Privatisation is Killing Glasgow – And No One’s Coming to Help

Political leadership is MIA.

by Jonathon Shafi

14 July 2023

A bus is driven in George Square in Glasgow, Scotland, May 2019. Russell Cheyne/Reuters

In a recent piece examining swingeing cuts to services and public amenities in Glasgow, I argued that the city faced nothing short of a crisis. A crisis visible to all working class Glaswegians: the deleterious state of the city centre, the cuts to cleansing and the associated public health consequences, the poverty rates and housing insecurity

The best word to describe the latest development can only be humiliation. In this major European city, there will no longer be a night bus service at weekends after First Bus announced the withdrawal of the service

This is a story of the systemic failures of privatisation and the breakdown of neoliberalism – and its impacts on real people. It exposes the hollowness of the public realm, where leading politicians are reduced to being managers for the market, displaced from the needs of the public and separated from their supposed democratic responsibilities. The result is not just the prioritisation of profit over the delivery of services, but a society in which the interaction between citizens and decision-makers is superfluous to corporate entities, ideologically coveted as the main wealth creators and guardians of efficiency. 

In Scotland, often presented as a progressive haven, this process is acute and deeply embedded. In recent days, the only response to the removal of such a vital social and economic artery has been for the first minister, the former first minister and many leading national and local politicians to write a letter to First Bus pleading with them to reinstate the service. This is not political leadership; this is a refusal to govern. 

When the private sector fails to deliver a critical public service, the state must. That once commonly held view, indeed expectation, has been steadily traduced, allowing those in political office to evade their responsibilities. The result involves a degree of farce and a degeneration in the quality of public life. The managing director of First Bus, for example, has posited the idea that bar workers could be redeployed as bus drivers after finishing their shifts in the hospitality sector.

 Rather than a publicly-owned municipal bus company, organised with the needs of service users above all else, we are left with clownish solutions and sluggish responses. It tells us a lot about the state of Scottish institutions more generally. As the Glasgow based historian Ewan Gibbs puts it: “One way to read the current and former first minister begging First Bus to run services only to get met with joke suggestions about pub workers driving night services is that if you want power and influence in Scotland, don’t go into politics, go into private business and finance. The success and failures of the devolution era are often assessed in terms of the relative power of the devolved settlement. They ought to be measured against what a small independent state would be prepared to do against big business.” Indeed, the way in which Scotland has already been opened up to foreign capital, the corporate lobby, the privatisation of key assets and freeports does not bode well.

The “begging” we see from leading politicians may represent a futile response, but it is also illustrative of the problem. The scrapping of unprofitable bus routes is precisely in the nature of the market, which is advocated for as an impenetrable orthodoxy and unalterable dogma. Those distant from power are swept up in the process. The people most directly affected by the end of the night bus service are low paid workers in the hospitality industry, and those with less disposable income. 

There are consequences for safety too, especially for women, overlapping onto pre-existing concerns. Caitlin Lee, a campaigner with the Get Me Home Safely Campaign, told me that the campaign followed “discussions about sexual harassment within the hospitality industry, and about how unsafe we felt around travel”. 

“After Covid there was a lack of night-time transport and a decrease in taxis. There was a realisation that public transport often doesn’t work for late night workers, so we are calling for municipal ownership of buses to ensure people can get to and from work in an affordable and safe way. The responsibility for this shouldn’t be on workers, but on employers and councils. We had a motion passed in Glasgow city council on this basis, calling for companies operating unsocial hours to take responsibility and for transport provision to be improved.

“Now, as a result of the axing of the night bus service, a private company is contradicting a progressive and democratically-passed motion that could benefit the lives of some of the lowest paid workers in Glasgow. As well as the safety issues, buses are much cheaper than taxis, resulting in huge financial repercussions for night workers.

“When First Bus made the announcement, we had people getting in touch immediately. One said they would have to spend £40 to get home every Friday and Saturday. They are now asking if they can afford to keep their current job. Others are saying they will walk half the route, then get a taxi, to try to cut costs. Young women walking through a city to then stand and wait for a taxi increases potential dangers. Night buses should be a basic amenity, but now thousands of workers are being forced to pay the price of privatisation.”

To transform Glasgow in the interests of its people, workers must take back control of the political process. Unions, campaigns and social movements can be a countermeasure to the private companies that operate to make profits rather than to meet social need. The myth around the success of the privatisation of key services is being exposed in real time – and politicians should not be excused for perpetuating this evidently failed model. 

Glasgow is heading for yet more privatisation; a £30bn plan based on private finance is being sought under the guise of “green investment” which will only deepen the chasm between citizens and institutions. A line in the sand must be drawn: Glasgow must be saved.

Jonathon Shafi is a columnist for Novara Media and socialist campaigner, based in Glasgow. He writes the weekly newsletter ‘Independence Captured’.


Build people-powered media.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.