Scotland’s largest city seems to have lost its political swagger
In 1994, John Major’s Conservative Westminster government was set on re-organising Scotland’s water services, in preparation for privatisation. The Strathclyde Regional Council—representing the former local government region which then incorporated Glasgow—disagreed. Aiming to prove its point, the Council organised a postal referendum—97% of the population voted to reject the proposed changes, on a 70% turnout. Westminster relented, and the still publicly-owned Scottish Water remains the best-performing water company in the UK.
In 2023, First Bus, the private firm which holds a virtual monopoly on bus transport in Glasgow, decided to withdraw its (already weak) night bus services. The City Council told the press it was “deeply concerned” by the decision. The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, the once-powerful public body which ran a tightly-integrated network involving buses, trains, and ferries, whose operational remit has now been practically shrank to maintaining the Subway, commented that the decision was “disappointing”. Eventually, First Bus agreed to maintain its services to the east and south-east of the city, while McGill’s, another private operator, took on routes to the west and south-west.
This sad display was unfortunately yet another chapter in the recent history of a City Council that seems to have lost itself in the weeds. At a time when solid local leadership is essential for the future of the city, the Council has become a faceless, rudderless body.
In November, writer Rory Olcayto opened the annual convention of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland with a piercing speech, calling Glasgow a Shipwreck, stuck somewhere between a vision of a Victorian Second City of the Empire and the brutalist Caledonian Logan’s Run it was set to become after the war. The essay, which should be closely read by anyone professing an interest in this city’s future, concludes with a vital 15-point plan for how the city could improve. Among them are previously noted ideas like deconstructing the M8, and recognising the complexities of Glasgow’s past with a national museum of slavery in the city centre’s Egyptian Halls, but also the formation of “a heavyweight mayor with far-reaching powers”. The 15-point plan almost seems like a readymade manifesto for a potential candidate.
The idea of a mayor is one that has been relatively absent from UK political history, but it has seen a recent resurgence south of the border. In the early 2010s, in an attempt to deliver some devolution from London (and potentially undermine local Labour councils), the Conservative government introduced the idea of metro mayors in England (Michael Gove once weighed naming the positions “governors,” in a clear sign of how American politics infiltrated Britain).
While the policy’s goals may have been cynical, the mayors have been an undeniable success. In Greater Manchester, mayor Andy Burnham spearheaded the creation of the Bee Network, a publicly-controlled transport network. His leadership over the course of the pandemic brought him the moniker of ‘King of the North’. In North Tyne, mayor Jamie Driscoll has earned praise from all sides of the political aisle for his principled leadership, and role in leading regeneration projects in and around Newcastle. In the West Midlands, Conservative Andy Street has become a lone voice of Tory resistance against the madness of proposals to cancel or further scale back HS2, knowing first-hand the obvious benefits the line would bring to Birmingham and the region. While the position of the Mayor of London has a different and earlier legislative origin than the metro mayors, Sadiq Khan has nevertheless become a powerful example of local democracy—he spearheaded the ULEZ expansion, despite opposition not just from Downing Street but also from the very top of his own party, and became the voice of London’s resistance towards Brexit and Trump.
Glasgow needs a voice like this too. The closest thing the city currently has to a leader, the SNP council leader Susan Aitken, is virtually absent from public discourse. The city is in a difficult position: continuous council tax freezes and the withdrawal of EU funding mean that further regeneration schemes will require strong local leadership to fund ambitious ideas. The Clyde Metro, though still likely decades away, is still currently closer to fantasy than reality, with a proposed map that envisions four different forms of rail transport, in a city that doesn’t seem to have even one functional rail system today. Catching a bus is a demoralising insult, with a First Bus single now somehow being the most expensive bus ticket in all of the UK. The city centre is in nothing short of a state, with seemingly half of Sauchiehall Street, once one of Europe’s prime cultural thoroughfares, taken up by dodgy candy shops or burned out buildings. Short of the new Barclays headquarters development, and the Riverside Museum, the various Clyde regeneration schemes seem to have stalled. The M8 and the Clydeside Expressway continue to scar and divide the urban landscape, while their maintenance budget reaches astronomical heights.
There are many voices that could take on this role: Labour’s Paul Sweeney, an MSP for Glasgow, has been a powerful voice for the city on the national stage, arguing for safe consumption rooms for drug users, as well as a strategy of historical preservation, standing against the mad demolition ideas espoused by successive local government administrations in Glasgow since the disaster of the Bruce Report, which has heavily influenced the city’s planning strategies since 1945. With the SNP’s Westminster delegation likely to be decimated at the general election later this year, the party will be provided with its own solid backbench of talented politicians from which a candidate could be drafted (though the Nats’ position on bus nationalisation may be complicated by the party’s recent, reignited flirtations with Stagecoach billionaire and homophobe Brian Souter). Since the 2022 elections, the Scottish Greens have also become an increasingly influential voice on the Council, with councillors such as Martha Wardrop successfully arguing for keeping the Botanic Gardens free to enter, among many other things. The Tories’ Thomas Kerr has also been a strong voice for the city’s businesses, illustrating situations in which the LEZ policy may have been somewhat excessive.
But Glasgow is certainly not a city lacking in personalities: perhaps this position could be a prime opportunity for someone unattached to existing party differences and constitutional debates (which, frankly, are entirely irrelevant to running a city) to step in. I am not a life-long Glaswegian—I have barely lived in this city for four years, most of that time spent in the disaster of the pandemic. Yet I have a deep affection for what this city can be, and what it once was. The future can be bright—but simply putting yet another “People Make Glasgow’ sticker on a dilapidated telephone box won’t cut it. Things need to change.