'I HAVE been single for three years, and I'm happy." Speaking just a few weeks ago, Steven Purcell was still keeping up appearances.
The 37-year-old leader of Glasgow City Council was being photographed outside the Victorian splendour of Glasgow's City Chambers, the institution he had dominated for the past five years. "A visionary civic leader," Tony Blair had called him. Arms folded confidently, smile attached, future intact, Purcell beamed at the camera.
Until Tuesday morning last week, just about the only doubts surrounding Purcell were over whether his ambition matched his talent – most people wanted to know why this articulate political reformer was not yet moving onto a wider stage. But Purcell had made it clear. He loved his city, he loved his job. The message was implicit: why rush, when future success was already assured?
The shock of Purcell's political downfall, confirmed on Friday when he announced he was quitting Glasgow City Council altogether, has therefore been enormous. The faade of a glittering and growing career has been revealed to be not quite what it seemed. Instead of a picture of success, a different portrait has emerged, bit by painful bit; of a troubled man, sinking under the pressure, looking for solace, and finding it in the wrong places. His story is a sad one, but it has wider significance as well, about the pressures and burdens that come with power and influence – and the temptations too.
ACCORDING to close friends, but unknown to most, Purcell has been struggling with life for several months. At a time when journalists and colleagues were talking him up as The Great Hope of Scottish politics, Purcell was going through a tough, dark spell.
In May of last year, he was visited by police from the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency for what the Council described last week as a "private meeting". Known as "Scotland's FBI", the SCDEA was set up in 2001 to focus specifically on serious organised crime, running undercover operations to monitor the country's criminal masterminds. Sources close to the discussions say that Purcell was warned about being linked to crime gangs in the city. There would naturally be concerns that, were he in a position to be exploited, it could leave the council extremely vulnerable.
Whatever the detail of the talks, it appears that they triggered a change in a lifestyle. He decided to make a dramatic shift, moving away from his flat in Yoker, where he had his roots, to nearby Broomhill. The move was necessary, but it had its downsides. As with most senior politicians, Purcell was aware of the tremendous pressure of playing The Game. His old neighbourhood in Yoker had been where he could get away from it, among old pals, none of whom wanted a piece of him because of who he was. He knew full well the importance of this and the need to stay grounded. But he had complained recently that even that crucial way of letting off steam had been denied him.
The public role began to become all-consuming. "He told me recently he can't even walk down the road any more without someone asking him about politics," says one friend. Another colleague said that when Purcell had dinner with a male colleague or a business contact he had felt it necessary to warn him that it may lead to speculation, because of his homosexuality. Allies began to fear he was becoming paranoid. Just before he quit, he had met one friend for a coffee. He admitted he was feeling the heat, coming under greater and greater scrutiny, and noted how he thought he was being investigated by the press. He did not have a good coping mechanism, allies note. Without a partner at home, he was denied a crucial escape hatch from the pressures of the job – something many other politicians say they cannot survive without. And his character also was a problem, say friends. "Steven being Steven, he does not like to expose weakness to anybody, he wouldn't want to do that. He kept it in and it all stays in until he can't keep it in any more." Purcell had only revealed he was gay when well into his thirties. He had learnt to keep things to himself, bottled up inside.
Purcell would not be the first politician to have tried to get away from this by turning to drink or drugs. As for the latter, close friends say categorically that he did not have an addiction. They also insist that, whatever problems he did have, he had begun to put it behind him. But as for the former, there is little doubt that Purcell was indulging heavily. The life of a council leader ensures daily invites to functions, dinners and events. The fact that Purcell was single meant there was little to stop him accepting as many as he wished. A gregarious socialite, who enjoyed being out and about, he took full advantage.
THE pressures, the chaotic lifestyle, the sense of paranoia – they all came to a head in his last week in charge. On Monday, colleagues in Glasgow felt they noticed something wrong, but didn't think too much of it. Then, for three days, the leader disappeared down to London. On Wednesday night, he turned up in the capital at a dinner held by the Scottish Council for Development and Industry. Again, something wasn't right. He was "agitated", according to one friend.
On Thursday, he was back in Glasgow, seated alongside Gordon Brown and Rangers manager Water Smith at the Glasgow Hilton at a gala fundraising dinner for the Labour party. He was quieter than normal, say friends. "Usually he likes being the centre of attention at things like this, but he wasn't quite himself," said one. He drank but not too heavily. Close friend and fellow councillor Paul Rooney put him in a cab and sent him home.
He turned up for work on Friday morning looking dreadful. Colleagues blamed a hangover. He ran through council business. Then he sat through a meeting with Labour MSPs – who reported on the "convivial" atmosphere. But soon after they left, Purcell appears to have cracked. Shaking and in tears, he declared he was unable to carry on with his duties, cancelling an engagement he had planned that afternoon with restaurateur Charan Gill. He stayed at his desk all afternoon, before finally going home. He stayed in contact with colleagues during the evening but it was clear he was deteriorating fast. Nobody at the council knew what had pushed him over the edge.
By the following day, he had made his decision. Ringing up Colin Edgar, the council's director of communications, Purcell informed him he could no longer carry on, and would be resigning immediately. Edgar went round to see him, followed later by Brian Lironi, Purcell's special adviser. Purcell was adamant: the pressures of the job were simply too much – he could not contemplate carrying on. And so the communications team around him started planning their strategy on how to break the news.
There followed 48 hours of total chaos. By Sunday Purcell, having been seen by a psychologist, had been admitted to the Castle Craig Clinic in Peebleshire. A Dr Dempsey had examined Purcell: this is thought to be Dr Raymond Dempsey, brother of Glasgow businessman Brian Dempsey, one of a network of powerful figures who was close to the council leader. No sooner had Purcell been admitted, however, than he disappeared, with the local police called in to find where he was. Several accounts of what happened have emerged; according to some, Purcell re-emerged at the clinic soaking wet, having apparently fallen into a lake. He was, however, still in contact with his aides. Now, he instructed them, he wouldn't be resigning – he was merely taking a leave of absence.
On Monday morning, Purcell's fellow Labour councillors were being brought in to discuss the matter. It is understood that they felt that Purcell had to go. Work began on drafting the statement to be released later that day. Castle Craig clinic had a phrase which they used to describe the problems faced by some of their patients: "chemical dependency".
On an initial draft, this phrase was used. But officials then had a rethink. The phrase was deemed to be too vague. Officials felt they should be more straightforward, and simply use the words "drink" and "drugs". The statement may also have gone on to say that Purcell's drug problem was in the past.
The statement was about to be released that afternoon. Then the entire plan was ditched. The city council officials received a call from Peter Watson, Purcell's lawyer, instructing them that the leader was now his client. Any detailed reference to Purcell's health problems would result in an interdict. Purcell's aides at the council were astounded – the council was being completely frozen out. Watson's firm Levy & McRae used the Glasgow based PR consultancy Media House for its media work. From now, its chairman and founder Jack Irvine, and another a friend of Purcell's, was to take control of the case personally. The Glasgow-based Herald newspaper was soon briefed. Purcell was suffering from "stress and exhaustion". He was "in the care of professionals". There would be no further explanation.
It appears the hope was that – with his powerful contacts in the press and considerable sympathy on his side – Purcell would be left alone, with no questions asked. But as the stunning news began to filter around Glasgow City Chambers on Tuesday morning, the questions were beginning to mount. The Daily Record had already injected some scepticism into the official reason for Purcell's decision to quit, referring to the "mystery" behind his departure.
Then Jim Coleman, Purcell's deputy at the council, was interviewed looking distinctly uncomfortable as he fended off questions about his colleague's health. And then there were the official spokesmen and women for Purcell, known to the media, who were attempting to answer the questions about what had gone on. They couldn't. Embarrassed and clearly enraged by the position they had been put in, they were able only to shrug their shoulders and plead ignorance.
By the afternoon, Purcell's whereabouts at Castle Craig was becoming known (in a telling coincidence highlighting Scotland's tight-knit public world, the PR company which handled press queries for it was none other than Irvine's Media House). Meanwhile, the rumours about Purcell's social problems were spreading like wildfire, some accurate, some in the far reaches of fantasy. Purcell, meanwhile, was still understood to be phoning up his secretary at the City Council, and trying to reach his erstwhile advisers. He would be coming back, he insisted: his problems were only temporary.
But the story was gaining legs. Glasgow City Council was already inundated with Freedom of Information requests demanding to know exactly what had happened to prompt the resignation of the man in charge. Then on Thursday morning, three days after speculation about Purcell's lifestyle had been circling the country's political and media elites, The Scotsman broke the news that the council had been planning to directly refer to the phrase "chemical dependency".
Purcell was contacted by media friends who urged him to simply come clean and draw a line under the affair. But at Levy & McRae, Watson swung into action. First, the council received a request from Watson to say the story was untrue – a request they refused.
Then a letter was released from Castle Craig, insisting that Purcell had not been "treated for a drug problem" (this was accurate, but didn't address Purcell's history of problems). Watson then contacted the Press Complaints Commission, claiming The Scotsman had invaded Purcell's privacy. Finally, he wrote to the Information Commissioner, demanding that the council – which he alleged had been responsible for the leak – be investigated for breaking data protection laws. As for the assertion that Purcell had a drug problem, it was all "without foundation", said Media House.
On Friday morning, now thought to be back at home with his family in Glasgow, Purcell was still insistent that he was going to carry on as a councillor. But the media frenzy – sparked by the sense that only the tip of a very big iceberg had been revealed – was overwhelming him. He decided he was going to quit as a councillor altogether. It was reported, meanwhile, that he would be leaving the country, for up to a year.
And, from nowhere, came a terrible postscript. An 18-year-old Labour activist close to Purcell, Danus McKinlay, had dropped dead outside Glasgow City Chambers. McKinlay was said to have "idolised" Purcell. "He would have done anything for him," said one Labour contact.
His death was unrelated to the affair surrounding Purcell – the youngster suffered from heart problems as well as diabetes and asthma. But by the evening, his untimely death was already being associated, however irrationally, to the Purcell story.
"A lot of people will be saying that he had been dragged into things by Steven that he shouldn't have been. It's unfair but that's the truth," said one ally.
In the brutal world of politics, such sympathy as there was for Purcell earlier in the week had dissipated fast, so much so that there are fears he is suicidal. Other friends dismiss this. "He's a strong character," says one. "He'll get through this. But this a personal tragedy, no doubt. This is a guy who was universally liked, even by his opponents. It's just a total waste."
THE sense among some observers is that the former leader has been badly let down by a media narrative that he may have felt obliged to fit into. His story poses questions about how modern politicians come to be judged, and how they, in turn, judge themselves. Purcell emerged from the undergrowth of local government politics initially because of the plaudits he was getting from Downing Street – the then prime minister Tony Blair referred to him directly in one speech as a "visionary civic leader". The fact of his youth added to his appeal: here was a politician who had that most attractive of assets – a future. Journalists flocked to his palatial office in Glasgow City Chambers, and Purcell did not disappoint; blessed with clear judgment and a non-ideological business-like approach, he also flattered his new media friends by confiding in them. They flattered him back: before too long, his name could not be written in print without the words "future Labour leader" appearing before it.
With his status cemented in the media mindset, it meant that policy initiatives he put forward – such as his borrowed idea for a 7 an hour living wage for council staff, revealed during a recent Labour conference – were immediately interpreted as an attempt to seize the limelight for himself, when they were not. "He was reading that he was going to become a future First Minister. Is it not likely that he may have begun to believe his own spin?" said one experienced colleague. The verdict of one close colleague is telling: "Everyone was building him up and saying he was doing really well, just at the time when he himself was having doubts. I don't think deep down he really saw himself as everyone else did."
Friends say they tried to warn Purcell not to believe the hype – telling him he shouldn't consider his fans in the press as friends. But they also noted that he "loved the attention".
Some see Purcell as a victim. Others believe he is the author of his own misfortune. On taking over at the council, his predecessor Charlie Gordon had warned him he had to learn that sometimes it was important to shut the door and not be beholden to hundreds of people who wanted a piece of him. While Purcell did take Gordon's advice – and had aides who steered him wisely – friends say he was often flattered by the sheer amount of attention he came to receive. The status of the job added to that. "It is the easiest thing to end up with 200 people who think you are their best pal," said one veteran of Glasgow City Chambers.
He was known to be particularly close to the influential Labour-supporting millionaire Willie Haughey. They had not just a common passion for Celtic FC, but a common background. He was also close to Brian Dempsey, another of Glasgow's elite business club. And, as noted already, he was in with the bricks of the Glasgow media. The council joked about the infamous "Friday lunch club" – a group which included some senior figures from the Scottish media world – who would regularly meet Purcell for drinks. Purcell was officially everybody's property. Thus there is an alternative picture to the one paraded in the media: someone who lacked experience, and wasn't quite as strong as everyone thought him to be; someone, in fact, who was too beholden to the powerful interests in the city to whom he owed too much.
FURTHER stories about the private life of Purcell are now widely expected to emerge in the coming days. In particular, the visit by officers from the SCDEA last May is likely to be the focus of questions about what the leader of Scotland's largest local authority got up to in his spare time - and how it affected his job.
It was telling on Friday that, after Purcell announced he would be quitting the council, there was complete silence from his Labour team at Glasgow City Council. One word that has been emerging frequently from some quarters in recent days as Purcell's story slowly emerges is "betrayal", with a revisionist reappraisal beginning about how he conducted his affairs as leader.
With Purcell now having left the country, the focus is likely to move onto whether his behaviour over recent months has affected the smooth running of a council with a 2.4 billion a year budget. Council sources insist that it never did.
They point out that, just as the media overplayed Purcell's growing importance to the Scottish party, so his actual influence in the running of the council was similarly exaggerated. Taxpayers will notice little difference, says one councillor close to Purcell. "Don't get me wrong, Steven did a lot here, and he got us on the map, but life will genuinely go on."
As for Purcell himself, friends say the most difficult time will be when he is no longer the subject of attention, when the dust has settled. He is now said to have fled to Australia. Friends back at home say they hope he's been told to turn off his mobile off, to get some peace.
And at the end of the week, the world of Scottish politics has chewed up and spat out yet another of its leading figures. Purcell, the apparent author of his own misfortune, now has many lessons to learn. But so does the country he leaves behind.