By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, April 14th 2012

The forthcoming local elections are reduced in most of their coverage to their impact on UK and Scottish politics.

Most attention is focused on the tragi-comedy and pantomime of Boris versus Ken, with even the plethora of local referendums on Mayors across some of England’s cities concerned with what happens to this or that Labour MP.

The only other place that gets a serious look in is the battle for Glasgow, between Labour and SNP for control of the council.

This may not have the box office appeal of Boris and Ken but it still has a lot of hooks. A city with a once dominant Labour tradition now in crisis, and a resurgent SNP hoping it can for the first time win an overall majority. However, in a week when both major parties issued their ‘Glasgow manifestos’ much of this debate can be seen as threadbare or mere positioning.

Glasgow City Council hasn’t had to look for its troubles in recent years. There was the resignation of Steven Purcell as council leader, the dark underbelly of the city and ‘men behaving badly’ it exposed, the dodgy property deals and the explosion of ALEOs (hands off agencies) and the scale of councillor remuneration.

The council, public agencies and businesses face huge challenges: a squeeze on council and public spending, massive issues of economic development, pressures in the jobs market and large parts of the city permanently excluded. The city fathers for years seem to have put their faith in an economic model which looks unsustainable, centred on consumption, culture and tourism.

Glasgow though isn’t, despite the occasional comparison, in crisis like Detroit or declined as far as Liverpool; a more apt comparison would be Boston, a similarly positioned North Atlantic cold water port.

The city still has a sense of swagger and self-promotion; it has endlessly reinvented and reimagined itself over time from ‘second city of Empire’ to ‘second city of shopping’; from the celebrated ‘Glasgow’s Miles Better’ to the more recent, risible ‘Glasgow: Scotland with Style’.

It is a place rich with stories, folklore and myth. There is the Glasgow of ‘Red Clydeside’, of unpredictable, threatening mass protest, and the more prevalent pseudo-radical version of the city, of pretensions and gesture politics which has had a longer history.

There is in parts an identifiable chip on the shoulder, of thinking the city is patronised by Edinburgh or outsiders. More damaging is the entitlement culture of city authorities. This draws on a rich tradition of Glasgow chauvinism and exceptionalism; one local business leader privately reacted to Perth recently becoming a city by seeing it as a diminution of Glasgow’s big city status.

The other powerful institutional account of the city is that of experts, specialists and technocrats who over the years have unveiled their grand designs from the Bruce Plan onwards.

One of the most influential drivers of this in the last few years has been what is called ‘the Glasgow effect’, identified and defined by Glasgow Centre for Population Health. Their research has shown that the city’s poor health is harmed by poverty, but isn’t solely about that; it is also about culture, behaviour and attitudes.

This has been genuine pathbreaking research which has compared Glasgow with Liverpool and Manchester, finding Glasgow’s public health much worse than it would be just on socio-economic grounds. These ideas have been widely popularised and discussed, including by Carol Craig in her ‘Tears that Made the Clyde’, a book which poses many relevant questions about the city, but does in its attempt to challenge the official panglossian account, paint an overwhelmingly bleak picture.

This sterling work has been motivated by trying to understand and counter the vast generational chasms of inequality which Scotland seems just a little too comfortable living with. However, what it has also done is played into a longer city tradition of administration by experts for experts; part of professional Glasgow believes it has the right to tell poor people what’s good for them.

What such a perspective has missed is that this is a deeply ingrained tradition, and one which exasperates the problems it tries to address. The world of rational experts finding the perfect answer and then implementing it shows a profound naivety and elitism in how government, policy and change work.

The wonderful satire of Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ was a reaction to this world. Each week his radio series showcased his otherworldly ‘Professor’ coming out of his ivory tower to observe the behaviours and rituals of the local folk. This was a complete send-up of the cod-sociology and voyeurism of some of these accounts at their worst. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far.

What is missing from most accounts of the city is the idea of power and in particular, voice. This latter concept draws from the work of Albert Hirschman’s influential book, ‘Exit, Voice and Loyalty’, where exit represents the actions of consumers wanting change and loyalty, the act of collective solidarity; voice in this account is the action of a diverse, engaged citizenry.

Many activists and campaigners have over the years hoped that when the latest controversy such as a high profile murder or sectarian incident occurs, this would lead to what they call ‘a Rosa Parks moment’. By this they meant a catalyst for a city to wake up and become galvanised that it needed to change.

This forelong hope fails to recognise the context of Rosa Parks. She was not a lone individual. She was a civil rights activist who choose to take her stand on the issue of race segregation in Montgomery, Alabama with a committed organisation behind her to support her. That is the sort of agency and resource that Glasgow citizens lack: an organisation they can call their own.

More than who wins Glasgow City Council or even whether the city should or should not have a Mayor, the city needs to address two fundamentals. First, what is Glasgow’s modern story? After industry and empire, we have tried shopping and consumption, and it hasn’t worked.

More fundamentally, whose story do we want to tell and who gets to tell it? The Glasgow elites and experts know best mindset is part of the problem, but how can Glaswegians speak and find a collective voice? And perhaps most of all, this is an issue for all Scotland, for a thriving, successful Scotland requires a thriving, dynamic Glasgow. For that to happen, ‘Glasgow Belongs to Me’ has to have a modern relevance.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –


2012-04-15 14:07

England has Mayors; Scotland has Provosts.
2012-04-15 15:35

The health record of some Glaswegians is admittedly poor/deplorable, Shettleston has apparently the shortest Scottish male longevity, (a bonus for the pensions department) while Bearsden/Milngavie,is the Scottish longest. This last is what slews the figures, Glasgow has expanded beyond its boundaries since the war,and is ringed by affluent suburbs, whose inhabitants moved across that boundary and largely depend on Glasgow for a living, yet although they’re Glaswegians, are not counted as such when it comes to council tax, statistics and political input. This social engineering by £.s.d also largely explains the Labour hegemony and jougery pokery in the city for the past thirty years.
2012-04-15 17:59

What matters more to any city is the all smothering all prevading oppression of the one party machine. For Glasgow, that was a Labour administration decade after decade. Almost without surprise, in grew a deep hegemony, cronyism, nepotism. graft corruption and much greed. The party machine’s fail the city just as the partry machine has failed Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
Individuals eleveted way beyond their capabilities insulated by the all greasy party machine.
Cities run by power groupings holding everything tight to their chests, keeping the general public in ignorance whilst they operate borderline criminal.
Glasgow has its ghouls in the cupboard, Edinburgh has also. Glasgow doesn’t have a mad train set like Edinburgh but it does have its ALEO’s.
Is this what we deserve in the 21st century ?. Local government designed for the 19th century with layer upon layer of management. Time for a clean sweep away with all that is rotten. Why do we need Councils then Chief Executives. One or the other but not both.
All the parties Gerry have been fairly awful. Labour just took awfulness to a significantly higher order, that’s all !.
2012-04-15 23:04

Given the number of times we have had local government re-organisation I dont think the 19th century can take the blame for this mess.

Every time local government is re-organised the salaries of the paid officials increases. Now we even pay the councillors most of whom if you described them as mediocfre you would be overstating their abilities – grossly overstating. The result is that just a few wield the power in each council.

Oh and you forgot the ever growing scandal of Edinburgh’s repair scam. Not pretty.
2012-04-15 23:42

Quoting UpSpake:

Why do we need Councils then Chief Executives. One or the other but not both.

Democratically elected councils to decide policy and be accountable. Chief Executives to provide the leadership and management competence to implement policies. If it was possible to elect councillors who could actually run councils on a day-to-day basis, we could do it without professional managers. It isn’t and so we can’t.


2012-04-15 18:01

The wonderful satire of Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ was a reaction to this world. Each week his radio series showcased his otherworldly ‘Professor’ coming out of his ivory tower to observe the behaviours and rituals of the local folk. This was a complete send-up of the cod-sociology and voyeurism of some of these accounts at their worst. Sadly we haven’t moved on that far.

Ironically, Gerry, we haven’t.

Then again, I visited Glasgow last week and was impressed by what I saw and had a great day out.

Different folks…
2012-04-15 21:35

I was born and raised in Glasgow. When I worked in insurance we used a term called ‘Proximate Cause’. Basically it meant that you had to find the real reason for something happening before you could apportion blame.
The Labour Party aren’t entirely to blame for the mess that is Glasgow. Scottish Labour Party politicians are basically just a bunch of plonkers who gathered enough street wise savy together over the years to put the political system to their own nefarious advantage. The only people to truly blame for Glasgow and its terrible problems are the people of Glasgow themselves. To deny this would be to abrogate personal responsibility for all actions concerning Glaswegians.
Nobody made the people of Glasgow walk like zombies into the polling booths to vote Labour. They’ve had decades of opportunity to vote for something better but they cocked it up all by themselves by following their own small minded urban culture. When I saw what was happening I left that City when I was 21. That was 46 years ago and I’ve never looked back. I only hope that they have come to their senses at long last.
2012-04-16 00:47

Quoting Talorcan:

The only people to truly blame for Glasgow and its terrible problems are the people of Glasgow themselves.

That would be an ultimate cause, not a proximate cause. The proximate cause is the actions of Glasgow Labour councillors. The people of Glasgow did not make their councillors act in the way they did, nor does being voted in by unthinking people remove responsibility from those councillors.


2012-04-16 00:15

We should make the Provands Lordship in the High Street the official residence of the Lord Provost.Then maybe they would renovate all properties?I love Glasgow well I was born in Glasgow.I want my city to lead Scotland to independence,oh I know we were slow to pick up on it,but when we start we just keep on going.
2012-04-16 15:16

When Talorcan left Glasgow it was run by the Tories and an absolute shower they proved to be, hence their present scarcity. What is described as “their own small minded culture” was the atempt by many decent men & women to address the problems of industrial decline and overcrowding. No comparable city in Britain had Glasgow’s population density or a slum housing stock of such proportions. The old Labour Party addressed the aspirations of the people and also espoused the cause of home rule. The shame is that a class of unprincipled party placemen have now used this power for personal advancement.
2012-04-16 19:24

Yet in all the years that the labour party had in charge, what did they do?
2012-04-17 11:06

We all have baths now Alisdair and even inside lavvies. The city buildings are no longer black and the hills are visible all year round, not just at the “Fair”.
Conditions in Glasgow for working folk have improved immeasurably, and for this, the old Labour Party are due some credit.

2012-04-16 15:37

More fundamentally, whose story do we want to tell and who gets to tell it?

Most likely candidate for this job is the media Gerry, the BBC and the newspapers. For a man with a wide sense of inclusiveness and listening to many voices, it consistently amazes me at Hassan’s refusal to even consider the role of himself and others who make up the media elite.
Dundonian West
2012-04-16 16:00

Glasgow.Stumbled across this site,and found a couple of newsnetscotland pieces in it.Glasgow in left column.
Lots more,and in depth,of Scotland’s political development over the ages.
2012-04-16 16:14

I get the feeling that with this article Gerry is touting for another option beyond political parties. Maybe I have misunderstood but I feel that the idea of some sort of Glasgow citizens action group would not be viable. Any new grouping would eventually become political in nature and since we have the Labour, the Glasgow Labour, the SNP, the Libdems, the Tories and an assortment of independent candidates there doesn’t seem to be much room left for anybody else.

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