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Postcards from Scotland

Professor Tom Devine's Foreword

Glasgow, Scotland's largest city, is an urban conundrum. From one perspective it has been widely praised as a modern success story. A new order has been carved out, phoenix-like, from the ruins of past economic dereliction and social decay. After the long-drawn out agony of deindustrialisation, which scarred its history for much of the late twentieth century, the city has emerged at the start of the new millennium as the reinvented ' Glasgow with Style', the second biggest shopping centre in the UK after London with its vibrant  main streets crammed with new restaurants, bistros and clubs. National Geographic magazine has gone so far as to dub it 'Capital of Cool' and the city's international reputation has flourished to such an extent that it now draws tourists from far and wide.

This is the Glasgow of the glossy journals and the marketing hype. But it is not a myth or a figment born simply out of exaggerated spin and advertising display. Much of the city core has indeed been transformed beyond recognition by new forms of employment and economic diversification which have underpinned a veritable urban renaissance in which Glaswegians have a right to take considerable pride. The visitor can sense a spirit of confidence among the citizenry. With its magnificent Victorian architecture, cleaned and restored public buildings, world-renowned museums and galleries, distinguished universities and dynamic cultural scene, Glasgow is, by any standards, an attractive urban space in which to live, work and enjoy.

But this is only part of the story. Glasgow has a schizophrenic personality and, while the body might seem healthy on the surface, it conceals a diseased underbelly, at least in certain parts of the anatomy. The city's grave social problems in certain areas have stubbornly resisted improvement even as urban reinvention has gathered pace. Glasgow is therefore still near the top of those unenviable league tables in both the UK and Europe for poor life expectancy, incapacity, alcohol and drug addiction and obesity. Indeed, these problems are so acute that the 'Glasgow effect' has even had a strongly negative impact on Scotland's national health statistical record. Public and private interventions to confront these trends have been numerous and imaginative but success as been little better than partial and limited. Even more seriously, there is no intellectual consensus on the reasons for the distinctive health patterns in Glasgow, despite the fact that convincing explanation is the vital first step in pursuit of effective diagnosis and action.

This is the question that Carol Craig seeks to address in her wide-ranging analysis. She conclusively demonstrates at the start that common-sense reasoning will not easily work    satisfactorily in this case. No one can doubt that the catastrophic collapse of the old industrial staples of Glasgow and the resulting alarmingly high levels of unemployment in the 1980s caused poverty and social misery. But these factors in themselves cannot explain the current Glasgow problems. The peoples of  other  great cities across Europe and North America also suffered much  during those times  of  deindustrialisation  and yet did not experience  health crises  on  the scale, depth  or duration of Glasgow's. As Dr Craig argues, if we are to move closer to an intellectually satisfying explanation, we must dig deeper and wider.

This she does by building nothing less than a new model of interpretation. A central contention in the book is that the real answers to the key questions lie far back in time. The social problems under consideration have a long lineage and so historical analysis of the Glaswegian past, she suggests, is an essential approach to them. Using many of the results of the recent revolution in Scottish history writing, Dr Craig provides a total picture of Glaswegian life over the centuries which includes discussion of economy, male culture, drinking habits, urban modes of life, middle class ideologies and much else. It is an exhilarating brew.

To this, she then adds insights from modern social science and comparative examples to provide context for the evidence and enhance the impact of the overall argument. Not content with diagnosis, Dr Craig concludes the book with a series of recommendations on how this particular urban patient might be treated and improvement assured over the longer term.

The 'Glasgow effect' is not simply a major challenge for the city. The nation as a whole must be moved to action by the plight of so many of our fellow citizens. Their condition is indeed a rebuke to the conscience of Scotland. How to act effectively is, nevertheless, the hard question. Carol Craig has unquestionably moved the debate on that forward .Even those who may disagree profoundly with her thesis in this stimulating, provocative and, yes, uncomfortable book, will now have to think, equally profoundly, of their own answers to the Glasgow conundrum.

TM Devine

 
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