Steven Purcell on facing his inner demons

Four years since he fled Glasgow City Council, Steven Purcell faces up to his demons, rubbishes the wilder rumours and explains why he won’t say sorry

Steven Purcell, former leader of Glasgow City Council. Picture: Robert Perry

EMPTY. Exhausted. Empty.

The same feelings, the same words for months, circling like stagnant water round a plughole, but never quite draining away. His head was mash. How else to put it? Nothing helped. Not prayer. Not drink. Not this time. Booze made it impossible to think clearly, and now it didn’t even dull the pain any more. God, look at the sky, it’s getting dark. Another night without sleep…

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Steven Purcell, 37, the leader of Glasgow City Council, sat on the Chesterfield sofa in his mahogany panelled office, staring out of the window as the sun set over both his political career and the town he had loved all his life, the town he had led for almost five years. It was half past five on February 26, 2010, and he felt he couldn’t go on.

Stephen Purcell pictured in 2005. Picture: Donald MacLeod

So much pressure. Too much at once. The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport expenses scandal. Budgets. Planning for the Commonwealth Games, the Papal visit. And now there was this rumour about a drugs video and gangsters and blackmail. He’d cancelled a speaking engagement earlier. That wasn’t like him. But then he wasn’t himself at all. All this anxiety. His mind in… what’s the word? Disarray. He’d gone back to the flat for a while, but couldn’t settle, so had returned to work. He was alone in the office now. His staff had left for the weekend. Away home to partners and husbands and wives. He’d felt alone all day, though, alone for weeks. Lonely. Ach, to hell with it. Let someone else have these problems for a while.

Purcell stood up, put on his jacket and coat, and walked out of the leader’s office. He took the grand staircase down from the second floor and left the building. Glasgow had that buzzy feeling that characterises its payday Fridays, but he felt detached from the crowd crossing George Square on their way to pubs and dinner. He felt cold inside and fearful. He felt no warmer after he’d climbed inside his friend’s car and accepted a lift home. They headed west to Broomhill. Parked outside the flat. “I’m going to come round first thing in the morning,” his friend promised. “Try to get a good night’s sleep. Turn your phone off.” He heard the words but didn’t really take them in. He just wanted to get inside and pull down the blinds.

The key in the door. The door closing behind him. Safe. A deep breath out. Now, finally, the first clear thought for hours. Nothing is ever going to be the same.

STEVEN Purcell opens the door of his home and leads the way inside. It is January 21, 2014, getting on for four years since he resigned as council leader and, seemingly, abdicated from a promising political future.

He is 41 now, recognisably the same man, but his manner is very different. I interviewed him in 2008 at the peak of his success, the youngest ever leader of Scotland’s biggest council, praised by prime ministers, tipped as a future First Minister, the man who had won the Commonwealth Games for Glasgow. We spent most of a day together but I couldn’t get a handle on him at all. He was cautious, controlled in his answers, emotionally neutral, a shadow at the centre of power. He seemed an exemplary New Labour politician – so relentlessly on-message that every rough edge of his personality had been rubbed smooth lest something snag and cause a headline.

In retrospect, there seems to have been more to his seeming blankness. Purcell was suppressing his feelings, avoiding self-reflection, and making work and career the obsessive focus of his mind. It was what he had done all his life. “Emotions,” he says, “were just something I’d put aside. Full stop.” His talk, now, is all about emotions, and after several years of counselling he has grown comfortable with living the examined life. “My head was ahead of my heart,” he says at one point. His heart, over the past four years, has been doing some catching up.

We sit in his front room. On the mantelpiece are “new home” cards and a crucifix. His housemate is a close friend but not a romantic partner. “For me, coming home and sharing my day with someone else has been a very important part of my personal recovery,” he says. “At the time of my resignation, I had struggled for some time with living on my own. I didn’t like going home to an empty house.” Purcell came out as gay in 2006, announcing that his five-year marriage was over, a development that he had no trouble reconciling with his Catholicism, that appeared to cause him no difficulty among political friends and foes, and that was reported without faux-outrage by a supportive media. He was still very much the coming man. Tony Blair called him a visionary civic leader. Gordon Brown, it was said, all but begged him to stand in the Glasgow East by-election in the hope of avoiding losing the seat to the SNP.

So much for the rise. The fall, when it came, was precipitous. He resigned on March 2, 2010, four days after he had walked out of his office for the last time. An official statement referred to stress and exhaustion, but in the absence of hard information, many chose to regard these as euphemisms. There was talk of a “chemical dependency”, and it was noted that Purcell had spent three days at Castle Craig, the alcohol and drug rehab centre in the Scottish Borders. Soon came reports that police were investigating whether organised crime figures had obtained mobile phone footage of him taking cocaine and were using this for blackmail. Purcell, meanwhile, had left the country and was staying with family first in Australia then in Dublin. The leader who had been a shadow, now, in the media glare, vanished entirely.

“When I left public office, under circumstances that of course I would have preferred hadn’t happened, I simply was a very unwell man,” Purcell says, carefully, sitting on a couch in his home. “And I had no realisation for some time afterwards how unwell I had become.”

He speaks quietly and without haste, weighing each word. He is breaking his long silence now because he hopes for a sense of closure on this period of his life. He also has a point he would like to make – there was no “disgrace”. It is a word he dislikes seeing attached to his name in the papers. Those 12 sickening syllables: Disgraced former council leader Steven Purcell. The first time he saw himself thus described he was shocked. “I’ve still yet to see or hear anything truthful which I personally would associate with the word ‘disgrace’.” Yes, he took cocaine a few times; yes, he was drinking heavily; but the underlying problem was that he suffered a nervous breakdown. There is, he points out, no disgrace in being ill.

What about the idea that footage of him taking drugs would come out in the media? Did that contribute to his decision to quit? “It was certainly a pressure because I was getting quite frustrated at this constant rumour, but I knew a video didn’t exist. Of the small number of times that I had foolishly partaken in the use of cocaine, I knew it hadn’t been filmed because I knew who was in the room and I was lucid enough to recall who was there. The ‘gangster film’ was always nonsense. I knew there was no factual basis, but it was an added stress at the time.”

Purcell’s difficulties began in November, 2009. He felt tired all the time and began seeing his GP regularly. Problems were building at work, including the row over executive expenses at the Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. Ordinarily, he would take such matters in his stride, he says, but he felt fragile mentally. He felt, among other things, a deep loneliness. “I would be in my office at seven, half-seven in the morning because as soon as I got up I wanted to be around people. But inner loneliness is a much deeper emotional issue.”

Alcohol, in the past, had been part of how he coped with stress. A glass of wine at the end of the day. “But in those months leading up to my resignation, alcohol didn’t help with that sense of unease and emptiness and constant stress. I was drinking every night, and more often than not alone at home; or, if I was out, I didn’t want to go home. It was not social drinking in any way, and it certainly did not help my state of mind in trying to be rational about what actually was wrong with me.”

What about now? Has he stopped drinking altogether? “I choose not to drink today.”

Is he an alcoholic? “I resigned because I had a drink problem. I recognised that it was getting so severe that I was not functioning at the level the leader of a city should. That was the only reason I resigned, and it was contained within my resignation letter. I was drinking more and more because of the way I was feeling and the pressures of the job.”

One of the ways he tried to cope with the fall-out from his resignation was to drink even more. “But about a year ago I realised that there is a solution to being an alcoholic. I found the company of fellow alcoholics who have helped me make progress in arresting my alcoholism.” Weeks and months can go by without him drinking, but then he does. So he tries, now, to take it one day at a time. “Hopefully, I will get to a stage in my journey that I never lift a drink.”

Can he describe how he felt immediately before and in the period following his resignation? Without spirit, he says; as if a light had gone out inside. “Very often people can link a breakdown to one particular event. I can’t. I’ve heard depression described as a sign of being too strong for too long. No one is superhuman. And I think that part of me thought I was superhuman.”

He considered suicide. What stopped him? “I think it was probably cowardice… I felt so low and alone. I felt worthless. It was a terrible sense of desperation.”

Purcell was away from Scotland for three months. On his return to Glasgow he set about trying to get better. “I needed a lot of medical support for some period of time. Counselling, and nurses that work on mental health issues. I’ve been wonderfully supported by the NHS and by others.” He was in a state of shock for a while and in mourning for his former life. “For at least 12 months afterwards, I felt I’d failed myself, I’d failed my family, I’d failed my party, I’d failed everyone around me. And I had a lot of people telling me that was the case. I would meet colleagues in the street and they would tell me how I’d let them down. It didn’t make me angry or resentful, but it hurt me.”

It helped that from the summer of 2010 he was able to make a living. He runs a consultancy, advising businesses on public relations and communication. He has always associated earning money with self-esteem, ever since leaving school at 15 for a job at Abbey National, and it meant he didn’t have too many empty hours in which to brood. Plus, being hired proved that not everyone had written him off as – that dread word – a disgrace.

Still, it is only in the past 12 months that he has felt stable emotionally. Over the past four years he has had two serious relationships, but they didn’t work out, and he says he is now content being single. He does voluntary work helping people who are going through similar experiences to his own, and has given two public talks on his anxiety and depression. He is keen that people should not interpret this as him seeking redemption. He does not feel he did anything wrong that would require him to be redeemed. One senior Labour politician, he has heard, took the view that Purcell ought to apologise. “But I resisted doing that because I couldn’t at that time and still don’t see what I have to apologise for.” He isn’t, he insists, a bad man now trying to be good. He was sick not wicked.

“For all that Scotland is a very progressive and understanding country, I’m not sure we actually understand the seriousness of people who struggle mentally and emotional,” he says. “I found it much easier to come out about my sexuality than to have a rational discussion about my mental health.”

Purcell grew up in Yoker, a working-class district in the west of Glasgow, in the first floor of a tenement on Dumbarton Road. His mother worked in catering. His father, a roofer, had Crohn’s Disease, which kept him from regular employment. He was the elder of two boys. His maternal grandparents lived in the flat upstairs. When Purcell announced as a young teenager that he was considering entering the priesthood, his grandmother, who had come to Glasgow from Donegal, was adamant that he should put off this decision until he was an adult. Still, the church played an important role in his life. He attended Mass every morning before primary school, and later, at St Thomas Aquinas secondary, got involved in a Justice and Peace group, run by the chaplain, that awakened his political interest.

He had no sense until much later in life that he was gay. Not until after he was married to Katrina Murray, a trade unionist and NHS worker. “I don’t really remember when I first started thinking deeply about it. I mean, I threw myself into my career from when I was 16, 17. Emotional and sexual relations came second. But it was something that began to build up in the two or three years before I came out, I think because of a growing self-confidence that my career was giving me. I was circulating with a wide variety of friends, meeting people with different attitudes to life, different backgrounds, and I was maturing more emotionally. A lot later than other people do. For a lot of people these things happen when they go to university or out into the world of work. For me it was my career in public office that helped me to mature my emotions and sexual emotions as well.”

Purcell’s was a happy childhood, but in it one can find the roots of his later problems. “All of my life, I remember a sense of being less than others,” he says. “I believe that led to a determination to be ‘more than’.” He had to be top of the class, the teacher’s pet, a councillor at 22, council leader ten years later. As he puts it, allowing himself a moment of retrospective hubris: “People don’t start running cities and leading councils and being in charge of 38,000 employees and £2.4 billion of a budget at 32 years of age very often.”

Overcompensation for perceived inferiority has been the great motivating force of his life, and was arguably his downfall. He was so busy proving his worth to himself and others, so in thrall to outward lustre and hard work and an obsessive need to be in control, that he failed to notice the darkness gathering within. In the end, it was being forced to seek professional help that changed him. He has come to realise that relying on others is not a sign of weakness. He no longer sees his departure from high office as a failure. The fact that he is stable and, indeed, still alive is, for him, a cherished success.

Between the ages of 15 and 37, his life was characterised by intense forward momentum. “I don’t feel I’m on the express train any more.” The question, of course, is what will he do now? Is there a second act for Steven Purcell? He seems undecided on whether to attempt a political comeback. First he says definitely not; then, when we speak again a week later, he isn’t so sure. Later still, on the phone, it’s a “no” again. He feels, though, that if he was to return to public life he could be even more effective, having all his previous political skills, plus a new empathy and personal robustness.

Isn’t he frightened, though, of what might happen if he did return to politics? After all, pressure was bad for him before. “No, I’m not fearful at all,” he says. “I have a different mindset now. And the reason I’m not clear about my future is I am no longer a man in a hurry. I spent 20 years of my life being a man in a hurry, and as a result I achieved a great deal, of which I’m very proud, but, equally, I set myself up for some difficulties. My life is quite simple today compared with that high-flying, high-achieving life, but I’m a much more personally content and happy person.”

He smiles. “There was a point about two and half years ago when I had given up on myself. I think a number of other people had given up on me, too. But that’s not how it is today. Something inside me tells me that my best days are still to come.”

Twitter: @PeterAlanRoss