyles most middle class Scots actually live? Middle Scotland today looks like Two Doors Down, not Monarch of the Glen, but the first episode gave you little sense of that.
Darren suggests at one point that “middle class people mimic upper class people.” While that’s certainly a historical dynamic, is it really convincing to suggest aristos “set the agenda” today? In UK political terms, looking at the House of Commons and the Cabinet you can certainly make the argument. But in most of modern Scotland?
For a programme which is focused on middle class privileges rather than the marginal and esoteric lives of the tiny percentage of upper class Scots – the show found it curiously difficult to get a handle on its subject. And that’s interesting. I don’t think this difficulty in pinning down what we mean by middle class values is Darren’s fault. Some of the cartoonish dimensions are attributable are the demands of the medium. Aristocratic falderals make for playful set-pieces in an otherwise serious-minded documentary. They’re instantly recognisable iconography of class distinctions.
But I think the difficulty we experience in imagining and talking about Scotland’s middle classes goes deeper than this. The academic Christopher Whyte has described this as a kind of “textual invisibility” which Scotland’s middle classes have engineered for themselves – producing and consuming fiction, drama and even documentaries in which they are not realistically represented. Their preference is for invisibility. In the documentary, Hugo Rifkind describes it as the “silences” of professional Scotland.
For Whyte, this is connected to “the widespread perception of the Scottish middle classes as ‘denationalised’, as less Scottish in terms of speech and social practice than the lower classes.” He argues Scotland’s middle classes have tended to write themselves out of the story, devolving “the task of embodying and transmitting Scottishness to the unemployed, the socially underprivileged.” As Cairns Craig observed back in the 1990s, “the death throes of industrial West-Central Scotland, have become the touchstone of authenticity for our culture.”
An even sneakier trick is played at the other end of the social stack. Class-consciousness in Scotland is invisibly outsourced to the English, a ragtag band of aristos, and people who send their kids to Edinburgh’s private schools. The rest of the country basks in its ordinariness, unreflectively, unincriminated.
In the documentary, Loki situates himself firmly as an outsider figure, branded on the tongue, not treated seriously because of how he talks, even the way he stands, culturally coded in a pejorative way. That’s a critical part of the story and an important one to tell. But it struck me that this outsider picture misses something important and about McGarvey’s trajectory as a Scottish public figure. On one reading, McGarvey’s success can be seen as an unlikely journey, but in Scottish cultural terms, is it so at-odds with the prevailing things which are valued and foregrounded Scottish culture?
It is difficult not to be struck by how well he fits into the cultural dynamics identified by Craig and Whyte, at once subject to preconceptions and bigotry based on how he talks and stands and dresses, and simultaneously fetishized for the same. This perverse combination must be disorientating – but it arguably fits into a much bigger, more enduring picture of the cultural strategies of Scotland’s still invisible middle classes which Class Wars doesn’t challenge.