Eddie Barnes: Councillors meet their Waterloo

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PITY the politicians and public officials in the Twitter age.

No sooner had it emerged on Monday that Glasgow City Council officials had put forward a plan to spend £65,000 raising the Duke of Wellington statue to prevent people sticking a cone on top of Duke’s head, than @WellingtonCone had been born on the social media site and an online petition demanding the cone’s retention had attracted 4,000 signatures. Hell hath no fury like Twitter scorned.

An iconeic part of Glasgow's heritage. Picture: PA

An iconeic part of Glasgow's heritage. Picture: PA

Predictably, it ensured that, by Monday evening, a “livid” leader of Glasgow City Council, Gordon Matheson – who could already see the mayhem heading his way – was already pulling the plug on the plans.

Glasgow City Council chiefs were only experiencing the same Twitter storm which hit their colleagues in Argyll and Bute last year, when they attempted to prevent schoolgirl Martha Payne from putting photographs on to her blog of her distinctly average looking school meals. The two episodes in Glasgow and Argyll have plenty in common.

In the case of young Martha, it was her blog which officials were trying to take out of the public’s reach. In the case of the Wellington Cone, it was the statue that the authorities wanted out of harm’s way. In both cases, the authorities had decided that they knew best, and that public freedom had to be curtailed for a higher interest. Both attempts to curb public expression, however, lasted about a day before outraged public opinion, supercharged by the web, flattened their case into the dust.

The Glasgow officials who backed the idea of a higher plinth will no doubt be feeling as aggrieved as their Argyll counterparts did before them. They will point to the warnings that the magnificent Wellington statue, built by the world-renowned Italian artist Baron Carlo Marochetti, is looking worn down and requires some kind of protection. Is the sight of a dirty orange cone on the top of it really that funny? Isn’t the need to ensure the statue remains in good shape for future generations more important than our generations’ right to enjoy a drunken prank? But, as Argyll and Bute found out before them, in a socially networked world, all the arguments in your favour count for little if your response is a clumsy attempt to block public freedom and expression. The response can only lie in harnessing free expression and, if you want to change things, trying to give matters a discreet nudge in the direction you want.

Martha Payne’s Never Seconds website is still going and currently provides information on the work she is doing with the Mary’s Meals charity. Perhaps the best answer to the Wellington statue, say local heritage experts, is to repair it and then illuminate it better so that people think twice about climbing up. But putting up barriers to people’s freedom to act as they choose? Nowadays, you cross that right at your peril.