In the aftermath of the Scottish independence referendum a perverse duality permeated Facebook newsfeeds across Glasgow. This arose due to the near simultaneous announcements that our ‘dear green place’ had been voted the world’s friendliest city in a poll for Rough Guides and the fact that loyalist violence had erupted in the city centre.
The footage of inebriated crowds unashamedly singing ‘The Famine Song’ in George Square and an adult male dragging a young woman draped in a Saltire across Buchanan Street are certainly symptomatic of acutely unsettling social attitudes that persist among a minority of Glaswegians. However, I would argue that such events, while utterly condemnable, do not amount to a fatal negation of our status as a model of friendliness for the global community.
Firstly, it is a testament to the spirit of the city that, given the exceptional circumstances surrounding the constitutional issue, the widespread civil unrest anticipated by some did not materialize. Furthermore, it would be erroneous to characterize Glasgow’s sectarian idiosyncrasies as an ugly exception to a trend of urban unity: ‘Friendliness’ is an attribute that exist in cities, despite tension cultivated by economic and political realities, since no city is entirely without division. So, if social cohesion (at least in the absolute sense) is not a necessary component of friendliness for urban environments, what exactly constitutes a truly friendly city? And more specifically, how do we account for a uniquely Glaswegian brand of friendliness?
As I understand it, a metropolis is friendly in virtue of its ability to transcend the dual scourges of loneliness and anonymity that are ubiquitous among cities of a certain size. I believe that most Glasgow residents will find this feature self-evident in their experience of the city: the admittedly hyperbolic notion that you can have more fun at a Glasgow funeral than an Edinburgh wedding perfectly encapsulates a collective awareness of our warmth and approachability as a group of people. Such features, often cloaked in the dry humour of the everyday public faces of our city (taxi drivers, takeaway deliverers and bar staff – all of which I’m sure the students of this university are firmly acquainted), are very real and potent reminders that you are in Glasgow. Indeed, I consider the prominence of these characteristics in the civic consciousness as firm justification of our status as a genuinely friendly place to live and work.
Historically, this quality has been embedded in Glasgow life due to its large working class contingent that provided a shared narrative and an implicit solidarity among the majority of its people. This is equally true for northern English cities, such as Liverpool and Manchester, which also feature highly in the Rough Guides poll. However, an analysis founded solely on this basis is perhaps less sustainable when modern contexts are introduced. This owes principally to two factors: the decimation of working class communities through the neo-liberal economic agenda of successive governments, and the rapid process of gentrification (of which our very own West End, with its predominantly middle-class student populous, is an archetype). Hence, we must look elsewhere to establish a coherent understanding of city’s sustained friendliness.
Another plausible reason for Glasgow’s tangible friendliness is the importation of ‘small-town’ mentalities from the rest of Scotland. As the largest urban centre in the country, Glasgow’s educational, cultural and commercial institutions act as magnets for a young demographic leaving provincial Scotland behind, but retaining a distinctly rural social outlook whereby everybody within a ten mile radius assumes the status of neighbour. The implications of this parochial disposition can often be extremely amusing to hardened city-dwellers (on arriving in Edinburgh as a seventeen year old student from the Highlands, my mother was shocked to discover that nobody in her building could identify the source of the fire service call-out that morning) but it is difficult to overstate the positive contribution such extreme localism makes to the fabric of Glasgow insofar as it is consistent with the core values of the city.
Finally, in our considerations on this issue, I believe that the people of Glasgow are subconsciously motivated to act in a manner that befits their pride in the rich history and culture of the city. Many people living in Glasgow, particularly in the wonderfully diverse student population, will only be partially aware of the city’s past (Red Clydeside, the Rent Strikes and the anti-Poll Tax movement to name a few highlights). Nevertheless, whether their civic pride stems from deified football clubs or a world-renowned music and arts scene, nearly everyone who stays in Glasgow at some point feels obligated to do our great city justice and welcome others to Glasgow. In turn, our collective friendliness has become our greatest asset.
The leftover Commonwealth Games propaganda around the city proclaims: “People Make Glasgow.” I couldn’t agree more.