Where is the vision for Scotland’s First City: Glasgow?

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, July 11th 2019

Glasgow is Scotland’s first city in size and importance. There are of course several different Glasgows – from the official council area of 621,020 inhabitants to the metropolitan region of between 1.2 million to 1.7 million people, depending on the definition.

Glasgow matters. It’s success, wellbeing, vibrancy, the happiness of its people, sustainability, and state of its public realm all matter not just to the city, but to all of Scotland.

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that to many Glaswegians. The past weekend saw GMB Scotland trade union boss Gary Smith talk of the city in fairly black and white terms. Smith called the city ‘filthy’ and ‘unkempt’, suffering from an ‘epidemic’ of rats, and claimed that it had lost its way and was in economic and political decline.

Smith’s apocalyptic language unexpectedly brought forth much heat and some light. Some took exception to his stark language, while others took aim at his Labour Party credentials, and many saw the whole episode through either pro- or anti-SNP eyes. Some agreed with him passionately. One person said on Facebook: ‘It is filthy. There is noticeably more litter in the streets, with many bins spilling over unemptied.’ An East End resident took the opposite view stating: ‘I live beside one of the poorest areas in Glasgow. Personally [I] don’t see the litter or the rats or anyone talking in those terms.’ A more nuanced voice asked “filthy compared to what?’, while a trade union activist pointed out that ‘Cuts, pure and simple. Doesn’t matter who makes the cuts, they are cuts.’

All of this begs a number of questions including what Glasgow are we talking about, what city are we directly experiencing and what city are we choosing not to see, and how can we have a debate which gets past party divisions and official accounts? Critically related to this is how and where we can have political conversations about power, leadership and the future which don’t just descend down the Alice in Wonderland hole of pretending everything is either good or bad in SNP Scotland. This approach ultimately will do little to serve the citizens of Glasgow – or of the nation.

Smith said that Glasgow is in economic and political decline. The first assertion is emphatically untrue on any measurement. Glasgow has experienced over a decade of economic growth, has employment at record levels, and has succeeded over that period in attracting significant numbers of jobs and investment. This does not mean that everything in the city is alright, or to buy into the conventional economic model of Scottish Enterprise and other public bodies. Many of the jobs that have been created are part-time and pay wages that prevent many Glaswegians from being able to manage without the additional support of benefits or other assistance. But we cannot talk about declinism as if it is the only show in town when it just is not the case.

Second, the charge of political decline is a more difficult one to assess. This seems on the surface to be hankering after the golden age of Labour one-party rule that only ended at City Council level in 2017. But there is also a wider dimension of Glasgow’s place and position in a devolved Scotland. Power has become increasingly centralised in the Scottish Government – a process begun 20 years ago by Labour and the Lib Dems in the then Executive, and continued and accelerated by the SNP over the last decade.

One problem in this is agreeing what counts as success. This is a city that Stuart Patrick, CEO of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce believes has much to be proud of – ‘Glasgow has been benefitting from a rebirth of the inner city; employment has been growing well, the business base is expanding and the city’s economic base has been diversifying. Population is growing too.’

But it is also a city where, as Peter Kelly, head of the Poverty Alliance, observes ‘one-third of Glasgow’s children [are] growing up in poverty’s grip … Glasgow is a city that believes in justice, compassion and solidarity, yet too often these beliefs don’t translate into action.’ These two cities often sit side by side, oblivious to each other’s existence – the reality of cities the world over – but in Glasgow it feels acute, such is the scale of wealth and poverty.

The city does face political challenges. The SNP ended Labour’s fifty-year dominance of Glasgow in May 2017, becoming a minority council under the leadership of Susan Aitken. It has not been a smooth ride over the past two years with the council having to face the problem of the long running equal pay claim by thousands of council workers, which they settled. If that were not enough the SNP have had to attempt to administer a council where numerous council officials had grown comfortable and identified with Labour over its long reign.

This is compounded by issues of governance, the balance between the city and city region, financial pressures, and ten years of cuts and constraints on local government – which Gary Smith accurately described in the following terms: ‘after a decade of cuts, we’re saying the city just cannot take anymore.’

The Missing Glasgows: Strategies everywhere but little vision

There is a huge issue that informs all of this – the absence of an agreed vision of the city that Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Government sign up to and champion. It is a paradox that the SNP decided decades ago to capture Glasgow City Council, and when it did it has struggled to find and set a strategic direction and purpose.

Over a decade ago the SNP formally agreed as part of an Electoral and Systems Review to adopt a ‘Glasgow Strategy’. This noted that the party did not historically have such a strategy and that its absence had cost it dear. The SNP had a Glasgow problem it argued in that, bar the odd parliamentary by-election, the Nationalists had a poor electoral track record in the city (and indeed in the wider West of Scotland). The paper recommended taking specific steps to address this, building a local and ward based strategy based on gaining clusters of wards to be able to challenge Labour at parliamentary level.

What is illuminating from 2019 is that while the SNP’s Glasgow strategy has paid ample electoral dividends – with the party dominant at council, Scottish Parliament and Westminster levels – the party has spent much less time thinking about what it would do for the city once it achieved electoral success.

One dimension of the city missing from conventional politics is about the quality of relationships, individual lives and shared spaces – and how we support and nurture them. Numerous spaces, buildings and infrastructures do feel uncared for, unloved and even neglected – from the number of potholes, to the scale of litter and rubbish, and legacy of numerous crumbling Victorian buildings – and this matters to how people feel about and see the city.

Anne Mullin, a Govan GP thinks that ‘Glasgow has the feel of East/West Berlin in places – definite geographic lines of ugly buildings (remnants of poor planning decisions and cheap architectural makeovers) and others places more blurred, mixed in with beautiful but dilapidated buildings that should be maintained and celebrated.’ This is a widespread problem about Scottish and British cities, but Glasgow does seem to have major challenges, reinforced by its council size excluding the suburbs and long term questions of financial viability.

Even more central is the issue of relationships people who live in the city have. Historically, Glasgow has witnessed too many violent, abusive and dysfunctional relationships, often underpinned by, and causing, excessive drinking and self-destructive behaviour. The case for the lasting damage this has done to people is made in Carol Craig’s ‘The Tears That Made the Clyde’; she thinks the first step in changing the city is coming to terms with the fact that ‘we are lacking honesty about the depth of the city’s problems with drink and drugs and the damage this does to lives and families’. The facilitator Verene Nicolas settled in Drumoyne on the Southside of Glasgow from France and thinks that there are deep disconnections in the city that ‘could be due to a collective trauma and state of woundedness suffered by the city and other parts of the West of Scotland.’

This is an illusive terrain for government and public services to address, but some pioneering bodies have ventured on to it such as the Violence Reduction Unit. They have worked extensively to challenge the behaviour of self-destructive individuals, predominantly men, who embody and exhibit a toxic masculinity which harms themselves, other men, women and children. All of this is far removed from traditional politics and necessitates a different kind of city.

A missing element in advancing popular change in the city is an kind of organisation or agency which citizens have created themselves, own and feel can give them a say over the direction and future of the city. This absence reinforces the wide democratic deficit which exists within Glasgow – which regularly has the lowest electoral turnouts in Scotland and often at UK elections. The council are organising a Citizens’ Assembly in the totemic People’s Palace about its future, but participative processes need to be expanded beyond the management of cuts.

Last year when the Glasgow School of Art Mackintosh Building burnt down for the second time in four years a public debate about the city broke into the open. It touched on concerns which had been festering for years about the direction of the city, dominant official versions of the council and other public bodies, and how numerous communities had not felt listened to or respected for years.

This could have been the beginning of an important debate which galvinised change and was a cathartic, watershed moment after decades of Labour rule. Instead, the moment was lost as the debate was closed down and people went back into their bunkers. Some of this was understandable. The new council leadership were faced with a host of unexpected problems to manage: the closing of parts of Sauchiehall Street, a host of businesses and households decanted, and a Glasgow School of Art which seemed at times unco-operative. These sentiments showed that significant parts of the city are yearning for an open, honest and constructive discussion about the state of Glasgow and its future.

Glasgow needs a 21st century vision: one which isn’t the creation of the council or institutional opinion. This would ideally have new governance linking up the core city and suburbs, a new financial settlement which reflects this, and a new partnership between citizens, council and the Scottish Government.

Integral to this is listening and engaging with people in more than periodic elections and ending the corrosive advance of centralisation which has defined devolution. A people’s story of Glasgow would more than likely be one which was more human and humane than the present official story. It would be about how the people of the city looked after and out for one another, it would put the relationships and way we care for each other and challenge unacceptable behaviour at its centre, and it would be one which recognised how we too often let down those who most need support. And it would build on the best which already exists in the city: the work of the VRU, the Poverty and Truth Commission, and numerous community-led projects such as Galgael, Govanhill Baths and Glasgow Women’s Library amongst many others which make a real difference.

The current Glasgow is a reflection of the limits of conventional politics and economics – whether Labour or SNP. A people’s Glasgow would have at its centre a version of the economy, society and the public realm which would represent a very different Glasgow and a very different politics to the present. ‘People Make Glasgow’ says the branding message. Wouldn’t it be great if we could adopt that as our clarion call and vision for a 21st century Glasgow?