The strange apology of Glasgow’s civic leader

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By Kenneth Roy

Politicians do not do apologies well. Like journalists, they are not the apologising type. But the recent apology of Gordon Matheson, leader of Glasgow City Council, has the look of a left-over Christmas turkey. It is first on the short-list for the Scottish Review’s Apology of the Year award, making Councillor Matheson a possible worthy successor to Nicholas Clegg.

So far as can be gathered, this is his apology in full:

I have been having an affair. I have not lived up to my own standards and my loving partner deserves much better. I am sorry for the hurt and embarrassment this has caused and I will do all I can to make up for it.

In his award-winning apology of 2012, Mr Clegg admitted that he too had been having an affair (with the Conservative Party), that he had not lived up to his own standards, and that his loving partner (the Liberal Party, or whatever they call it these days) deserved much better. He was sorry for the hurt and embarrassment this had caused and promised to do all he could to make up for it. Mr Clegg’s apology was so hilarious that it was turned into a best-selling song, all proceeds going to charity.

It is too much to ask that Councillor Matheson’s apology will also benefit some worthy cause. Nevertheless, it may be quoted for years to come as a classic example of someone apologising quite unnecessarily or, rather, for the wrong thing.

Among the many cares afflicting us in these first weeks of the year – young people dead on the mountains, insolvencies on the High Street, nasty goings-on in Algeria – the state of Councillor Matheson’s relationship with his loving partner fails to qualify. It comprehensively misses the half-way cut either as a piece of news or as a matter of any conceivable interest to anyone, apart from the two people involved. The assurances that the loving partner ‘deserves much better’ and that Councillor Matheson intends to ‘make up for it’ come straight from the Princess Diana school of loose emotion.

The needless apology was provoked by an incident in a car park, two weeks before Christmas, when a ‘passer-by’ – and where would the world be without that vigilant bit-part player, the passer-by? – observed two men, one of whom was Councillor Matheson, taking part in what was later described mysteriously as ‘an indecent act’. The passer-by called the police, who interviewed the participants and sent a report to the procurator fiscal, who decided that there was insufficient evidence that a crime had been committed.

End of story. Though not quite. For this is the second consecutive leader of Glasgow City Council who has been interviewed by the police following a complaint of possible criminal wrongdoing. The last was Steven Purcell, whose legal adviser Peter Watson – currently a member of the panel which is helping the first minister to introduce press regulation in Scotland – stoutly defended his client, claiming that he had been the victim of media harassment. Mr Purcell admitted, however, that he had taken a Class A drug and made himself vulnerable to blackmail. Perhaps an intense level of media interest was to be expected in these extreme circumstances. Anyway, Mr Purcell resigned.

Resignation does not appear to be in the mind of his successor. The latest intelligence from the George Square bunker is that it is ‘business as usual’ in the council leader’s office. But there is a case for arguing that the great city of Glasgow deserves better than two consecutive council leaders who have been interviewed by the police. Unless we are very careful, being interviewed by the police could become part of the job description.

If Councillor Matheson felt like apologising publicly, it should not have been to his loving partner – that would have been better done in private, sparing the blushes of the rest of us – but to the people of Glasgow. They are a tough, resilient lot, but they may be starting to wonder about the reputation of their city and the possibility that it is being exposed to ridicule in such places as – well, Edinburgh.

So misplaced was the nature of his apology that it inevitably called into question Councillor Matheson’s judgement in other matters. If he could not get a simple apology right, what else was he getting wrong? He was, for example, among the most prominent supporters of making George Square – a noble space of assembly and protest – ‘fit for the 21st century’, a euphemism for money-making rackets, aural and otherwise.

To this end, the council leader wished to have the statues in the square moved or removed. They were a nuisance to the entrepreneurs who were gasping to make George Square ‘fit for the 21st century’ with rock concerts and big wheels more in keeping with the spirit of our times than free assembly and protest.

But then, only yesterday, came a remarkable climbdown. There will be no ‘revamp’ of George Square after all, and the statues will stay where they are. Councillor Matheson, so recently determined to ride roughshod over the feelings of the vast majority of Glaswegians, now says he is ‘proud to be listening’ to them.

A genuine conversion on the road to Dalmarnock or a last-ditch attempt to save what is left of a political career? It is difficult to care one way or the other. Perhaps we should simply be grateful that an affront to local democracy has been narrowly avoided. But if there is any civic pride left in the Glasgow Labour Party, which once produced councillors of the quality and vision of Michael Kelly and Geoff Shaw, the search for a more credible successor to Councillor Matheson should already have begun.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review