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

The once mighty city of Glasgow has become a social and economic disaster zone. But throwing public money at it isn’t the answer. In fact, it might have been the problem all along.

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.

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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 Stateisavailable at Amazon.An audiobook version isavailable here.

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.