'Glasgow's bins are overflowing and there's rats in the streets'—the words of one of Scotland's top politicians on the eve of an all-important climate conference to be held in the country's biggest city. He wasn't trying to put people off from coming, just scoring a political point. But it hardly augurs well for such a crucial global get-together.
Glasgow is at first glance an unlikely venue for the COP26 climate change conference which opens on Sunday, to be attended by Narendra Modi, Joe Biden and dozens of other world leaders. It once rejoiced in being described as the second city of Empire—based on the river Clyde on the west coast of Scotland, an industrial hub for shipbuilding, engineering and textiles, close to the Scottish coalfields, and its prosperity enhanced by sea-faring links with North America and the Caribbean.
Those rust-bucket industries have all but disappeared; Glasgow, its population down from over a million to less than two-thirds of a million, is no longer even Britain's second city; within Scotland indeed, it plays second string to the national capital, Edinburgh, which while less populous is older and prettier.
Glasgow's Rats and Rubbish Problem
Up to 30,000 delegates, lobbyists and campaigners are expected to descend on Glasgow over the next couple of weeks. The devolved Scottish government and the Glasgow city council—both controlled by the radical, pro-independence Scottish National Party—hope the gathering will not simply help to curtail climate change but also promote Scotland and increase understanding of the aspiration many Scots have for separation from England.
But Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's nationalist first minister, is not the formal host of the gathering. That's the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, who is determined to preserve the union between England and Scotland. As well as disagreeing sharply about Scotland's future status, the two leaders don't get on. There's a lot of scope for unseemly pushing and shoving behind the scenes between these deep-dyed political rivals.
The 'eyes of the world' will be focussed on Scotland, Ms Sturgeon has warned. They may not like all that they see. Glasgow is not known as the cleanest of cities, and that's set to be intensified by a strike of the workers who clear the city's rubbish.
They are using the leverage of the climate conference to press for a bigger pay rise. The leader of the anti-independence Scottish Conservatives made the jibe about rats and overflowing rubbish bins to embarrass Scotland's governing party. The refuse workers trade union has said that four of their members have needed hospital treatment after rat attacks.
Glasgow's Public Health Issues
On top of that, some local teachers and school staff are also planning strike action to coincide with the climate conference; and so too are train workers. It has all the makings of a municipal melt-down.
If delegates have some free time, there's no point heading to municipal art galleries and museums—these are set to be closed as staff are conscripted for conference-related duties. Some medical appointments have been cancelled as part of a drive to reduce traffic levels. And there have been warnings that the conference may lead to a spike in coronavirus cases —Ms Sturgeon says the public health situation in Scotland remains 'fragile'.
All that's on top of the longstanding difficulties Glasgow faces: a profound problem of drug abuse and deaths through unintended overdoses; high alcohol consumption, poor diet, and as a result some of the lowest life expectancy figures in the country; and a communal divide between Catholics and Protestants which, while nothing like as stark as it once was, is stubbornly persistent and is reflected in the fierce rivalry between Glasgow's two main football teams, Celtic and Rangers.
More 'Red' Than 'Green'
It was the British government which several years ago chose Glasgow as the venue of COP26, though no one quite remembers why. COP simply means Conference of the Parties (in this case to the - deep breath - United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).
While COP21 might be a better title, this conference was initially planned for a year ago and is, rather pedestrianly, the 26th such gathering - though it's only every five years that the conference is expected to achieve agreement on more ambitious targets. The Glasgow conference is one of those five yearly big moments.
Glasgow was last year awarded the status of a Global Green City but is still thought of as more 'red' than green—because of a tradition of labour militancy stretching back more than a century, because of the hue of the sandstone with which many of the old tenement blocks were constructed, and also because of the rust and disrepair which is an inescapable part of the current-day city.
I have a soft spot for Glasgow—my mother was born there—but it's a tough place in all sorts of ways.
And even those whose job it is to talk-up the city are sometimes damning with faint praise. 'Glasgow is not the dirtiest city in the world or in the UK or even in Scotland', declared the city's head of communications in an attempt to sound reassuring. 'Very few world leaders are going to come here and think: "Good Lord, this place is filthier than the place I left!"'
What more could any visitor want?
(Andrew Whitehead is former Editor of BBC World Service. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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