After moving to Edinburgh, I now know what’s wrong with our best cities

Moving house is one of the most stressful experiences you can go through.

In my case, it’s also one of the most confusing. As a west coast boy, I’ve just upped sticks and resettled my Glasgow life in Edinburgh, that most unGlasgow of cities.

I moved to be nearer Holyrood. I write about politics for a living and, although it’s taken a long time, I’ve finally accepted that this devolution business isn’t going away. Sadly, my dream of putting the Scottish Parliament to better use as shoebox flats or a Tesco superstore will go unrealised.

I’ve never lived more than an hour from Auld Reekie and was a frequent visitor but I can’t shake the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land. The local customs are baffling to me. Why is everyone called Ken? Can it really be legal to fire artillery over a city every lunchtime? And good God what is that sulphurous concoction they lather on their chips? As that most Edinburgh of schoolmarms Jean Brodie would say, ‘For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like’.

No, Edinburgh has nothing on my dear green place, the only city in the world where a four-letter word can be a term of endearment and a smile an indication you’re about to get stabbed. In Glasgow, total strangers will come up to you in the street, sling their arm around your shoulder, and tell you their whole life story. In Edinburgh, if you try to ask someone the time, they shriek and beg you to take their money and just leave them their Dachshund and the front row tickets to Irvine Welsh at the Book Festival.

Okay, Edinburgh has Rebus and the Harry Potter books and even if I reckon Greyfriars Bobby should have been appropriately microchipped I recognise that the city has its charms. But the culture shock got me to thinking about how different our two biggest cities are and yet how little those differences are reflected in how they are governed.

Devolution was not intended to improve the way Scotland was governed but, in the words of one of its architects, to ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Fortunately for Scottish Labour, we don’t have performance-related pay for politicians.

The current devolution set-up is a one-way ratchet, dragging powers from Westminster to Holyrood. (Except when the First Minister has been binge-watching House of Cards and convinces herself of secret Tory plots to steal powers from the Scottish Parliament.) Every fresh transfer of authority is hailed as a progressive move, as if people in Inverness should be grateful for being micromanaged from Edinburgh rather than London.

With the council elections just weeks away, we can expect to be chided by the political class for paying insufficient attention to municipal matters. When the turnout is announced on polling night, commentators will be wheeled into studios to tut-tut at the apathy of the masses.

Has it ever occurred to them that the reason so few of us will schlep to the polling station on May 4 is that there is so little at stake? True, local authorities don’t just take out the bins. They are responsible for education, roads, social work, planning and housing. But in most of what they do, councils are tethered by one-size-fits-all policies set at Holyrood and dependent on Scottish ministers who hold the purse strings.

Council reorganisation is the least sexy subject in politics. And to make sure you don’t flee at this point, I’m going to shock you: I agree with Patrick Harvie. Local government is the one issue where the Scottish Greens and I can sit down and break gluten-free bread together. For Mr Harvie’s party wants to see many more decisions taken locally and, regardless of what you think of the rest of his policy agenda, this is one area where the Greens talk common sense.

Scotland, with a population just over five million, is divided between 32 local authorities of varying sizes, from the tiny Orkney Islands Council to the behemoth that is Glasgow. How many of us have ever met our local councillor? How many of us could name them? (Frank admission: I’m a political journalist and I couldn’t.)

Our neighbours in Norway, with a similar population, have 19 county authorities and 430 municipalities in addition to central government. The former are in charge of secondary education and regional infrastructure while the latter oversee primary schooling, healthcare and planning. Now, that’s a little too much government for my liking but the principle — that local people know better than distant bureaucrats what’s in their community’s best interests — is a sound one.

I would shake things up further. Scotland has distinctive cities with distinctive needs but none of them has distinctive leadership, a political figurehead who can get things done at home and promote their city to the world. Council leaders are often not up to the job because they are chosen internally by parties. Replacing them with directly elected mayors, who owe their position not to the backroom boys but to the voters, would make all the difference.

A mayor of Glasgow could set the city’s policing priorities while the mayor of Edinburgh focussed on building a new hospital. Imagine what a mayor could do for Perth, a grey conurbation of despair that seems to have regained city status purely to tick another item off its bucket list. Perth has potential and residents who care about the city but no one in government to lead change.

You see towns and cities like this all across Scotland, places that could be vibrant but languish because central government can’t do it all but won’t admit to it. And for cities already thriving, greatness beckons if only power can be wrested from St Andrews House. Edinburgh may never replace Glasgow in my affections but both deserve the chance to be the great, international cities they can be.


Theresa May’s Easter message, in which she talked about her Christian faith, came in for predictable sneering, including from New Labour era spin chief Alastair Campbell, who famously declared, ‘We don’t do God’.

Religion is now only tolerated in public life when it is giving its blessing to one fashionable cause or another. The message has got through and those churches that prize ‘relevance’ above all else have adapted their message.

It’s hard enough trying to get the Church of Scotland to talk about God, let alone a senior politician. The Kirk, the Sunday Herald at prayer, is too busy agitating for a second independence referendum to bother with all that Jesus stuff. No wonder a 2013 poll showed just 37% of Kirk worshippers believed in the divinity of Christ. The Catholic Church is scarcely better, its catechism largely indistinguishable from a CND pamphlet.

When preaching the social gospel, these clergy might want to park the adjective and put a little more emphasis on the noun.


The SNP’s Mhairi Black was targeted by online trolls after she spoke out against the so-called ‘rape clause’ in government welfare reforms. The messages she was sent are too repulsive to repeat here but the 22-year-old MP has refused to be cowed. Miss Black has guts, something the cowards abusing her from behind their computer screens wouldn’t know anything about.

Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at

Feature image (c) Dave Emmett by Creative Commons 2.0.

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