Glasgow’s Success is Key to Scotland’s Success
Sunday Mail, May 29th 2016
Glasgow is Scotland’s biggest city. It may only contain 606,340 people in its council boundaries, but the Greater Glasgow conurbation is double that – at 1.2 million.
Glasgow is one of the drivers of the Scottish economy and society: a place of great wealth, enterprise, jobs and culture. But it is also characterised by staggering degrees and levels of poverty, inequality and disadvantage. This isn’t anything remotely new and has been the case since the city experienced rapid industrialisation from the early 1800s, but it limits the city and the potential of its inhabitants.
Take the debate on public health – centred around what has become known as ‘the Glasgow effect’. This shows that, allowing for poverty and material circumstances, the city’s health record is much worse than elsewhere in Scotland – and to comparable cities like Liverpool and Manchester.
Recent research identifies that government and public bodies – from the Scottish Office to the council – pursued a policy after the Second World War that was not just to shift some of the city’s population to new towns but encouraged those with higher skills and motivation to leave, and those with less opportunities to stay.
A wider danger in this, and other research in the area, has been its contribution to pathologising, and sometimes almost victimising the people of the city. ‘The Glasgow effect’ has come to mean something intangible, almost if not in the air, then the culture, which is all-powerful, and cannot be resisted.
This has become one of the most common ways of describing Glasgow amongst public sector professionals, and it has unfortunate echoes with Stanley Baxter’s ‘Parliamo Glasgow’ in which the great comedian played a patronising sociologist observing the local inhabitants, their manners and wildlife.
Frequently, left out of discussions are the nature of the Glasgow economy, civic life and absence of a thriving local democracy. To what extent is there really a Glasgow economy, rather than just an economy – part of which is in Glasgow? There are few indigenous large sized private firms in Glasgow or across Scotland – unlike say 100 years ago. This has consequences for big decisions about jobs, growth and investment – when they are taken not in the city or Scotland, but London, or Berlin, or Shanghai.
Through all the growth in the service sector, from the mid-1980s on, a whole swathe of the city has been left behind – excluded from the numerous economic booms, and getting further and further removed from a labour market constantly evolving. There have been many pioneering local employment and welfare approaches such as the WISE Group, but Glasgow, like the rest of Scotland, has been hamstrung by first, New Labour’s welfare policies, then IDS’s punitive regime of sanctions and stigmatisation.
Core to this is who speaks for and champions Glasgow. This cannot just be left to national government. The council matters, but its powers are weak, finances limited after nine years of council tax freeze, and its mandate thin, considering local government turnout. When Gordon Matheson, the then leader of the council, was returned in 2012, the turnout in his ward was the lowest in the city at 23%.
Scotland hasn’t had a debate about greater decentralism and democracy – preferring post-devolution to put further powers and trust in the hands of the Scottish Parliament – which has in turn accumulated more influence and say across a range of public bodies, local government included.
We need to think about how far this centralisation can go when Scotland has a mere 32 local authorities – which at 165,000 people per area on average, are among the biggest in all Europe: too big to be really local and democratic, too constrained by the centre to do anything but deliver central policy.
A ‘one size fits best’ approach to public services and local democracy doesn’t work. Instead, we can experiment, innovate and allow diverse practices to see what succeeds. For example, why not start thinking of elected Mayors for cities and councils, and beginning, by allowing places like Glasgow, if there was public support, to pilot such ideas to see how well they work?
Labour in its devolution heyday running Scotland was scared to experiment and be bold, and refused to adopt such ideas. But why should the SNP be so wary? Glasgow needs public leaders who people can choose and identify with, hold to account, and who can stand up for the city, here and internationally.
Scotland cannot be successful without a thriving, prosperous Glasgow, and that requires local champions – with status, reputation and power.