Glasgow: A Tale of Two Cities
The Scotsman, January 15th 2010
Glasgow has for long been a city of paradoxes – a place of pride alongside one of disconnection, a culture of supposed radicalism and at the same time conservatism, and of disputation and rebellion alongside acquiescence to authority.
One prominent UK politician who has first hand experience of this is Vincent Cable, who stood for Labour in Glasgow Hillhead at the 1970 election and was a city councillor from 1971-74 in what turned out to be the last days of the Corporation.
Cable’s recent memoir, ‘Free Radical’ contains amongst other reflections, his thoughts on his time in Glasgow. The challenges to the council and city at the time were both multiple and complex, and yet strangely familiar.
The council was committed to comprehensive slum clearance and the building of tower blocks and huge peripheral schemes. The main controversy at the time in the council, according to Cable, was ‘how to speed up’ slum clearance.
The first appearance of problems in tower blocks was initially dismissed by councillors and officials as the product of ‘choosy’ and ‘difficult’ people who lacked ‘gratitude’ towards the council. A slow backlash began to challenge this state of affairs and view the refurbishment of old tenements as the best way forward.
New motorways were being built around the city and were seen like tower blocks as ‘emblems of a modernised, dynamic city’. The slow awakening of an amenity and local environment movement was just beginning to challenge this.
At the same time poverty and social deprivation was still seen in Cable’s words in ‘rather simple and mechanistic terms’ as about ‘basically, poor housing’. The continuation of deprivation in the new housing schemes caused these assumptions to be slowly questioned.
Labour council politics were characterised according to Cable by ‘a strong whiff of Tammany Hall’ shaped by ‘abuses of patronage’. The main divisions in the City Chambers were less ideological and more about background, the trade unionist councillors from the shipyards and engineering, versus the middle class professionals of teachers, lecturers and lawyers, the latter including Vincent Cable.
In the early 1970s the council still had ‘unfettered control’ over revenue and domestic rates, was able to appoint individual teachers and allocate tenancies from a stock of 150,000 and rising council houses.
Reflecting back on his time as a Glasgow councillor, Cable commented, ‘Three decades on, the problems remain depressingly similar’. On a recent visit to Maryhill he observed ‘how little had changed for the better’ and ‘the still jarring contrast between the low living standards and low expectations’ of the disadvantaged in comparison to the more affluent and middle class.
Cable in the 1970s got to know a young student radical in Edinburgh, Gordon Brown, and contributed to his ‘Red Paper on Scotland’ book on the subject of Glasgow. His essay addresses what he today views as ‘the extraordinarily entrenched multi-dimensional poverty’ of the city.
Even then, Cable could perceive some broad trends which would influence Glasgow and the country in the future. Scotland was shifting away from the West towards the East, aided by changes in industry and the discovery of oil. The left had no real positive agenda and instead could be seen as ‘defensive’.
This opened up all sorts of possibilities. Looking forward to the 1980s, Cable conceded that, ‘Scotland could, in all probability, expect to be more prosperous as an independent country’.
For all the research and books on Glasgow such as the excellent, in-depth work of Glasgow Centre for Population Health, the detailed mapping of inequality by Phil Hanlon, and the forthcoming book by Carol Craig, some of the answers to the biggest challenges the city faced can be found in its own past.
The age of the Corporation saw it see itself as the all-encompassing authority of an ‘Empire City’, one that was patrician, patriarchal and it believed benign and wise. Yet within this there was a recognition of the potent and populist sense of belonging and citizenship which linked together everyone who lived within the city.
Between the 1920s and 1974 the Corporation made 80 films across a range of subjects, public health, transport, housing and education, which reflected and gave voice to the city, its hopes, dreams and future. These films, alongside books, materials and educational resources, were used in schools and adult citizenship lessons.
What is striking about them, for their obvious limitations, is that these resources were an authentic view of the city. They were not an advertising, marketing or place making exercise. These were tales of the city which came from within the city, made for and by local people, whereas today’s films are all about being promotional tools and created for external positioning and consumption.
Cable’s account tells us the prevalence of many of the same problems through the ages. This can be seen as ‘the two Glasgows’: of a city of great wealth, status and culture sitting alongside one of poverty, dislocation and grimness.
Yet, in the most disadvantaged parts of the city, a host of activities, campaigns and initiatives are given form and support by predominantly, female activists. With the retreat of political parties, trade unions and churches, they support a self-organising, self-sustaining mosaic of groups which keep places going and offer a sense of hope and purpose.
This reflects the burgeoning gender divide in the city, which has always been present, but has grown dramatically in recent decades. In many of these areas where women have navigated and negotiated in difficult circumstances one of the questions people ask is ‘where are the men?
Many of the men, not all, have become resigned to being part of the ‘walking wounded’ who have given up on the prospect of full-time work, and have in many cases fallen into the worlds of crime or drugs or just general despondency.
This points to the two very different traditions which have always been within the Glasgow tradition. One was institutional and about macro-change and always looking for ‘big bang’ solutions to problems whether it was slum clearance or the current Housing Stock Transfer.
The other has been more organic, local and about micro-change, found voice in the ILP in the 1920s and 1930s, and can be found in its modern version, amongst the community activist, predominately female led view of the city.
It would seem that we have tried the ‘big bang’ masculinised, modernist vision of the city until it has exhausted itself. Perhaps some of the answers were there all along in the alternative vision.