No other city would have responded with such an outcry against plans for the Duke of Wellington statue, writes Michael Kelly
ONCE again, Glaswegians have proclaimed their right to a say in how their city looks. They are not going to sit by and allow anything as unimportant as a local authority to spoil their fun. Many have been tempted to dismiss the row over whether or not the Duke of Wellington’s statue in the centre of the city should be decorated with a traffic cone as a silly season story misplaced in the calendar. However, the outcry against plans to remove it and to ensure that it could not be replaced was sparked, not by a tabloid, but by the grass roots in a spontaneous campaign using social media. Glaswegians saw this as something that they had wittily created being taken away from them. And they were prepared to make a fight of it.
The strength of feeling that the council’s plans provoked certainly surprised me. For me, the cone joke had run its course. It was funny the first few dozen times an inebriated reveller scaled Copenhagen – the Duke’s horse – to puncture his haughty pose. Now, after 30 years, it has become tedious.
Again, there were public safety fears. If the cone had fallen off and injured someone, the council would have been liable. Hence it had to waste £100 a time taking it down. And now that the site is a well-known haunt for climbers, the council has a duty to protect these simple Sherpas from themselves by making it as difficult as possible to get started from base camp to Hillary’s stirrup.
It is now clear that there are many citizens who also believe that the practice has gone beyond a joke. But in the very different sense that it has gone on from a prank to become part of Glasgow’s culture. They see it as encapsulating the character of the city: indicative of a self-deprecating sense of humour and a healthy disrespect for authority. There is no apathy about Glasgow. It is heartening that people should have such a clear idea of what they want the identity of their city to be. I am proud to be part of a city whose people take action to ensure that the city’s image reflects how they see themselves and are determined to oppose attempts to change it without reference to them. Not many cities have people sufficiently interested to take the trouble to protest. About significant physical change maybe, as Glaswegians themselves did when significant alterations to George Square were proposed. But objecting to something as nebulous as image! Glasgow must be unique. Most other places would have borne it with a patient shrug.
Of all the statues that the founding perpetrators could have picked, with an impeccable sense of place they chose the one outside Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, where some of the most thought-provoking, ghastly and dreary works are on display. Does the cone not reflect much more our times which cock a snook at government and rebel against the power of class than any number of cows in formaldehyde or unmade beds? It is conceptual art worthy of a Turner Prize. It is better than anything Banksy ever vandalised.
The closeness of the relationship between Glasgow and its people is not a new phenomenon. The popularity of the song I Belong to Glasgow may well be attributed to the ownership proclaimed in the last line, “Glasgow belongs to me.” For Glaswegians, that is an article of faith. The feeling of identity between city and citizens explains the hostility to any news crew or documentary maker who focus on Glasgow’s problems. It explains the Glaswegians’ enthusiasm to effect the change in image that has been achieved over the last 30 years.
The row has uncovered the evidence that the Duke’s cone is seen by many as an iconic image. It is used by the city’s own marketing arm, and postcards of it sell in their thousands. This value should not readily be discounted. The city lacks any other unique, easily recognised image. The University, the Finnieston Crane and the City Chambers have all been tried as images to capture what Glasgow is about. None has worked. This is a common problem with many cities – a problem which they solve at enormous expense, like the Gateway Arch in St Louis, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, the highest building in the world in any number of Middle Eastern countries. For Glasgow to destroy one created so cheaply from popular support would be foolhardy in the extreme. Get whatever planning permission is necessary and secure a cone for posterity.
It is evident in the record-breaking ticket sales for next year’s Commonwealth Games that Glaswegians have the commitment to support Glasgow. They are not alone in this. Manchester did a wonderful job in motivating its citizens when it was its turn to host the Games. Even London – cold, distant London – surprised itself with the warmth that was extended to visitors during the 2012 Olympics which made those Games the most successful ever.
Recent research suggests that Glasgow may not have as much social interaction as other UK cities. This doesn’t matter. The important thing is that Glaswegians think of it as a friendly place inhabited by people who have a great loyalty to their city. There is one way to demonstrate whether this populist protest has anything more behind it than people with nothing better to do than gather in the city centre to display a variety of puns on posters (“Coney No Dae That” was my favourite). Take them at their word. Call their bluff. Treat them as responsible, caring adults and that’s how they will behave.
There is a spirit in Glasgow which has not been fully tapped. By setting its citizens worthwhile goals and then challenging them to meet them, we will find out how much of this loyalty is Facebook-deep and how much derives from a genuine love of what Glasgow stands for. A successful anti-litter campaign in the streets around the Duke of Wellington will become the legacy of the cone and proof that we are not dealing with a bunch of Tweet-happy hooligans. Glaswegians, it’s over to you.