No capital. No cool
Carol Craig stands out in contemporary Scotland. She has analysed Scotland’s crisis of confidence and roundly condemned the various theories which attribute personal or social deficits to a lack of self-esteem. She is sceptical about the marketing of Glasgow as the post-industrial ‘Capital of Cool’. Harry Reid, at the Edinburgh launch of her most recent work, ‘The Tears that made the Clyde’ (Argyll Publishing, £8.99) noted that the launch in our capital city was of a book celebrating our greatest city. Is it a celebration?
Carol Craig analyses health and economic statistics. Average male life expectancy in Glasgow is eight years less than in neighbouring East Dunbartonshire and there is a 15-year gap between the poorest and the most affluent Glasgow districts. Life expectancy in Glasgow’s more affluent areas has increased by about four years over the last 20 years: in the poorer districts it has fallen by one year. Glaswegian males are, on average, affected by long-term illness seven years earlier than in Scotland as a whole. One fifth of Glasgow’s working age population is on invalidity benefit, the highest level in any UK city. Thirty-six percent of Glasgow children live in households where no-one is employed.
Glasgow is poor. Poverty explains many of the health statistics but even compared to similar cities elsewhere, including in Eastern Europe, Glasgow’s social problems are acute. Craig poses three key reasons for the statistics. Firstly, she suggests that greater levels of inequality predispose the poor to even more serious outcomes than those in the same absolute but lesser relative poverty levels. Secondly, certain behaviours, such as levels of violence or alcohol usage, may predispose a population to even poorer health. Thirdly, a very rapid and acute de-industrialisation process can impact seriously on health.
Mid 18th-century Glasgow was an idyllic place. By the 1850s it was the most rapidly industrialised city in Britain with the most foetid of housing conditions. That rapid change both enriched a tiny but ostentatious bourgeoisie and impoverished, financially and spiritually, the hordes sucked in from Ireland and across rural Scotland. It created an unusual anomaly, a highly-skilled but poorly-paid labour force, almost exclusively male, concentrated in the heavy trades, especially the building of ships and locomotives, and one liable to suffer from every downturn of the international trade on which it rested. Glasgow’s housing, following the Scottish tradition, was tenemental; it was also jerry-built, based on small flats and shared facilities, densely developed to take advantage of every square yard of space, and expensive to rent.
Despite these circumstances, the 19th-century’s robustly Presbyterian upper and middle classes developed a clear sense of the poor as ‘undeserving’ and as architects of their own poverty. Both the landlord-tenant and the employer-employee relations in the city were uniquely brutal and authoritarian.
There was also however a pecking order within the ranks of the poor: trades such as boilermakers saw themselves as superior to other trades, all tradesmen saw themselves superior to labourers and all male workers saw themselves as superior to the few women workers. (Based partly on this analysis of structural division and disunity, Craig deftly challenges the myths of Red Clydeside. What she omits, which would back her argument further, is that the great trade union battles during world war one were against ‘dilution’ of labour, that is allowing women and other unskilled workers to take over the jobs of skilled male workers.)
The pecking order was also apparent among working-class women. There it was based more on such notions of respectability as domestic cleanliness, dress and family relationships. Add sectarianism and even an element of anti-semitism and Craig suggests that we have a culture where the instinct was not to challenge authority and wealth but to assert minimal power by denigrating those one layer lower in the hierarchy. ‘Every tinker needs his dug.’
Alcohol adds to the malaise. Even in the 19th-century Glasgow was a city of countless public houses and gross over-indulgence. The pain of the rapid social dislocation was made almost bearable by a culture based on drinking spirits and, for men, on the pub as the centre of social life. It was a potent means of escape but it also added to the poverty. Wages were often paid in bars. Women and children waited outside them on pay-day to catch their men before the family’s security for the week was squandered. The concept, it seems common in many parts of Scotland, of the man handing the unopened pay-packet to the wife and having a proportion returned to himself, was not the norm in Glasgow.
In part from the male-dominated trade culture, in part from that primacy of the pub, there springs another aspect of Glasgow’s culture, macho violence, in the street and in the home, meted out with equal disdain to strangers or family. Male violence against women remains a too common norm with police reports suggesting it rises by some 88% on the nights following an afternoon’s Old Firm match. The violence however, like the alcohol, has a coping aspect. For young men whose own culture denies them the solidarity of warm family relationships and who are often on the lowest rungs of the employment-status ladder (or not on it all), the gang offers relationships, loyalties and solidarity. The price is violence against gangs from another territory and a passing sense of power in a world over which otherwise power is seldom exercised.
Paternal drinking and violence combined to make family life a tenuously secure base for many of Glasgow’s poorest children. Little sense of competence, autonomy or relatedness grew in such circumstances. Yet the one area in which traditionally competence was exercised in Glasgow, in the work context where skilled workers could see the awesome magnificence of their mechanical creations, liners, battleships and powerful locomotives, and know that they had created these, is the very aspect of the city which has been most comprehensively destroyed by recent deindustrialisation.
Craig examines politics and admires the idealism of Maxton and many of the ILP, their attempt to see the struggle against poverty as being more than an economic battle. She is scathing of the machine politics of the city’s long-controlling Labour Party, more interested in its own re-election and therefore content to maintain a dependency culture among the poor on whose votes it relies. She noted the irony of launching her book at the time that Glasgow’s municipal leadership was imploding from the Purcell events. It was noteworthy that the Edinburgh launch of her book was attended by a few independent-minded politicians from both the SNP and the Labour Party, perhaps indicative of the possibility of new thinking from at least a few in Scotland’s two best-supported parties.
Contemporary Glasgow is the product of its past. Its culture has been shaped by the deadening experiences of so many of its citizens over the last two centuries but the last three decades have plunged these into a frightening nadir. De-industrialisation has destroyed the skills on which the city was built. The new economy, based on consumption, cannot use those dislocated from the old. The demolition of slum housing saw the creation of new institutional horrors, noted by Eastern European visitors as bleak and barren even by their standards. Massive peripheral estates, as jerry-built as the slums of the 1840s, without amenities and far from the roots and relations of their new tenants, only added to the dislocation, the alienation and the poor health of Glasgow’s citizens.
Yet Craig remains optimistic and has a long list of possible strategies. Firstly, she insists politicians must cease constantly genuflecting to economic growth as the sole source of change. A prioritisation of child health and welfare would be a far sounder investment for our future. An education system more committed to building relationships and less to meeting targets would help as would emphasis on improved neighbourhoods including more green space and better maintained social housing and a challenge to the alcohol culture through availability and pricing policies. Perhaps the single biggest challenge she puts to politicians in this materialist age is to reduce inequality, by maximum as well as minimum wages.
From a harsh analysis, Carol Craig has reached visionary conclusions. Where are the politicians with the courage to embrace them?
This article was first published in Scottish Review on 31 March 2010: http://www.scottishreview.net/AWood229.html