Leader: Scotland needs a new model for strong city leadership

LEADERSHIP. It is a quality much talked about in politics, but hard both to define and judge. In a democracy it is not always the case that a strong leader is necessarily a good leader. A weak leader is, however, almost always a bad leader.

It is in this context that we today begin a series which looks at the political and business leadership in Scotland’s capital. From the evidence it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that Edinburgh is facing a crisis as the city seeks to weather the economic storm which blew up after the banking system collapse in 2008.

How has the capital fared since then? The answer is not well. In terms of business it has had to absorb the blow to its reputation as a centre of financial services from the nationalisation of Royal Bank of Scotland and the meltdown at the Bank of Scotland, then part of HBOS. Scotland’s capital’s reputation as being the home of canny bankers has yet to recover. It was painfully ironic that Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, the body which represents the business community, has itself been beset by problems, after it emerged that a crisis-struck subsidiary had fallen £1 million into the red.

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Politically the capital has performed little better, with the Liberal Democrats and the SNP administration paying the price for signing an imprecise coalition agreement which resulted in the two parties spending most of their time arguing with each other instead of tackling Edinburgh’s problems.

The fiasco over the trams and the refusal to back a modest privatisation of environmental services may have been primarily down to the Nationalists and their wily head, deputy council leader Steve Cardownie, looking ahead to next year’s elections, but Liberal Democrat council leader Jenny Dawe has not covered herself in glory, struggling to exert authority.

From the trams to the stalled waterfront development, through to the allegations of corruption over statutory repair notices, the council has been atrophying.

It cannot go on like this. On the evidence, the present proportional electoral system does deliver strong government to a council populated by political pygmies of councillors squabbling in a chamber once dominated by talents such as Robin Cook and Malcolm Rifkind. It is, therefore, hard to avoid the conclusion that we need a change of electoral system in Edinburgh, and Scotland’s other cities.

We need look no further than another capital city for a model. Since the introduction of an elected mayor, London has had leadership, first by Ken Livingstone and now Boris Johnson. Voters know who the mayor is and they vote them in and vote them out. Political checks and balance comes from a small elected assembly which has to pass the budget. It seems to work, and the voters like it. It is time for leadership in the capital, and a new kind of leadership provided by an elected mayor or even, if you prefer, provost.