The Myth of ‘Glasgow Man’
Sunday Mail, February 1st 2015
‘Glasgow man’ is expected to be a critical factor in the forthcoming general election contest in Scotland.
He, or it, is central to Jim Murphy’s attempt to save Scottish Labour and win back 200,000 Labour supporters who voted Yes in the referendum. It is also pivotal to the SNP’s attempt to breakthrough in traditional Labour seats.
Glasgow man is shorthand for a certain political demographic – the equivalent of ‘Basildon man’ who supposedly won it for Thatcher, and of ‘Mondeo man’ who contributed to Blair’s three election victories.
Glasgow man is meant to represent men in the city, and in North and South Lanarkshire, aged between 25-40 years, who voted Labour in the 2010 Westminster election and didn’t in the 2011 Scottish Parliament contest, and who voted Yes in the referendum.
Glasgow man implies a certain outlook: masculinist, certain and sure of their views, and reflecting the city, its politics and culture. Underneath there is a definite whiff of caricatures of working class men – of football, drink and tobacco, and more subtlely, of a sepia tinged radicalism and potent nostalgia.
Yet, Glasgow is only 598,830 people out of 5.3 million people – just over ten percent of the country’s population. It has seven out of 59 seats, with Labour holding every one of the city’s seats at Westminster. The city’s population decline is reflected by the fact that its current seven seats is less than half the number – fifteen – that it had in the 1950s.
In the referendum the SNP, late in the campaign, mistook the response they were getting in Glasgow as the feel of the nation – of the buzz, the crowds and reactions at doors. But Glasgow is not like the rest of Scotland. And the SNP have historically until 2011 not done well in the city – by-elections in Govan apart.
There is a deep contradiction at the heart of Glasgow man. On the one hand it poses a version of the city as centre-left, progressive and yearning for a politics which affirms this.
However, if Glasgow man is meant to be the Scottish version of Basildon or Mondeo man this is about ‘swing’ voters. These are people who can switch not just between Labour and SNP, or vote Yes in the referendum, but on other issues as well. ‘Swing’ voters by their nature never find a permanent home; they make parties and politicians work for their votes.
Scottish politics isn’t and shouldn’t be about Glasgow man. This is part of the gathering mythology of the indyref and Scottish politics after the big vote.
It follows a political and media over-fixation with Glasgow which sometimes is reduced to a few key streets and areas in the city. Even more damning, it articulates a conscious narrowing of the political vista to just about Labour vs. SNP scrapping and fighting over the same territory and agenda.
Most Scots don’t live in Glasgow. They don’t live even in greater Glasgow. And nor do they live in our four biggest cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee – which account for 1.46 million people – which is a bit more than a quarter of the nation.
So rather than talk of Glasgow man it would be good to think of the Scotland beyond the city’s boundaries and the big cities. It would be useful to develop a variety of types and personalities which represent and capture the diversity and dynamism of Scotland’s political culture, and which doesn’t try to restrict and caricature it.
Instead of Glasgow man, we could have Kilmarnock woman representing the small towns where so many in Scotland live; Kirkintilloch man to give voice to the affluent suburbs which ring all our major conurbations; Falkirk man to illustrate the struggle of Scottish Labour to adapt to the changing politics, and Inverness woman – to underline how different parts of society and the economy are compared to the Central Belt. They would reflect more than the Labour-SNP battle.
Scotland isn’t Glasgow and Glasgow isn’t Scotland. The fact that some people still think this tells us more about them. The myth of Glasgow man is one pointing to the past not the future, offering a partial version of the city, and one that any party aspiring to capture the national mood in May would do well to avoid.