When I first clapped eyes on the story about the Lord Provost spending tax-payers’money, I couldn’t quite believe the degree of outrage it was provoking. I mean, I knew what she’d done was ethically dubious – no-one needs 23 pair of shoes (and even if she did she shouldn’t have them on the public purse) but really did it merit all this stone-throwing and sanctimony?
Some people on social media suggested (quite aggressively) that my failure to join in the public flogging was born of the fact she was an SNP politician, but I knew for sure this wasn’t true because – and I accept I am betraying my ignorance here – I couldn’t remember without checking which party Eva Bolander belonged to.
Partly, I think, my reluctance to condemn was linked to the faux shock many journalists were expressing in connection with Bolander’s purchases: “Bags! and Jackets! and Shellaced Toes! £358 for one pair of glasses!” they said as if such excess had not been seen since the days of the Borgias.
The tagging of the story as “the cash for knickers scandal” (even though it had been made clear the money was spent on slips) and dismissive throw-away comments like “Who spends £75 on a haircut?” (duh, lots of women with greying hair and public-facing jobs) felt like sexism dressed up as morality and class consciousness.
Male mockery of female spending sprees is such a old trope, and a double standard because – while I am sure lots of women do dress for themselves – there is also a social pressure for them to look good, which doesn’t exist for men. Perhaps if they weren’t so frequently critiqued – “she looked like a scarecrow”; “Her bra strap was showing”; “who’d shag her?” – they could save that money and spend it on something more worthy: like season tickets or trainers or esoteric albums of the 1990s.
Much of what was said about Bolander was so OTT it was actively embarrassing. “Why can’t she just buy her clothes from [redacted]?” Really? The woman whose job is to sell Glasgow to the world is supposed to host civic receptions in an outfit produced in sweat shops and likely to fall apart at an inopportune moment? The question of whether the taxpayer should fork out for them aside, I think we ought to agree that it is not unreasonable for a Lord Provost to buy her dresses from John Lewis.
Mostly, however, my inability to whip myself up into a frenzy about this story was down to the fact there were so many more heinous offences being committed – well, absolutely everywhere. I know intelligent adults ought to be able to hold more than one thought in their head at the same time but – however bad the optics – it’s ludicrous to call for the resignation of a woman who got a bit carried away with her expenses, while Boris Johnson faces no repercussions for lying, nor Donald Trump for harbouring the wife of a US diplomat alleged to have been involved in a road traffic accident in which a British teenager died, or allowing Turkey to bomb the Kurds in northern Syria as a favour to Vladimir Putin.
Call it whataboutery if you like. I think it’s about focusing your fury where it matters most. After all, what kind of justice is it if you can lie and cheat and do dirty deals with the Ukraine with impunity, but if you buy a few more work clothes than you should on expenses, it’s the stocks for you?
There is surely a limit on the amount of outrage any one person can muster in a single week. I saved half my quota for the moment Trump shrugged and dismissed driving on the wrong side of the road as “something that happens”. And the other half for the unconscionable betrayal of supposed allies who had sacrificed so much in the fight against Isis.
My atypical indifference to Bolander’s misjudgment did make me wonder, though. What if the depravity of Johnson, Trump, Putin et al is messing with our (my) moral compass? What if the mortal sins being committed almost daily by the world’s most powerful figures are leading us to turn a blind eye to more venial ones? What if this climate of amorality becomes normalised until you have to – what? – commit genocide before anyone finally says: “Enough is enough”?
Because, of course, how Glasgow’s Lord Provost behaved OUGHT to matter. She may have under-spent the limit of her “allowance” by £2,000 over two years, but that allowance didn’t have to be spent at all, and certainly not on 23 pairs of shoes.
It matters, too, because Glasgow is a city that struggles. The £8,000 Bolander spent wouldn’t begin to solve the problems of drugs deaths or homelessness, but taking it on top of her salary demonstrates an insensitivity to those who gaze longingly in shop windows at clothes they will never own.
Most of all it matters because SNP councillors spent so long talking about the gravy train entitlement of previous Labour administrations. It’s disappointing to witness one of their own being similarly cavalier with other people’s money.
Such incidents cast fleeting shadows over the campaign for independence. They make you ask yourself: why would you vote for more upheaval, if it’s going to produce is the same old, same old?
Yet there are positives to be drawn from this saga. Bolander was quick to apologise and to agree to pay back some of the money she had spent. I mean: think about it. We live in a post-shame society; a society where most politicians caught red-handed brazen it out. It is the era of continuing to spout a lie even when there is footage of the truth; the era of posting old photos of happier times and pretending they are current; the era of “F*** the haters.”
Bolander could easily have brazened it out. There is no evidence she broke any rules (although, to be fair, it is less-than-clear what the rules are). Arguably, if the money she spent was too much, or should have been spent in other ways, the fault was not with her, but with whoever set the limit or failed to clarify what expenses it was designed to cover. And with the Scottish Government for effectively scrapping the Scottish Local Authorities Remuneration Committee, which means there is no longer much scrutiny of what councils are doing on expenses.
The fact Bolander acknowledged a misjudgment and offered to pay a proportion of the money back shows she and/or her colleagues, are capable of self-reflection and still enough in touch with right and wrong to recognise the need for reparation.
If Johnson or Trump had even a fraction of the capacity for conscience-searching, the world would not be in the mess it’s in.
So let’s cut Bolander some slack. Her misdemeanours were comparatively small, her apology came comparatively quickly. She has pledged to make amends. We should move on. There are bigger things to worry about.