Glasgow is not Scotland so let’s stop pretending it is
Scottish Review, February 10th 2015
Someone observing Scotland from afar could easily fall under the apprehension that all there is to the nation is Glasgow.
A Martian, or alien from another world, who had the misfortune to only follow and comprehend our country through the transmissions of BBC Reporting Scotland or STV News at Six would think that we were a strange land. They would imagine that all there was to this country was a few streets, only inhabited by men, where football and crime were the only topics of conversation and that all of this was located in Glasgow.
Glasgow is a great city. It thinks of itself, whatever its population decline, as a big city, and as a place of attitude, imagination and swagger. And one which like all big cities sees itself as bigger than it actually is, and bigger than the nation it sits in. This is explicable, for it is the attitude of Big Cities the world over, from New York to Berlin to Moscow: we even could call it the Manhattan Syndrome.
Glasgow has history, stories, folklore and mystique; it has heroes and villains; it has triumphs and glorious moments and it has tragedies and even open wounds which it sometimes wallows in too much. Much of this is palpable – you can feel Glasgow’s sense of itself when walking about. You can almost touch it, and hear it in the noise and buzz of the city – whether it is anticipation, energy or edginess -which hangs over so many public places.
Some of this was caught by the writer Charles Jenning who came to the city and swooned to its rhythm and sheer majesty. He then went out for an evening of comedy at the Pavilion and experienced a sudden bolt that took him back through the ages, as Glasgow comedy (fifteen years ago) invoked every prejudice and the audience around him lapped it up:
What a fool I was to think that Glasgow was above history, that anyone could go there and enjoy it simply as a big, interesting, handsome, internationally minded city. Suddenly, it looked provincial. Suddenly, all the IRA and UVF and Rangers and Celtic sectarian graffiti seemed much more prominent on the street walls. Suddenly, it seemed small-time and every bit as wedged in the broom-cupboard of history as Not Another Very Special Hogmanay.
Maybe some will think Jennings went over the top. But the interesting point is that Glasgow is both Big and Small, international and bold and brave, and parochial, a prisoner of its own past and cowardly. While so much is said and written about Glasgow so much isn’t said. There may not be any officially prescribed no go areas, but there are a whole range of subjects deemed sensitive or just a bit too risky to mention.
They define a large part of the city. So for example, the recent Celtic v. Rangers game, the first in nearly three years, saw the return to a predictable panoply of offensive songs from both sets of fans. Watching it on the BBC it was audible to hear the words of ‘The Billy Boys’ in their full, repugnant hatred and venom from Rangers fans. This passed without any observation from the BBC commentators.
As serious, have a host of Glasgow based institutions ever explained and offered a public apology for years of systematic discrimination? To take one case, ‘The Herald’ newspaper until the early 1970s was perceived to be an employer which discriminated against Catholics getting a job, and which was part of a Protestant unionist establishment. Have ‘The Herald’ ever offered an explanation, apology and conversation about how they changed from these bad old days? Instead a wall of silence and evasion surrounds the issue like many more in the city.
Glasgow has also been written about and studied conspicuously over the years. There is in effect a Glasgow industry of books –second in the UK only to London – and which no other comparably sized city comes near to, not even Liverpool or Manchester, or even the now much larger Birmingham.
This industry has given us a steady stream of history books, coffee table books showing the city’s panoramic views and Victorian architecture, and a range of academic studies. There are football guides which concentrate on the Old Firm of Celtic and Rangers, and ignore or marginalise the magnificent men of Queen’s Park who invented the modern game in the late 19th century and taught the world. And finally and unfortunately, there is the genre of crime, violence and gore about the city, from savage serial killers to gangland thuggery.
Glasgow is of course a political place. It has witnessed many momentous political moments from Chartist and Suffragette marches, to ‘Red Clydeside’, the rise of the Independent Labour Party, and more recently, Upper Clyde Shipbuilders and the anti-poll tax struggle. Yet, the romanticism and yearning which is inherent in so much of glamourising a radical past disguises that much of what has passed for Glasgow politics has been the exact opposite: a procession of unimaginative, managerial Labour councillors and the practice of Town Hall steady-as-she goes competence at best.
History still defines politics today. The rise of Labour; the sense of the city as a Labour heartland; the importance of it as a swing battleground in last year’s referendum. Its role in the demise of the Tories as a serious electoral force; with the Tories winning seven of the city’s fifteen Westminster seats in 1955, whereas now their city-wide support in actual numbers is a mere 4% of their 1950s vote.
It has played its role in the SNP’s story. The two Govan by-election victories of Margo and Jim; the 2011 breakthrough; and subsequent failure at the 2012 local elections. It is seen as crucial to Labour and SNP fortunes in the forthcoming UK general election. There has even been the supposed sighting of a new phenomenon – ‘Glasgow Man’ – who represents the Yes Labour voters who need to be won back over by Jim Murphy.
There is an element of Glasgow self-importance in this. Is a city with a mere seven Westminster seats really the weathervane in Scotland in May’s vote? And isn’t even the notion of ‘Glasgow Man’ not just a bit tired and predictable, filled with the air of condescension and caricature? Glasgow is after all only 598, 830 people in a nation of 5.3 million people. And hasn’t Glasgow heard a little too much from some of its men over the years?
Several years ago I set up an ambitious project called ‘Glasgow 2020’ which attempted to recognise and recreate popular stories of the city and its future directly through the voices and imaginations of the people. It attracted great goodwill, and achieved reach and engagement with thousands of people contributing ideas, stories and hopes.
One of its aims was to bring together, connect and acknowledge the different stories: the complexities, contradictions and different voices. Yet, one of Glasgow’s most powerful conceits was and still is the power of monoculture and believing in different single stories of the city. These are both popular: that Glasgow is a city of wealth and ambition, or a place of hardship of poverty, or institutional, the Mecca of shopping and tourism, or even political, with the current version of the city as central to the Labour vs. SNP contest.
Scotland has to be seen and understood as more than Glasgow. Yet at some time Glasgow has also to be portrayed and articulate itself as being about more than one vision, story or tradition. It has to see itself as about more than politics, culture and football, the glossy Scottish Enterprise brochures, the shaming record of poor health, or scandalous traditions of violence.
Instead, it has to recognise that there are many Glasgows and all of them affect and impact on the lives of the citizens of this great city. A Glasgow which reflected the multiple, diverse, contradictory nature of itself, which brought its hidden stories and pasts out into the open, and which had the wisdom to know the limits of both the ‘official Glasgow’ story, and romantic reveling of its underbelly, would be a fascinating and very different place, and all the better for it.
A Glasgow which saw itself as one place amongst many in Scotland, and which stood up to and attempted to slay its own demons and evasions. Now wouldn’t that be a place worthy of calling itself a Big City?