Glasgow’s arts and leisure quango, Glasgow Life, recently sparked outrage when it released a list of 90 venues—from bowling clubs to a museum of religious art—that would remain closed indefinitely after being shuttered in March 2020. A particularly strong backlash was provoked by the closure of Whiteinch and Maryhill libraries. Both buildings are roughly a century old and serve areas that remain predominantly working class. Sandstone edifices to the city’s self-image as a bastion of municipal socialism, the libraries are also just familiar places for locals to gather as equals against the backdrop of the city’s pervasive ‘corporation green’ decor.
One heartfelt message left on the railings at Whiteinch library tells of a group of local children, lured in by warmth and comics, who came to enjoy reading – ‘they were children who would never have previously thought of borrowing books.’ On a community social media page, another posts a picture of her granddaughter, ‘sitting in the exact same spot I sat,’ engrossed.
In response, Glasgow Life maintains that services will still be provided for the communities concerned – just not in the same buildings. Behind the proposed move from the libraries’ original homes to spaces within leisure centres, lies a steep loss of revenue in 2020, coupled with a long-running struggle to maintain so many fine, but costly, civic buildings inherited from the city’s brief heyday as the British Empire’s preeminent industrial powerhouse.
At the municipal level, the SNP has consistently shown itself to be hostile to the city’s radical nostalgia over these sorts of places: it has preferred instead to extol Scotland’s cities as destinations and investment products. Last year, Edinburgh Council Leader Adam McVey explained to a citizen concerned about commercialisation that ‘nostalgia doesn’t create good policy.’ On the current Glasgow Life fiasco, an SNP source responded to Scottish Review by claiming ‘people are getting all wound up over old, crumbling, buildings,’ a Glaswegian habit which stretches back to at least the 1960s, when planners ploughed the M8 motorway directly through the city centre, obliterating several communities in the process.
This anti-nostalgic reflex points to an intellectual and cultural hollowing out of Scottish nationalism: as its political dominance becomes ever greater, the broader vision for Scotland becomes narrower. What is nationalism, if not a belief in the sanctity of the past, projected onto a future project? Robbed of the old and the crumbling, the project of state building becomes little more than a game of institutional calibration in the race to be ever more like everywhere else. A local library, specifically one that your great-grandparents fought for, is where Benedict Anderson’s inky ‘imagined community’ merges with the tangible communities of place. In Glasgow it is also where the diverse dreams of municipal socialism, working class self-education, and Scottish cultural nationalism coalesced: via the printed page, provided as a democratic right, not a service.
Such considerations ought to be particularly significant given the civic variety of nationalism favoured by the SNP. This posits the nation as a unit defined by common adherence to values and institutions which seem to offer constancy in the face of fickle modernity, rather than ethnicity. But Glasgow Life, so typically for the neoliberal institutions that run devolved Scotland, knows how to perform its inevitable task of winding down the remnants of municipal socialism, with a gloss of communitarian rhetoric. Rather than owning up to offloading choice bits of its estate to developers, it talks instead of ‘community empowerment’.
The problem is that in many cases the community groups don’t exist to take on this power. As veteran community activist Jim Monaghan argues, this is Cameron’s Big Society sneaking through the back door in a kilt. The rationale set out by the Scottish Government to address its chronic underfunding of local authorities boils down to this: devolve the axe, and responsibility for wielding it, by setting up precarious local charities to do what the state used to do.
There has long been a quiet strain within the Scottish establishment which views Glasgow as both an internal ‘other’ and a relentless source of political inconvenience. The comically oversized child of Scotland’s lightning-fast industrial revolution, the city remains too vast and sprawling, as both a concept and administrative unit, to fit comfortably within a nation mostly defined by suburbs and towns. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the communist author of Nicola Sturgeon’s favourite novel Sunset Song, found depression-era Glasgow beyond ‘Scottish personification’, seeing instead a lurid orientalist, ‘Scottish Siva herself, brandishing her many arms of smoke against the coming of the darkness.’
Gibbon, writing in 1933, was referring to a city with a population of around a million. Successive planning policies since the 1960s, from slum clearance, to the hiving off of affluent suburbs into separate local authorities, have trimmed that number down to just under 600,000, although the wider metropolitan region is still home to 1.7 million; 34 percent of Scotland’s population.
In 2017, a minority SNP administration finally broke Labour’s fifty-year long tenure in the City Chambers, which had become known for a culture of cronyism that would make members of Tammany Hall blush. But dwindling budgets, political rancour, and bureaucratic intransigence stymied key SNP policies for the city: including the democratic overhaul of ‘Arm’s-length external organisations’ such as Glasgow Life. Given Scotland’s disempowered and impoverished system of local government, the city continues to lurch from one moment of boosterism to another to shore things up. Meanwhile, economic and population growth in Scotland has increasingly flowed east towards Edinburgh.
It’s therefore not surprising that much of Glasgow’s built environment is crumbling too – where it hasn’t been, as in the case of the Glasgow School of Art, it has developed a habit of burning down instead. There are 624 vacant or derelict sites within the city, by far the greatest number within any Scottish local authority; an issue so chronic that most are of no rateable value. 46,000 pre-1919 tenements, the foundation of a distinct Scottish urban culture, have been deemed dangerous, with the cost of repair well beyond the council’s means.
Whiteinch is a working class community mostly made up of such tenements. It sits in an awkward corner between the affluent late-Victorian splendour of Hyndland and the River Clyde. When the library was completed in 1926, reading was presumably hampered by the noise from nearby foundries, yards and depots that once lined the waterfront. Today it sits across from the splendid Victoria Park, accessed by a bewildering series of underpasses: a reminder that much of the area was demolished to make way for the Clydeside Expressway and the Clyde Tunnel.
Yet the B-listed library once formed part of a cluster of civic buildings in the heart of Whiteinch: just over the road sits the vacant and increasingly decrepit Burgh Halls (1905), while around the corner, the community’s former public baths (1889) were demolished to make way for flats. It is therefore understandable that some in the community are suspicious of Glasgow Life’s search for a local organisation to move in when the library decamps from its purpose-built home.
But there are wider failures of vision and agency at play here. Whiteinch Library will be a ten-minute walk away from the final phase of the enormous Glasgow Harbour redevelopment, built on the site of the old shipyards and overseen by Salford Quay developers the Peel Group. Presumably, residents of these 1030 new private housing units will not be expected to make use of the library, so beloved of kids and pensioners, or, indeed, visit Whiteinch at all. Instead, they will live in gleaming luxury flats with underground car parks, and will drive to whatever amenities they require, such as the nearby casino proposed within the Glasgow Harbour masterplan.
The right to the city is always contested. But the near constant injunction to save things that make life worth living, against a backdrop of a seemingly incessant increase in material abundance and wealth, is perhaps the most exhausting reality of living through the current phase of late capitalism. It is probably beyond the SNP leadership’s powers in local or devolved government to do more than ameliorate such waste.
But they must realise, sooner or later, that the building of a neoliberal city closes off the possibility of re-imagining a national community in turn. You need only look at a handful of names of those who credited Glasgow’s libraries as securing their future path—Alasdair Gray, Jimmy Reid, Billy Connolly—to see how municipal socialism offered an engine room for shaping contemporary Scottish culture and identity. On being asked what university he attended, Reid responded: ‘Govan public library’.
Though it remains an inconvenience for so many, Glasgow’s continued existence is a kind of baffling performance of will: carried out everyday amid absurd motorway flyovers, improbably vast acres of vacant land, and surreal high-rise council flats that once underpinned the city’s status as the largest public landlord in Western Europe. The ‘rationalisation’ that Glasgow Life is proposing for its buildings has to be seen against the backdrop of a consistent failure to realise that a city like Glasgow cannot be made to submit to any rationale, despite frequently disastrous attempts to do so over the years. Its incoherence, its queerness, its waves of immigration, its monstrous proportions, turn Scotland into a strange and confusing country for some. But without it, independence is simply too boring to contemplate.