Glaswegians are secretly proud of their new, four-lane bridge across the River Clyde, the first crossing to be built in over 30 years. Seen from either end, it looks like half of a McDonald’s ‘Golden Arches’ sign. The city’s spin-doctors insist on calling it the ‘Clyde Arc’ but locals have christened it the ‘Squinty Bridge’, because of the dizzying way the steel support crosses from one side of the road to the other. The Squinty Bridge is important because it marks a return to the city’s Clydeside roots. ‘The Clyde made Glasgow and Glasgow made the Clyde’, runs the old saying. But the city turned its back on the Clyde 50 years ago. Stalinist post-war planners decanted half the population into new towns in the green belt, and the economy naturally imploded. The Labour council then raised taxes and the middle classes fled, turning the city into a vast wasteland. Even today, 8 per cent of inner-city Glasgow lies derelict. But the prospect of redeveloping acres of cheap brownfield land along the Clyde — 25 miles of it on each bank — has recently triggered a property investment bonanza. Some £6.5 billion is being ploughed into new projects. Dilapidated warehouses, empty for decades, are disappearing. In their place are expensive waterside condos for incomers and offices for Glasgow’s booming financial sector, which has seen an increase of 34 per cent in employment since 1995. Hence the ‘Squinty Bridge’.
Any self-respecting property boom breeds art. There’s going to be the Glasgow equivalent of Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum — a riverside style icon costing £60 million. It is being designed by the irascible, Iraqi-born architect Zaha Hadid. I once met Ms Hadid for breakfast but she did not pause long enough in her harangue about the demerits of British clients to enjoy her croissant. She may now have met her match. Ms Hadid’s latest client is none other than the steely Bridget McConnell, Glasgow city council’s director of culture. Mrs McConnell also doubles as the wife of our Labour First Minister, Jack McConnell. Imagine Cherie Blair in charge of the British Museum, the Tate and the South Bank and you’ll get the picture of how things are run in the Scottish one-party state.
Labour still dominates Glasgow. In the last council elections Labour won 71 of the 79 seats. Unlike Liverpool and other English post-industrial cities, the Lib Dems don’t get a look in because there is no aspirational middle class. The Cameron effect has also bypassed the city. The latest poll puts the Scottish Tories on 14 per cent and dropping. Yet Protestant Glasgow was once the bastion of the Conservative and Unionist party: Andrew Bonar Law, Conservative prime minister in the 1920s, was MP for Glasgow Central. Now that seat is held by Labour’s Mohammad Sarwar, who spends much of his time in Pakistan on his constituents’ business. It is hard to credit that the late Lord Harris of High Cross, whose Institute of Economic Affairs was the incubator of the Thatcherite revolution, was a leader writer on the Glasgow Herald in the 1950s.
Not that Blairism rules in Glasgow. It is a city sui generis. The attitude of the Labour administration was summed up by its former leader (and ex-Trot) Charlie Gordon: ‘We’re the most modern council in Scotland. It doesn’t suit me to use all the New Labour bullshit, because it doesn’t go down well in this town, so what we’re doing is pragmatism.’
Glasgow is like Manhattan. People visit it to work, shop and eat — it’s a major retail centre and an increasingly popular tourist destination — but not many live here. The actual citizenry consists of an haute bourgeois and media class and a ghetto class. This has deep social repercussions. A boy born in the affluent Upper West Side of Bearsden and Milngavie will live into his eighties. On the bleak Lower East Side, the average life span plunges by two decades. There are parts of Glasgow where men live shorter average lives than in the Gaza Strip or North Korea. Glasgow also has one of the highest rates of suicide in the UK per head of population, and more smokers than anywhere else. More than 20 per cent of Glaswegians describe their sex lives as ‘unsatisfying’. Unlike Edinburgh, an outwardly prim city which is knee-deep in brothels and lap-dancing clubs, Glasgow’s city fathers have all but banished the sex industry in order to keep the proles in their place. Fortunately, Glaswegians have not lost their famous sense of humour. The late Chic Murray noted that Glaswegian men spend a fortune on women, booze and gambling. The rest they spend foolishly.
There is one part of local business which is flowering: the black economy. Every time I mention this the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce complains I am traducing the city. Honest: I’m truly admiring of the way ordinary Glaswegians are turning their backs on the subsidy culture and opting instead for self-help. Glasgow is at the heart of Britain’s biggest-ever VAT fraud investigation. In dawn raids in August, 15 people were arrested in the city as part of a Treasury operation to close down a massive ‘carousel fraud’ worth £500 million. This scam involves bogus VAT reclaims for non-existent transactions across Europe. If you consider that the entire legitimate Scottish economy is worth £100 billion a year, this level of operation can add significantly to national growth.
The informal small business sector is also doing well. Despite highly publicised police raids on DVD and CD counterfeiting operations in the past few years, this branch of retailing is outperforming the high street shops. In January, Strathclyde police seized 25,000 DVDs from a Glasgow flat which was actually a manufacturing plant. The goods are distributed in novel ways involving vans which sell ice cream as a front. Why pay high business rates on Sauchiehall Street if you can have things delivered to the door?
Glasgow has a curiously low official participation rate for the workforce — 71 per cent of the city’s population compared with 85 per cent in East Renfrew just across the River Clyde. Might it be that the labour statistics for Glasgow ignore all those tenement-based DVD manufacturing plants?
George Kerevan is associate editor of the Scotsman.