Twenty-one years ago, I was hired by The Scotsman to report on shenanigans at Glasgow City Council. In those pre-devolution days, when local authorities represented the most powerful manifestation of government outside Westminster, all the daily papers had hacks on council beats and we were kept very busy because, although there were good eggs among the elected members, so many councillors were either stupid or bent or both.
In Glasgow, what became known as the “junkets for votes” scandal, saw various members of the Labour group accuse each other of taking sweeteners which influenced their political decisions. It was a meaty story, which saw a number of Labour councillors suspended by the party. This was headline news, playing out on the TV every night.
Glasgow City Council’s SNP group consisted, in those days, of just three members – Kenneth Gibson (now an MSP) and two defectors (one of whom never turned up to meetings) from Labour. With just two functioning councillors out of 83 members, the SNP hadn’t much of a presence in the debating chamber but that nationalist duo exploited Labour’s woes to their own advantage magnificently. They drove news stories about Labour sleaze while insisting that they operated to a higher standard. SNP demands for openness and transparency caught the public mood perfectly.
By the time the scandal ended with the reinstatement of suspended members to the Labour Party, the belief that the party’s councillors were snouts-in-the-trough wide boys had become fairly popular. Labour had nobody but itself and some clever SNP councillors to blame.
The decline of Labour in Scottish local government was underlined last year when the party lost control of Glasgow to the SNP. The city council is now led by Susan Aitken, a smart politician, regarded highly by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and respected as someone of substance by her opponents.
Aitken has distinguished herself among the new generation of SNP politicians by prioritising being a voice for her city over being a voice for her party. It is this sort of reputable behaviour that has some muttering about Aitken perhaps, one day, going to Holyrood, where she’d surely be considered ministerial material.
Aitken is not above good old-fashioned, gloves-off politics when the occasion demands. Her appointment last year of a consultant to examine decisions made by past administrations might have, as a council spokesman said at the time, been about ensuring greater public confidence in council decisions, but it also, conveniently, helped foster the impression that Labour councillors are a shower of wrong ’uns.
All of this makes the peculiar case of Glasgow City Council and the £235,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost all the more baffling.
Last week the council proudly announced that an anonymous benefactor had gifted the Roller to the city for use by the Provost, Eva Bolander. How lovely.
But there was just one problem, one huge, it’s-right-there-in-front-of-your-eyes-you-fools problem. Politicians benefiting from the use of a freebie Rolls-Royce and keeping the benefactor’s name a secret is just not on. Without knowing who had given the car, we could never know whether they had benefitted from council decisions.
We were asked to accept that the council had checked and everything was okay and we shouldn’t worry about it.
Aitken, in an uncharacteristically tetchy intervention, tweeted: “A philanthropic donor, as is fairly common, asked to be kept anonymous. Their wishes have been respected. Full stop.”
But full stop was not good enough. As an opposition politician she’d have torn the Labour leader of the council to shreds for such a complacent reaction.
Matters were not helped by others, such as SNP councillor Mhairi Hunter – a member of Nicola Sturgeon’s constituency staff – treating the whole thing as a trivial matter, “joking” about those raising concerns: “It’s because they think a nationalist donated it I think, in return for free unicorn grazing on Glasgow Green.”
This was idiotic stuff from a councillor who holds office in what they’re calling the City Government these days. It was precisely this sort of arrogance that brought Labour down in Glasgow.
Amusingly, it turned out that the mystery benefactor was one Boyd Tunnock, whose family’s products have played their part in making me the terrible wreck of a man I now am.
Tunnock – a pro-Union Tory Party donor – inadvertently caused the SNP-run council a lot of pain through his generosity. His request for anonymity might have been well intentioned, a reflection of modesty that said he didn’t want a fuss, but politicians should have said no.
I’m told – and can believe – Aitken regrets her initial reaction and that she “entirely gets” why the council should never have agreed to the conditions suggested by Tunnock.
The Labour Party squandered decades of goodwill by treating the voters with what often seemed contempt. Support was taken for granted and this bred an arrogance among many of the party’s elected members, who began to see running big, powerful local authorities such as Glasgow City Council as their God-given right. It turned out that voters did not enjoy being taken for granted and they began to turn to the SNP in considerable numbers.
The lessons the SNP should have learned as it rose and Labour fell – about being more open, more honest and more accountable – were completely forgotten in the case of the free Roller.
This stramash will blow over soon enough and the Provost will get to swank about in her new motor, looking the very picture of civic splendour.
But councillors – all politicians – should remember that this sort of stuff has a cumulative effect. It starts with a mystery Rolls-Royce and before you know it, trust has gone.
If Susan Aitken cares to look across Glasgow City Council’s debating chamber, she will see the haunted faces of men and women who learned that lesson far too late.