Glasgow is a basket case. But more state support isn’t the answer

If you drive through Glasgow these days without knowing much of its history you’d be hard pushed to imagine just how successful a city it was back in the 18th and 19th centuries.

I’m reading Dominic Frisby’s new book Life After the State. In it, he points out that by the turn of the 20th century Glasgow was “producing half the tonnage of Britain’s ships and a quarter of all locomotives in the world. It was regarded as the best governed city in Europe and popular histories compared it to the great imperial cities of Venice and Rome.”

It isn’t much like that any more. It is one of the only big cities I have visited in the West that actually has derelict buildings in its very centre. It is the heroin capital of the UK, the murder capital of the UK and “the benefits capital of the UK”. Almost a third of the population “regularly receives sickness or incapacity benefit.” Glasgow’s unemployment rate is 50% higher than that of the UK as a whole, and life expectancy in the city knocks around that of Albania and Palestine. Finally, just for good measure, it is the fattest city in the UK.

Horribly sad isn’t it? But how did this once mighty city turn into a social and economic disaster?

Most people will tell you that Glasgow itself is blameless. It has been hit by the de-industrialisation of the West; by the collapse of investment in an exhausted post-war country; and by the failure of the state to step in and make things better.

Most people will also tell you that the answer lies with the state. The state must step in to support, to educate, to invest. Everyone now agrees that Glasgow has “long standing and deep rooted social problems” and that one way or another it needs “real intensive support”.

Dominic (who is brave) begs to differ. Instead, he notes that there is no shortage of state support for Glasgow. No shortage at all – the budgets for everything have risen steadily for many years. But their rise has not coincided with things getting better. Instead, they have got worse.

There is no correlation he can find between money and improvement. However, there could be one between the rise of the state and the collapse of Glasgow. Since the beginning of World War I “the state has spent more and more, provided more and more services, more subsidy, more education. More health care, more infrastructure, more accommodation, more benefits, more regulation, more laws, more protection. The more it has provided the worse Glasgow has fared.”

Is this correlation or coincidence? Dominic is convinced of the former. The rest of his book explains why. I think it is worth reading.

• Life After The State is available at Amazon. An audiobook version is available here.

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27 Responses

  1. 18/12/2013, Marko wrote

    The description of glasgow being a drug addled derelict city made me laugh out loud.

    Having lived in many uk cities there are far worse places to live!

  2. 18/12/2013, NeutronWarp9 wrote

    I am not horribly sad that Glasgow (or parts of, at least) is as you describe. I am angry at the sheer betrayal. Yes, South Korea can build ships quicker and cheaper, Germany and Italy can build trains…market forces, blah..blah..blah, but what are ‘our people’ (is such a concept ‘allowed’) supposed to do with their lives?
    And that is the truth really, the privately educated elite in Westminster do not see any worth in the ordinary UK citizen. The same kind of people take turns to form a ‘UK’ government and meanwhile great swathes of the UK decline whilst the south east over heats. Then some wonder why Scotland might go it alone. Cameron and Clegg do not represent the majority of us – but neither does Miliband. They are just from different houses in the same privileged school.
    Stronger local government is the answer and if that means, for example, that a Scottish government can better invest in Glasgow and beyond, good luck to them.

  3. 19/12/2013, tot777 wrote

    Don’t forget the violence and sectarianism. Glasgow has alot of problems.

    On the plus side, it does produce a disproportionate amount of premier league football managers and comedians. The weedgie wit is unsurpassed.

    • 20/12/2013, Colin Selig-Smith wrote

      Of all the problems Glasgow has, I think the biggest is just plain old stupidity (government subsidised of course … because that is what we want more of … clearly …).

    • 20/12/2013, John Dillon wrote

      Glasgow, like the rest of the UK has a weak culture. The educational system has been weakened by people who have sought to create greater opportunity by tolerating indiscipline and certification for all; there is a lack of true self-worth and individual responsibility; the politicians are in thrall to generally ignorant voters; the ‘left’ has sought a revolution without understanding how the capitalist system works. There is no easy fix though I fear that the one change that will reverse this long-term decline is increasing ‘real’ poverty. John Dillon, Rutherglen

  4. 19/12/2013, Sage of Aldershot wrote

    Watch the TV series ‘Still game’ if you want to learn more about Glasgow, particularly its humour. Great stuff.

  5. 19/12/2013, Adviserman wrote

    I am not supporter of Independence for Scotland, if only for the defence issues, but if they do go it alone, do we rebuild Hadrians Wall ?

    Is the issue of the Westminster elite “not seeing any worth in the UK citizen” really a deliberate policy ? If so, it seems a Scottish former UK Prime Minister, a certain Gordon Brown, took on the same “eliteness” very quickly after his “lowly” Scottish childhood . . . and did he do much specifically for the Scots whilst PM ?

    Inner cities have been struggling for decades as we as a country concentrated our high workforce factories there but over time have lost worldwide competitiveness due to complacency of all concerned – Govt, management, workforces, the lot !

    We are all culpable, and most other “old” industrialised nations now have the same issue, but may have been a little more forward thinking in the boom years ( eg. Norway’s Sovereign Wealth fund, saved out of their oil revenues ).

    This is a massive issue, and further developments of computer and Internet based businesses will not help unless we can educate the unemployed into this space, and export their output. How we do this is anyone’s guess, as successive Govts of both sides know the issue but have had little success in solving it.

    Whether that is because they are incapable, or do not care, is the question. Massive things have been achieved recently in “communist” China, but at what cost to the rights of the people ?

    Bring on the revolution ?

    • 19/12/2013, Plenik wrote

      Another socialist who can’t read. Which bit of “the more we invest in Glasgow, the worse it gets” don’t you understand. It’s nothing to do with the “Westminster elite”, but exactly the opposite.

  6. 19/12/2013, r wrote

    I think that @NeutronWarp9 has some valid points. For too long, the UK has been governed by career politicians of privileged background and I also think that there is not a lot to choose between the main parties.

    We need some businessmen/women in parliament, people who have experience of how the economy works and how to manage people. We need people who can manage a budget properly. No company would invest a massive sum of money on a project and than scrap it before it was finished because it had not been specified properly.

    Unfortunately, too many people are still entrenched in the traditional “left” and “right” politics, a system which has proved itself to no longer work over the last 30 years. We need fresh blood and a fresh approach from the top, an approach that listens to the wishes of the populace, for a start. After all, the government is supposed to be there to represent US and OUR interests.

    Glasgow had a world-renowned shipbuilding facility – where has it gone? Who interfered with that?

    Time for a change?


    • 19/12/2013, GFL wrote

      Most decisions are made for political reasons with short term gain – this will never change whoever is at the helm under the current system.

      The long term prospects of a country is an afterthought, getting (re)elected is the only goal these guys have. In fact planning too long term will almost certainly lose you the election!

    • 20/12/2013, Colin Selig-Smith wrote

      “a fresh approach from the top, an approach that listens to the wishes of the populace”

      That would rather interfere with the graft old boy. I’m afraid you have a rather naive view of the purpose of government.

  7. 19/12/2013, Joe90 wrote

    Great article, totally agree, time someone spoke up. I have been in or close to Glasgow since childhood and many ‘deprived’, i.e. problem, areas then, 50 years on are still deprived and problem areas. How come? Other cities have picked themselves up, improved and progressed, but Glasgow maintains its problem areas. Why? The main point I believe, not covered in the article, is that this complete lack of progress must be political. Those living in slum areas do not vote Tory, LibDem or even SNP. They vote for the (permanent) Labour administration who keep them in squalour – to maintain their vote. And it works.

    • 20/12/2013, Colin Selig-Smith wrote


      You are spot on.

      Glasgow is what you get after decade upon decade of unabridged socialist policies. It is very much a Labour party stronghold, with all the incompetence, nepotism, corruption and cronyism that implies.

      As a Glaswegian who left for better things, I highly recommend the practice.

  8. 19/12/2013, Cliff G Hanley wrote

    Most of Glasgow’s population was employed in the heavy manufacturing industries, and other countries, especially Japan for shipbuilding, were more willing to move into new ways of working and to invest in them, rapidly moving to the top of the industry league – thus the unemployment and subsequent rise of the benefit culture back home. Of course the daft classes have always been infamous for their bad diet and fatalistic attitude to their teeth; no change there. One trick Glasgow missed was to keep the infrastructure, the architecture and grand streets John Betjeman fell in love with. There was a physical history worth preserving, both in the individual tenements and the overall design of the city. Mostly razed, like the centres of Sheffield and Birmingham. So instead of what the Victorians left us – a community machine for living’, we have in many corners a disconnected jumble of inner-city cul-de-sacs, suburbs and freeways; probably not the best infrastructure to inculcate mutual support and self-help.

  9. 19/12/2013, Warun Boofit wrote

    Your observations of derelict buildings in the very centre is no different than many cities, next time you come out the Plaza de Espana tube station in Madrid intending to walk up the very posh Gran Via make sure you dont accidentally walk down the plaza towards the underpass or you risk having buckets of toilet contents land on your head, look up and see a high rise building with a giant dawb of graffiti ‘Mutant’ sign , its been taken over by a band of mad max type drug dealers and muggers as have several other extremely ugly and derelict high rise buildings in the city centre, these were built in the 1960s. In Glasgow we have a better class of derelict building , many of them are worth keeping and the truth is there are not that many when compared to Madrid or Berlin etc and they are not full of squatters. Some Glasgow buildings have always had a knack of looking derelict as they have never been sandblasted, I prefer this ancient look. I went to a party once in Possil Park and my old Austin 1100 was the only car in the street and quite possibly on the whole estate, I thought there was no one living there until the mothers sent the neds out to play after midnight then it became pandemonium but they did not touch my car. Now Possil has mainly changed for the better, in the same area you will now see plenty of newish BMWs and Mercedes etc and not all of them belong to drug dealers. I know places in Edinburgh far worse. I have the benefit of having lived in and travelled to many European cities and Glasgow beats most of them hands down. I was sad when paddys market was shut down because the snobs inhabiting the new high court building behind it decided they did not want riff raf doing business in the lane behind it, they would much prefer to have them in the dock. Paris is an absolute hole of a place if you take a close look at it , park your car in St Denis or St Ouen and it can be stripped bare in minutes ready for immediate resale in the street markets, the security measures in place in the formula 1 car park gives some clue about the safety of the area, I am not aware of the need for anything similar in Glasgow because its quite civilised by comparison.

  10. 19/12/2013, Jimmy wrote

    The main problem with Glasgow is that since the 1960s all the people with get up and go have got up and gone all we have left are the druggies and layabouts .

  11. 20/12/2013, David Farrer wrote

    One of the problems with these Glasgow stories is that they miss the question of the tightly drawn city boundary. The whole conurbation has a population of around 1.2 million but only around half of that number actually live “in Glasgow”.

    The leafy suburbs, which are not unlike those in outer London, are not counted as Glasgow. If they were, the statistics would be very different.

    Note today’s news: the top three Scottish state schools are all in East Renfrewshire, which is certainly part of greater Glasgow but which doesn’t count as being in the city.

  12. 21/12/2013, David G wrote

    Just for the record, the “leafy suburbs” of East Renfrewshire (i.e. Newton Mearns, Clarkston, Giffnock etc) towards which Glasgow politicians of a leftist persuasion are wont to case covetous eyes, have never been part of Glasgow and consequently have never been subject to decades of socialist misrule.

    If such areas are to be included in the statistics for some hypothetical greater Glasgow, presumably Paisley, Clydebank and other similarly less “leafy” places would also have to be included. I used to work in Paisley and for what it’s worth the evidence of my eyes suggests that the levels of poverty and deprivation there are equal to anything to be found in Glasgow.

  13. 21/12/2013, lilielbe wrote

    I’m a scouser from Liverpool and I sympathise wholly with the article. Everything that is said about Glasgow could equally be said about my home town, and I’m sure the Geordies would say the same. Government after government, having presided over the closure of all our heavy industries, has poured benefit money into the Northern cities to prop them up until the next election, as a substitute for doing anything practical about regenerating them. I don’t think the posh-boy politicians despise the Northern working classes, they just have never been there and haven’t the foggiest idea what lies beyond Potters Bar. We recently had one of them saying all the fracking should be done in the desolate, empty wastes of the North East. When it was pointed out to him that the North East was a heavily populated area, he laughed and brayed that he really meant LANCASHIRE!!! If Scotland does become independent – and makes a success of it – their success will be looked upon with envious eyes by every Northern county of England. Some might be inclined to leave England and join Scotland – taking their shale gas with them.

    • 22/12/2013, r wrote

      “I don’t think the posh-boy politicians despise the Northern working classes, they just have never been there and haven’t the foggiest idea what lies beyond Potters Bar.”

      Too true; this goes for all of the main parties. This view really supports mine above, I think.

      We need fresh blood at the top, even if @Colin Selig-Smith thinks that I have a rather naive view of the purpose of government. I would be naïve if I thought it would happen but it doesn’t change the fact that I think it is needed.


  14. 21/12/2013, John Dillon wrote

    P.S. Just one addendum to my comments which, given the seriousness of the topic, is only deserved : ‘Certification for all’ is not the same thing as education for all;finally a ‘help up’ through social welfare provisions has too often debilitated the recipients and created a sigficant culture of dependency.

  15. 21/12/2013, Boris MacDonut wrote

    Has Dom’ has recalled that Glasgow had an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1900 and life expectancy of 37?
    Merrryn paints a grim picture of Glasgow today but she is not putting it in context.
    London has by far the worst environmental conditions in the UK coupled with the biggest number of road traffic accidents. It has the highest crime rates alongside Nottingham and the worst homelessness problems in Haringey and Tower Hamlets.
    Tower Hamlets has the lowest rate of waste collection and recycling and the worst child poverty figures. Lambeth has abysmal numbers of child protection orders. London has the highest rents and as a result the highest number of evictions and repossessions.
    The worst pollution and mental health is found in the West midlands.
    The highest amount of prescription drug use,especially anti-depressants, as well as teenage pregnancy rates are in South Wales.
    Worst overall health is in Blackpool.
    Worst unemployment and lowsest pensions are in Hull.
    Lowest incomes are in Cornwall.
    Glasgow has the highest rate of volunteering for the armed forces, the easiest access to the housing market and least negative equity. Yes it has a heroin problem ,but so does Brighton.
    You are 16 times more likely to be murdered in Cumbria than in Dyfed…not Glasgow.
    Glasgow has by far the most malicious fire alarm calls ,but that is related to sectarianism as is ther fact that Glasgow has the UK’s only ghetto.

  16. 21/12/2013, Boris MacDonut wrote

    ……so Glasgow is not a basket case as such. It is just another place with many issues and problems and it has a higher profile partly because of it’s size and location.
    By being selective with the deatils and ignoring the social issues on smaller places it is possible to portray Glasgow as struggling….but has Dom’ been to Merthyr or Stoke? Has he visited Hull or Dudley or Tower Hamlets or Moss Side?
    The correlation is totally between money and improvement. Look at the centre of Liverpool or Bristol. Go to the once poverty stricken villages of S Devon or the Cotswolds.

  17. 23/12/2013, Dhb wrote

    Don’t forget that successive Westminster governments, both Labour and Tory, have had a policy of not allowing Glasgow to expand because of their fear of Glasgow becoming a hotbed of communism.

  18. 07/01/2014, AlexH75 wrote

    What a load of nonsense, Glasgow is far from a basket case.
    Yes, it is not without its problems, but look at any major city across the UK, and you’ll see exactly the same problems.
    I’ve lived in many major cities in the UK, and I can say with confidence that there are far worse places to live……

  19. 12/01/2014, Old Chap wrote

    I first visited Glasgow in 1971 when working for the construction giant George Wimpey, and the occasion was the opening of new high rise flats to replace the Victorian tenement housing. I was shocked at how the people were living in these tenements homes, but not as shocked as when I visited Glasgow 18 months later and saw what they had done to the brand new high rise flats. There is definitely something in the water there.

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