Centenary Lecture Series: ‘Lord Provosts, Local Leadership and Glasgow’s Changing History since the Nineteenth Century’

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On 24 October 2013, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr Irene Maver to conclude the Centenary Lecture Series which has been held at the Mitchell Library for the past year. Dr Maver discussed ‘Lord Provosts, Local Leadership and Glasgow’s Changing History since the Nineteenth Century’. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

While Dr Maver’s lecture could not incorporate discussion of the post-1975 situation, she noted the relevance and timeliness of this topic for the forthcoming Independence Referendum. Debates rages even now about whether Scotland needs to be more, or less, centralised. A recent Herald article by Mark Smith courted controversy as it suggested Scotland’s 32 Councils should be consolidated into 10 local authorities. He argued that Scotland had ‘zero affinity’ with their local councils and only foster a ‘spurious sense of localism’. On the other side of this debate is Riddoch’s, Blossom: What Scotland Needs to Flourish, argues for more local government, claiming Scotland is the least represented country in local government in the developed world.

Certainly, in comparison to modern Scotland, local leadership was much more conspicuous in the preceding centuries. Lord Provosts, generally wealthy merchants before 1833, exhibited ‘localism with bells on’. They were visible figures who generated publicity–good and bad. Sometimes the garishness of the Provosts in Glasgow were lampooned by satirists due to their ostentatious trappings of office such as the gold chain. (Even now, Provosts wear the gold chain, which are one of the last links–literally–with the ceremonial identity of the office.) Nevertheless, the Glasgow Provosts seem comparatively frugal when matched up to their Edinburgh counterparts. In the early 19th century, a Glasgow Provost claimed £40 in expenses for the year, while in Edinburgh, the claim was for £1000!

The Victorian and Edwardian era is regarded as a golden age of local politics, and in post-1707 Scotland some claim it constituted the ‘survival of [a] semi-independent’ nation. Glasgow was regarded as a city-state, with the 1896 Provost remarking it was ‘equal to a modest kingdom’. A symbol of this civic virtue was the Loch Katrine project, which was trotted out by various subsequent Lord Provosts, and other politicians, as ‘scourge of cholera’ and cleansing unifier of the city. Every three years, the city councillors made a trip up to the Trossachs to signalise their favoured candidate for Provostry, using Katrine as a symbol of political purity.In contrast to this relatively positive image, there was controversy in this period, mainly centering around the high spending of Provosts which the people were expected to subsidise. Additionally, Lord Provost Chisholm was unpopular for his outspoken radical liberalism and ardent support of prohibition.

Since 1933, the Labour stranglehold over the Lord Provost’s title has been tight indeed, with only two non-Labour representatives, both from the Progressive Party (an odd mix of Liberalism and Conservatism, with no real singular identity). Only four women have been Lord Provost, and the first, Jean Roberts, was a real trailblazer. She staunchly maintained the masculine title of the ‘Lord Provost’, and happily attended all-male functions, such as Burns Suppers. She argued that one had to ‘break the tradition to maintain the tradition’, and this mix of continuity and change in the Provostry can be seen across the centuries.

Summary by Ross Crawford (PhD Researcher)

This lecture concludes the Centenary Lecture Series. Our weekly seminar series continues next week, 29 October, with Nicola Carty’s ‘The development of Gaelic language skills by adult learners’. This will be held in Room 202 of 3 University Gardens at 5.30pm. All welcome.

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