What is the story of Scotland’s biggest city and who will tell it?

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, April 14th 2012

The forthcoming local elections are reduced in most of their coverage to their impact on UK and Scottish politics.

Most attention is focused on the tragi-comedy and pantomime of Boris versus Ken, with even the plethora of local referendums on Mayors across some of England’s cities concerned with what happens to this or that Labour MP.

The only other place that gets a serious look in is the battle for Glasgow, between Labour and SNP for control of the council.

This may not have the box office appeal of Boris and Ken but it still has a lot of hooks. A city with a once dominant Labour tradition now in crisis, and a resurgent SNP hoping it can for the first time win an overall majority. However, in a week when both major parties issued their ‘Glasgow manifestos’ much of this debate can be seen as threadbare or mere positioning.

Glasgow City Council hasn’t had to look for its troubles in recent years. There was the resignation of Steven Purcell as council leader, the dark underbelly of the city and ‘men behaving badly’ it exposed, the dodgy property deals and the explosion of ALEOs (hands off agencies) and the scale of councillor remuneration.

The council, public agencies and businesses face huge challenges: a squeeze on council and public spending, massive issues of economic development, pressures in the jobs market and large parts of the city permanently excluded. The city fathers for years seem to have put their faith in an economic model which looks unsustainable, centred on consumption, culture and tourism.

Glasgow though isn’t, despite the occasional comparison, in crisis like Detroit or declined as far as Liverpool; a more apt comparison would be Boston, a similarly positioned North Atlantic cold water port.

The city still has a sense of swagger and self-promotion; it has endlessly reinvented and reimagined itself over time from ‘second city of Empire’ to ‘second city of shopping’; from the celebrated ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ to the more recent, risible ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’.

It is a place rich with stories, folklore and myth. There is the Glasgow of ‘Red Clydeside’, of unpredictable, threatening mass protest, and the more prevalent pseudo-radical version of the city, of pretensions and gesture politics which has had a longer history.

There is in parts an identifiable chip on the shoulder, of thinking the city is patronised by Edinburgh or outsiders. More damaging is the entitlement culture of city authorities. This draws on a rich tradition of Glasgow chauvinism and exceptionalism; one local business leader privately reacted to Perth recently becoming a city by seeing it as a diminution of Glasgow’s big city status.

The other powerful institutional account of the city is that of experts, specialists and technocrats who over the years have unveiled their grand designs from the Bruce Plan onwards.

One of the most influential drivers of this in the last few years has been what is called ‘the Glasgow effect’, identified and defined by Glasgow Centre for Population Health. Their research has shown that the city’s poor health is harmed by poverty, but isn’t solely about that; it is also about culture, behaviour and attitudes.

This has been genuine pathbreaking research which has compared Glasgow with Liverpool and Manchester, finding Glasgow’s public health much worse than it would be just on socio-economic grounds. These ideas have been widely popularised and discussed, including by Carol Craig in her ‘Tears that Made the Clyde’, a book which poses many relevant questions about the city, but does in its attempt to challenge the official panglossian account, paint an overwhelmingly bleak picture.

This sterling work has been motivated by trying to understand and counter the vast generational chasms of inequality which Scotland seems just a little too comfortable living with. However, what it has also done is played into a longer city tradition of administration by experts for experts; part of professional Glasgow believes it has the right to tell poor people what’s good for them.

What such a perspective has missed is that this is a deeply ingrained tradition, and one which exasperates the problems it tries to address. The world of rational experts finding the perfect answer and then implementing it shows a profound naivety and elitism in how government, policy and change work.

The wonderful satire of Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ was a reaction to this world. Each week his radio series showcased his otherworldly ‘Professor’ coming out of his ivory tower to observe the behaviours and rituals of the local folk. This was a complete send-up of the cod-sociology and voyeurism of some of these accounts at their worst. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far.

What is missing from most accounts of the city is the idea of power and in particular, voice. This latter concept draws from the work of Albert Hirschman’s influential book, ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’, where exit represents the actions of consumers wanting change and loyalty, the act of collective solidarity; voice in this account is the action of a diverse, engaged citizenry.

Many activists and campaigners have over the years hoped that when the latest controversy such as a high profile murder or sectarian incident occurs, this would lead to what they call ‘a Rosa Parks moment’. By this they meant a catalyst for a city to wake up and become galvanised that it needed to change.

This forelong hope fails to recognise the context of Rosa Parks. She was not a lone individual. She was a civil rights activist who choose to take her stand on the issue of race segregation in Montgomery, Alabama with a committed organisation behind her to support her. That is the sort of agency and resource that Glasgow citizens lack: an organisation they can call their own.

More than who wins Glasgow City Council or even whether the city should or should not have a Mayor, the city needs to address two fundamentals. First, what is Glasgow’s modern story? After industry and empire, we have tried shopping and consumption, and it hasn’t worked.

More fundamentally, whose story do we want to tell and who gets to tell it? The Glasgow elites and experts know best mindset is part of the problem, but how can Glaswegians speak and find a collective voice? And perhaps most of all, this is an issue for all Scotland, for a thriving, successful Scotland requires a thriving, dynamic Glasgow. For that to happen, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Me’ has to have a modern relevance.