If a 120-year-old promise is broken and Glasgow’s People’s Palace closes, it would be a powerful symbol that austerity is still very much with us, despite Theresa May’s claim the end is in sight.
As he opened the People’s Palace in 1898, Lord Rosebery, a former Prime Minister, told a crowd of several thousand assembled on Glasgow Green that it would be “open to the people for ever and ever”, describing the building as “a palace of pleasure and imagination around which the people may place their affections and which may give them a home on which their memory may rest”.
It may have survived two World Wars, economic recessions and a decade of austerity, but Rosebery’s optimistic pledge could be about to be broken. The adjoining Winter Gardens glasshouse needs multi-million-pound repairs and is to close indefinitely at the end of this year.
A knock-on effect may also be the closure of the palace, although Glasgow City Council still hopes to prevent this.
Councillors all over Scotland will sympathise, given the pressures they have been under in recent years.
Local authority spending on frontline services like school support, children’s services, rubbish disposal and social care has fallen by nearly £750 million over the past five years – a 7.1 per cent cut that has been contrasted with the 1.8 per cent reduction in the Scottish Government’s revenue budget. The figures prompted local government body Cosla to complain in May that councils had “suffered the brunt of cuts” and had “no room left to manoeuvre in terms of budgets”.
The Scottish Government, meanwhile, has sought to leave such complaints at the door of Theresa May; according to Bute House, this is Tory, not SNP, austerity.
For her part, the Prime Minister recently made an even more optimistic pledge than her predecessor, declaring the end of austerity was within our grasp – if only the right Brexit deal could be struck.
However, the closure of the People’s Palace would be a powerful symbol that our economic woes are very much still with us and that it is the “people” who continue to pay the highest price. The museum is famously home to Sir Billy Connolly’s ‘big banana boots’, but it also details the lives of everyday working-class Scots.
One of its highlights is the Single End display, showing a typical single-roomed house of the 1930s, where a family would eat, sleep, cook and wash.
It acts as a reminder that austerity today is still an improvement on the past, but also a warning of how much worse life can be. Both are valuable lessons that should not be lost.