GLASGOW: EUROPEAN CITY of Culture 1990. The announcement came from the Tory Arts minister, Edward Luce, in October 1986. It had a sickeningly hollow ring to it. Looking at the social, cultural and economic deprivation in working-class areas of Glasgow, and thinking about the rigours of the new Social Fund and Poll Tax to come, it sounded like blatant and cynical mockery. And indeed a wry smile was the most usual reaction when people bothered to take the slightest notice. And not many did. Even with the massive hype given to it in the capitalist press, most people took it as just another EEC/Tory con trick. It was hard to see it as anything else. One thought immediately of The Babbity Bowster and town-centre homes for yuppies. Of the new Sheriff Court, the largest in Europe, with cell space in its bowels for 2,000 prisoners in emergencies. Of the Scottish judiciary which imprisons a higher proportion of the population than any European country except Turkey. (There were 13 deaths in Scottish prisons in 1987 alone.) Of Strathclyde’s 200,000 unemployed (whatever the Government’s current distortion of the true figure might be) and the close to 8,000 classified homeless (with council waiting lists up by 34% in the last five years).
In the light of the hard facts of life as it is lived by people at the bottom of the heap in Glasgow, it is difficult to see the ‘culture’ tag as being anything other than a sham accolade to help grease the wheels of capitalist enterprise and smooth the path for the politicians. It is little wonder working-class Glasgow remains unimpressed. There is widespread acceptance that it has nothing whatever to do with the working- or the workless-class poor of Glasgow but everything to do with big business and money: to pull in investment for inner-city developments which, in the obsessive drive to make the centre of the city attractive to tourists, can only work to the further disadvantage of the people in the poverty ghettoes on the outskirts. The so-called Merchant City might be reborn but only for those and such as those: the well-heeled who serve and perpetuate the system and profit by the miseries and inequalities inherent in the system: the kind of people who now find themselves installed in central areas where the have-nots “who have not yet benefited from the Thatcher revolution” were long ago uprooted. The rest is just camouflage. Like the million pound spend annually maintaining security at the Burrell whilst housing-scheme squalor gets a pittance. Like the Regional Council laying out £62,000 to stone-clean the Talbot Centre’s exterior whilst the residents within still kip on the floor. That is your Culture City in a nutshell.
Of course it is no new thing for the city authorities to be in the camouflage business. They were in the same business in the 1920s, shouting about ‘libels on Glasgow’, when it would have taxed an ingenious mind to invent a libel more outrageous than the reality prevailing at the time. Yet contemprorary accounts of life in working-class Glasgow in the 20-year period 1915-1935 were by no means widespread. Two of the frankest, and indeed the best known, are William Bolitho’s essay Cancer of Empire which is a vivid factual presentation (revealingly enough, by an Englishman) of the truth as he found it, and later on McArthur and Long’s No Mean City which would work roughly the same appalling social conditions into fiction. They were certainly an improvement on the mushy idylls of the kailyairders. Both books can be read as harrowing indictments of the power elite in Scotland who administered the country more or less as a colony of England, presiding with brutal insensitivity over mass poverty and disease and the highest infant mortality rate in Western Europe. Sadly, however, no Scottish poet, novelist or playwright (or even historian until fairly recent date) was able to resist the political and cultural dominance of London in sufficient degree to be able to depict, in its savage and unsentimental totality, the only real challenge to this rampant capitalist oppression: the class war in Glasgow.
For alongside the poverty and disease and wasted lives there was the glory and heroism of those who resolutely engaged reaction and put Glasgow in the vanguard of revolution, not just here in these islands but throughout the world. The men and women who rejected parliamentary opportunism and sought to advance the people’s struggle in the work-place and in the streets. The trials for treason and sedition which mark Glasgow’s history tell their own story. It is a story which continues into our own day. It is not a libel on Glasgow but her vindication. The lies and hypocrisy of mealy-mouthed councillors and turncoat Reds can change nothing of that. Nor can the cheap trickery of PR frauds blind us to the evils of the present. For although modes of repression and control in State bureaucracies may have changed, relying today as much on advertising conmanship as on police coercion, and although the new capitalist-controlled computer technologies exploit and impoverish and degrade us in ways which were hardly imaginable even fifty years ago, yet it is still repression for all that, it is still exploitation, it is still impoverishment, and it is still degradation. The stark evidence of the peripheral housing schemes makes that abundantly clear.
Working-class Glasgow is for the most part de-industrialised Glasgow. De-industrialised Glasgow is living in a distant scheme, without amenity and without community, and waiting for the Giro.
In the long term, waiting for the Giro must lead to social sterility, with all the outlets for creative social involvement blocked off, and tine not for making in and growing in but filled only with unrelieved waiting, like the prisoner without a release date.
The damaging impact on people’s health, physically and psychologically, is well known. Indeed it says a great deal for the resilience of spirit and character in the unemployed population that social and psychological distortions are not even more prevalent than we see today.
But one thing is certain. The situation as it exists today is admirably suited for the effective control and administration of the population. The demoralised working class is without muscle, without mobility in any direction except down, and has even been robbed of its own authentic voice. Communications technology, particularly television, owned and controlled by the multi-nationals and the State, makes this a simpler task than in the past. The renowned working-class social-cultural cohesion and shopfloor solidarity have been largely smashed by the break-up of the tenement communities and the terror of mass unemployment. Progressive strains in working-class culture are everywhere being vitiated. In our de-socialised neo-technical age the political bureaucracy, through the mass media, is able to assimilate and render benign most forms of popular disaffection. In post-TV politics even protest which has honest intent can easily become something very like complicity.
And whilst working-class Glasgow is in a kind of death, middle-class Glasgow is in the throes of regeneration. The Labour Council knows where it stands. There is no capitalist enterprise that will not be looked upon favourably if it comes under scrutiny for a grant. Come on, they tell us, play the game. The wine-bar economy is all we’ve got and it’s blossoming, so don’t start knocking it for Christ’s sake. No more libels on Glasgow, please! Scottish Tourist Board Chairman, Mr Devereux: “The city’s spectacular renaissance has put it in the premier league of tourist destinations worldwide.” This is the acme of bourgeois progress: after two centuries of brutal industrialism, with all its miserable corruption and destructiveness in terms of human life and the living environment, they can make welders in waiters!
And not that anybody is forgetting art. To be embraced as the Cultural Capital of Europe, succeeding Florence, Athens and Paris, you have to have art: that is to say, lots of imported music, opera and ballet, sepulchral museums, high-priced paintings and a civic theatre devoted solely to classics - pale ghosts of revolt in other places, at other times - in a word, the kind of art that is no real threat to the social reality of the present, the kind of art that can work no change in the here-and-now because its time has passed and its place is not the here-and-now.
It can teach us one thing though. Art to be valid in its own day must be in revolt against the official mirage of its own day: against the impossibility of freedom in its own day.
Its true and essential dynamic is always and everywhere revolt. The art of the past has no more splendid message to disclose. It is this and only this which gives it life and value in another age. But it is not a transferrable dynamic. Each age must find its own and battle the received absurdity anew. The art of the past, now a safe commodity, lends itself easily to resurrection and celebration. Here and there it may indeed still bring genuine inspiration and delight. But mostly it manifests itself as just another facet of oppression, simply adding to the meaninglessness of life and work in the social-political-economic irrationality of the present, and serving only to stabilise officially sanctioned values.
This is not to deny the power and value of tradition but to catch at its very essence. If you make it an altar at which its passive devotees kneel and do homage, as with the Burns cult for example, you’d be as well in the cemetery with a heap of old bones. What is vital for us in tradition is not merely, as we are so often told, that it is our past, but that we make certain the same spark that once gave it life can be struck anew by us to give us life in our own time. Otherwise it is just a cloying encumbrance, a nostalgic wank, an academic pastime. It should speak to us of resistance to the official fakery of the State in all its manifold forms (even if it is only to invent a fakery of our own but one that opens up the world for all the people everywhere and gives our best and most creative energies the possibility of fulfilment); it should speak to us of revolt against the oxbow authority has yoked us in, in body as well as in spirit, where we stand duped by fear and distrust of our own selves, fit only for eager subservience and our only song a hosanna to hierarchy; and it should speak to us of the one struggle worthy of every man and woman today, as it has been throughout all ages past - the struggle for the ultimate social, cultural and economic integrity of all humankind.
This anthology is testimony to that response, past and present, in and around Glasgow and its people. Naturally it is far from being the complete story - no one book could be that. It must necessarily be a hint merely - but a hint which ought to be both illuminating and inspirational - of the liberating power of working-class experience and consciousness in a long-standing tradition of struggle.
It is a tradition which the establishment and the media like to romanticise into caricature historically, but at the same time root out, castigate and belittle in the contemporary scene. For it is a tradition which re-emerges defiantly with every new generation. It is the tradition of working-class people refusing to be passive and cowed and mute, compliant victims of the political bureaucracy and all agog for the Westminster charade. It is the tradition of grassroots solidarity and total distrust of power and officialdom: of uncompromising resistance to the State’s authority in every sphere of life and no matter who is weilding it. It is in this tradition all social, economic and political advancement of working-class people originally took seed. It is here with us now. It is a seed the people in power would like to see trampled underfoot forever, for they, better than anybody, know its potency as a weapon against them. And needing our co-operation and trust as much as they do, they would persuade us to look elsewhere for our betterment. Too often we have and always with the same shameful and disastrous results. That is the one incontestable fact in the history of the working classes. Surely it is time we stopped looking elsewhere. The answer is here now.