Does Glasgow have a chip on the shoulder?
Scottish Review, June 1st 2016
Glasgow is not Scotland. For most of its history it has seen itself as bigger than the nation that hosts it – looking out to Transatlantic trade and commerce routes, and linked to the world through shipbuilding and human connections.
Since the early 19th century Glasgow has seen itself as a ‘Big City’ – even though it is now half the size it was at its peak, in the mid-1950s. This bigness is about swagger, attitude (both good and bad), and having a sense of importance. It isn’t an accident that outside of London the most written about and talked about UK city is Glasgow – a veritable ‘Glasgow industry’.
‘No other city in Britain carries the same resonances, the same baggage of expectations and preconceptions’, wrote travel writer Charles Jennings about Glasgow. That has a good side in the attachment and pride people feel for the place, but also a darker one where there is a constant feeling of being slighted, of not having your due place acknowledged, or being at the end of middle class conspiracies from high heid yins in Edinburgh or perfidious Albion.
Glaswegian certainty about the city’s place in the scheme of things: the biggest city and centre of trade in Scotland, ‘second city of Empire’, and now a tourist and shopping mecca, can become an arrogance, at worst, even, chauvinism, and a city imperialism. And that over-statement has a relationship with doubt and anxiety, and what can sometimes be interpreted as a ‘chip on the shoulder’ mentality.
Glasgow and the wider West of Scotland has a distinct set of cultures – individual, collective and institutional – moulded by the huge changes the city and region went through, much over a very short period of time. In the early 1800s, there was a rapid, brutal period of industrialisation, which made the city one of the most wealthy places on the earth for a very few capitalists, and at the other end of the spectrum, in the 1980s, a speeded-up deindustrialisation, as many of the traditional industries finally keeled over and died.
It is defined by decades of immigration, and in particular that of Irish Catholics in the late 19th and early 20th century. It has been the recipient of most Pakistani and Roma immigration in Scotland. Then there is the epic account of the rise and fall of Labour Glasgow. Glasgow made Labour and Labour made Glasgow you could say, but now all that is gone: no longer ‘Red Clydeside’ but ‘Yes City’ (although Labour still run the council they are widely expected to lose control of it next year to the Nationalists).
All of this rich history, for good and bad, is held in the city’s collective stories and memories. It does not matter about small things like accuracy or detail: there is a tangible feeling in the air that this is a special place and momentous things have happened here. Some of it is impossible to ignore: the existence of the Clyde flowing through the centre, the overgrown, derelict docks, the Finnieston Crane: all symbols of an imperious, important past.
The Glasgow ‘chip on the shoulder’ comes from all this and more. It relates to the bitter experience most Glaswegians had when the city was ‘the second city of Empire’: one for most of terribly blighted, damaged lives, with unimaginable housing conditions, illnesses and diseases, and truncated lifespans. It is about class, and the collectivist ethos of much of the city, which saw solidarity and working class self-organisation as the way to redress such wrongs. It is a savage indictment of Glasgow’s unequal share of its spoils that the health of most of the population improved during World War Two; over the years from just before the war to just after, infant mortality in the city fell from 105 per 1,000 live births to 77 in 1947, falling again to 36 per 1,000 in 1955.
There is the strange relationship with Edinburgh, one of mutual antagonism and frustrations. There has historically, at the top echelons of what was the Scottish Office, been such a bias – identified by many observers. Post-devolution, one senior civil servant said to me, ‘What are we going to do with Glasgow? We have chucked all that public money at it over the years, to no avail.’ There speaks the authentic voice of Edinburgh establishment Scotland which has seen Glasgow in many respects as a problem, a threat and filled with the great unwashed who it doesn’t understand and wishes would just go away.
This came home when a recent Glasgow Centre for Population Health report on ‘the Glasgow effect’ (itself a lucrative Glasgow industry for some) identified that there had been in the immediate decades after the Second World War an anti-Glasgow ethos in government. This was hardly news to anyone who was acquainted with Scottish Office reports, but a new report had been issued. What was revealing was that the ‘Sunday Herald’ made it into an item reporting: ‘Revealed: Glasgow effect ‘mortality rate’ blamed on Westminster social engineering’. This supposed ‘othering’ of those out to do the city down was actually about Scottish Office politicians and civil servants, not the distant hand of Westminster (and in more than half the time 1945-79 Scotland got Labour Governments it voted for, and even once Tories it had voted for).
Some of this percolates into wider attitudes. When I first went to work in Edinburgh over twenty years ago, the polite middle class, middle-aged women I worked with continually referred to ‘Weegies’. Despite living in Glasgow at the time, as a Dundonian I had never come across the term. They didn’t like ‘Weegies’. It was shorthand for all they weren’t: common, uncouth, uncivilised, aggressive, with attitude. Without even thinking about it, I adopted the term in a reverse pride way, and set about to reclaim it from such narrowmindness.
Maybe then there is a rationale in the Glasgow ‘chip on the shoulder’? If that is so, there is also a huge negativity and amount of baggage that comes with it. Glasgow is still a bleak place for too many of its citizens. Life can still be horrendously short and limited in option for large parts of the city.
This is the backdrop to a kind of working class fatalism, even defeatism – found in some men. I was shocked when I first encountered it. Healthy men saying without any qualms, ‘If I reach 65 I will be lucky.’ This is close to victimology – the embracing and acceptance of your oppression, and perhaps then making negative choices about how you live your life. It has a sense of being done in by life, and the powers that be ganging up on you.
This can boil over into something as unattractive: an entitlement culture about who is permitted to speak and talk about the city. A few years ago former academic Sean Damer reviewed a book on Glasgow – not only did he not like it, he had nothing but scorn, calling it ‘mince, pernicious mince’ (not just ordinary mince then!). Relevant here is that Damer had previously written two books on Glasgow working class culture and seemed to feel that his authority and territory was being encroached upon.
In a city with such a storied past, it isn’t surprising that there is a sense of being defined by what went before, the power of nostalgia, and even, of wanting to revisit the past. This chimes with a Scottish propensity to rewrite hurtful elements of the past (from Culloden to Argentina and the indyref). But there is a sepia-tinged yearning for the supposed simplicities of the past: as in ‘wasn’t it all great when we were ten in a bed up a grim close?’ which I suppose is a Glasgow take on the Monty Python ‘Four Yorkshiremen’ skit.
If there is an edge to some utterances, there is also play, mischievousness and humour. The writer and inspiration, Alastair McIntosh, moved to Drumoyne, near Govan, about a decade ago. He says he was met in local hostelries by the retort ‘Well, who the fuck are you then?’ to which he quickly learnt the proper response was, ‘Who the fuck are you?’, leading to ‘What will you have to drink?’ This was his acceptance into local life – not a place for ‘shrinking violets’, but allowing for some ‘connecting … in a very deep level’ beyond ‘superficial small talk’.
The recent stramash about ‘the Glasgow effect’ the artistic project by Ellie Harrison (which I wrote about for ‘Scottish Review’) brought forth a whole set of observations. Katie Gallogly-Swan asked, in reference to changes in cultural voices and representations in recent decades, ‘When did being working class become the primary form of authentic, Scottish voicing? Was it when Thatcher crystallised the differences between the ‘Us’ of Scotland and ‘Them’ of rUk as a class war? Or when our media became saturated with Glaswegian caricatures and comedians that communicated a monolithic Scottish culture – no Doric, no Gaidhlig, no Highland or Lowland Scots, Glaswegian or nothing?’
Glasgow is a dynamic city, but its people are not in control of their own collective destinies. This isn’t just about the inequities of capitalism, but how the city is seen and portrayed, and how this impacts on real lives. Relevant in this is the media output of the BBC and STV, the former of which was recently exposed by comedy writer and producer Colin Edwards.
Edwards wrote of his experience of the typically second rate, embarrassing tosh served up as comedy on TV in Scotland, and being told by the BBC Comedy Unit that his proposed sit-com was ‘too intellectual for TV’ here, but that it would be fine pitched across the UK network. ‘English people’ he was told were more ‘comfortable’ with ‘cerebral comedy’ than Scots. Edwards went on that he was told by BBC bigwigs:
If I was going to pitch a script to BBC Scotland then I would have to make sure it was Glasgow, preferably male, centric and with no references to anything that could be construed as ‘intellectual’ or cultured otherwise it would get immediately discarded.
Thus summarised are the attitudes of some of the cultural gatekeepers of this country – assuming that people are stupid, will put up with second rate fodder, and that they can get away with this on the public purse.
It is perhaps understandable that there should be a ubiquitous chip on the shoulder – festering, resenting and plotting revenge. Trouble is it doesn’t get us very far, and only allows for those who run things to patronise and marginalise such views. The Glasgow chip is in many respects, an understandable response to years of being slighted, not just by posh Edinburgh, or Tory and Labour Westminster, but by middle class Glaswegians in our own midst, and the power of class and cultural condescension generally.
Edwards had a six point manifesto for change, one of which was, along with the abolition of the misnamed BBC Comedy Unit: the need to ‘realise that there is more to Scotland and Scottish culture than the city of Glasgow’ and that ‘constantly playing to that Glasgow gallery (and sometimes in a socially sneering way) purely for viewing figures just doesn’t make sense …’
Glasgow’s chip is used by elements of the professional classes and those with status and influence to sell back to the city and country a dodgy, inferior version of ourselves. This in turn reinforces said feelings of inferiority, anger and doubt, many people have, which can then spill over into numerous negative manifestations.
This is a vicious cycle of despair and powerlessness. Somehow we have to break out of this, and one contribution would be to start changing the way Glasgow is portrayed and represented, allowing for a wider range of voices and experiences than the current plastic proletarian ‘we cum fae Govan’ approach which rules supreme. How about allowing the many Glasgows that are out there: infinite, magical, surreal, perplexing, constantly changing and challenging, even the Glasgows of luvvieland, affluence and power, to find their public space? Rather than rerunning a continual set of tropes of Rab C. Nesbitt and Taggart, and the deceit of grim, cheap hopelessness. In a small way, that would feel like a sort of freedom and liberation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?