People Make Glasgow: Let’s live up to that phrase after the GSA fire

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, June 27th 2018

Glasgow is a proud and vibrant city. William McIlvanney, who must count as the sage of this city, beautifully described it when he wrote:

Glasgow is a great city. Glasgow is in trouble. Glasgow is handsome. Glasgow is ugly. Glasgow is kind. Glasgow is cruel. Some people in Glasgow live full and enlightened lives. Some people in Glasgow live lives bleaker than anyone should live – and die deaths bleaker than anyone should die.

These words were written in 1987, but are equally true today. Glasgow has many sides and stories. It is a city of contradictions and paradoxes. All that pride and belonging – and yet, sitting alongside it, dislocation, apathy, mediocrity and in places, hurt and pain.

Glasgow School of Art’s second fire seems a tipping point for the city. One of its main arteries, Sauchiehall Street, is blocked off at two ends. Two fires have affected the street in a couple of months. Victoria’s nightclub burned down in mysterious circumstances with that landmark of city music hall and revelries The Pavilion still out of operation. Now follow the GSA Mackintosh building, an international cultural beacon, along with the ABC music venue. If that were not bad enough, a host of traders and businesses along Sauchiehall Street have been temporarily shut, including the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), while others still open have seen their trade affected by the street’s closure. This is becoming a crisis for the city centre; and for Glasgow as a cultural centre and tourist destination.

Glasgow has been telling itself comforting stories that everything is alright for too long. This official narrative goes like this. Old Glasgow: dark, dirty, nasty, thick air; lots of awful housing, bad work and difficult lives for too many people. New Glasgow: tenements spruced up, air cleaned, better jobs, culture, shopping, tourism, shiny modern buildings and the squinty bridge. The old is stereotyped to over-emphasise the innovation and change in the new; it is textbook marketing and a trick used over and over again, for example, by the likes of New Labour when it was new.

The hinge of this story is 1990 and European City of Culture, with the backdrop of the Garden Festival in 1988: both of which gave the city renewed spirit and purpose – along with the ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ campaign, seen along with ‘I Love New York’ from the 1970s as one of the most successful city rebranding exercises and reinventions ever known.

A reality check is that these events took place up to thirty years ago. This is Glasgow near-history not contemporaneous. Just because we live in an age of continual nostalgia everywhere doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on it. 1988 is a long time ago: a different age. Margaret Thatcher was still Prime Minister. We were over a decade away from the Scottish Parliament. There was still the Soviet Union and apartheid in South Africa. Graeme Souness was only into his second year as Rangers manager and to make things seem even more historical the Scottish national football team regularly qualified for the World Cup.

There are many positives about Glasgow. This is a great city in the here and now. It has so many wonderful things going for it: history, struggles, buildings, cultures, ideas, innovation and imagination, and most of all the character of the people.

Then there are the negatives. There is the brutal, grinding poverty and despair in places and worse, the acceptance of miserable, blighted lives in too many parts of the city. The roots of challenging this are difficult and long term and certainly beyond the city council and even the Scottish Government.

Too many parts of the city are decaying all around us – something which was widely said in private by many people pre-GSA fire, and which has now burst out into the open in the aftermath of the disaster.

Look at the city centre. The pavements. The mess of our roads. The litter. The gap sites. The neglected and decaying buildings. Some are bang in the heart of the city centre including iconic sites such as the legendary Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson Egyptian Halls on Union Street.

It is more than that. The city has some of the most polluted streets in the country. It has one of the famous rivers in the world, the Clyde, which now sits as an irrelevance and even obstacle to city development, with little waterfront social life since the highs of 1990. There is geographic disconnection across the city, planning blight and brownfield sites the solutions to which aren’t obvious, and truncated council boundaries which put pressure on the tax base.

There are many areas where change is happening for the better. There are the cycle lanes and rising cycle usage. There is a recognition that the city’s car obsessions have reached their limits. There has been the pioneering work of the Violence Reduction Unit and their success in contributing to the reducing of the city’s murder rate by 58% and fall in knife crime. The Poverty Truth Commission of the churches has done impressive work in the city, while the council established Connectivity Commission at least starts from an understanding of past transport mistakes. Areas like Finnieston and Strathbungo now win all sorts of plaudits (Scottish and UK) but a city cannot be remade on gastropubs and hipster beards alone.

Beyond this there are big challenges and a long backstory of why the city is where it is. Two decades of Tory cuts in the 1980s and 1990s. Tory austerity since 2010. The abolition of Strathclyde Regional Council. The Scottish Office bias in funding and priorities against Glasgow which existed pre-devolution. And of course Labour mean-minded municipalism which still remains in the deepest recesses of the City Chambers. Add to that constraints on local government under the SNP national government, and you have a potent set of limitations or the city.

These are all structural and have financial consequences, but there is something more at work – about the psychological dimension of the city, and the spirit, attitudes and zeitgeist which embodies Glasgow.

Why is this city with passion, pride, lyricism and undoubted joys, also a city of such disconnection, dislocation and acceptance? The common answer of many on the left has been, and still is, to put the blame on poverty and inequality, which diminish and hurt so many people, but this isn’t the whole picture.

For example, we know that the much cited and often misunderstood ‘Glasgow effect’ created by the researchers at the Glasgow Centre for Population Health (GCPH) isn’t just about poverty. Instead, it is about the fact that living in Glasgow, rich or poor, means you die younger than if you didn’t live in the city. Being Glaswegian kills. And being Glaswegian and male can kill you even more. Pure and simple. It is as basic and unpalatable a fact as that.

Glasgow’s political participation rates at elections – once a long time ago at the Scottish and UK national averages in the 1950s – collapsed in the 1980s and have never fully recovered. Local government turnout in some wards in 2012 was in the 20%s – and at an astounding low level of 23.6% in Anderson and City which meant it was a bit of a lottery about who got their vote out most effectively and was elected. In 2017 turnout across the city rose, as across Scotland, with the lowest turnout in the North East ward with 29.3%.

Somehow we have to recognise that the old/new stories are threadbare and exhausted. We cannot as a city continue to live in the warm glow of 1990 and the myth that the bright, shiny new Glasgow vanquished the old and gave us the future that some official agencies present to us. The journey from ‘second city of Empire’ to ‘second city of shopping’ being one of those but with the latter strapline now under threat from the internet’s war on the high street.

This mindset seems the barest minimum and hardly adequate to the tasks ahead for this city and its citizens. We need some kind of change that is way beyond writing one article. We need a call to arms about this city, its prospects, challenges, and how we create a future where we do the small things, like repair pavements and cycle lanes, and address the big things such as how the many communities that make up Glasgow have a future which includes all its citizens?

We need, and by ‘we’ I mean everyone who lives, works and loves this city, a vehicle for citizens in this city to call their own. A body or bodies which can work with and on occasion challenge the institutions of this city and country. Glasgow cannot change and succeed by the actions of the city council on its own, or by diktat from Scottish government.

There is a phrase, admittedly an official one which says: ‘People Make Glasgow’. Why don’t we the citizens of that city live by that phrase and make it a reality, before it is too late?