Never one to shy away from controversy, Steve Cardownie has become one of Edinburgh’s highest profile politicians
Steve Cardownie, deputy leader of City of Edinburgh Council and former trade union official, has made a career out of speaking his mind. He’s also gained a reputation for changing it: the former Labour councillor and deputy lord provost switched to the SNP in 2005, blaming Labour’s swing to the right. He has also, famously, been married four times. “I keep telling people, I don’t even like marzipan,” he says.
He admits that the magnitude of his party’s success at the Holyrood elections took him by surprise. “I knew as soon as I heard the Andy Kerr result [the former Labour minister lost his seat] that something special was going to be happening,” he says. “I was always confident that the SNP would be returned as the largest party, but of course hadn’t contemplated that we would get an overall majority.”
An upbeat campaign, and a robust track record in office, underpinned the SNP’s stunning success, he believes. “The positive campaign run by the SNP struck a chord with people; the negative campaign run by the Labour Party didn’t,” he says. “People want to be optimistic, particularly young people. They want a future, and they want a party that has a vision of the future. [And] the SNP has proven it’s a party that’s fit to govern.”
The other factor was the development of policies with broad voter appeal. “The SNP has policies that are attractive to a wide range of people, including those on the centre left and those who wouldn’t regard themselves as centre left,” he says. “Liberal Democrat voters found it easier to switch to the SNP irrespective of their views on independence because…they had the comfort, if they were against independence, of knowing that it will not be determined until the results of the referendum are known.”
For Nationalists in the capital, the one downside, says Cardownie, was the loss of Lothians list MSP Shirley-Anne Somerville. “She was quite literally a victim of the SNP’s success, because had we not been as successful in first-past-the-post she would have been elected from the list,” he says.
Looking forward, he has no doubt that the more consensual relationship that developed between councils and the Scottish Government over the last parliamentary term will continue under a majority administration at Holyrood. “A great deal of respect has been built up over [the] last four years between ministers in the Scottish Government and [the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities], and I’ve no doubt the SNP Government will seek to build on that rather than turn their back on it,” he says. “There is bound to be tension on some of the issues, and the issues will be serious ones, but how do we make sure the decisions are made in the best way? Rather than an atmosphere of acrimony, there should be an atmosphere of accord.”
Edinburgh, of course, is no stranger to the subtleties of dispute resolution. The city’s trams scheme, which was opposed by SNP councillors from the outset, has lurched from one high-profile crisis to the next. The question now being asked is whether scrapping the project in order to cut taxpayers’ losses would be more costly than pressing on with a route between Edinburgh Airport and St Andrew Square in the city centre. At the end of next month, councillors will receive a report setting out the options and be asked to decide whether the troubled scheme should be continued, mothballed or cancelled altogether.
Cardownie is in no doubt that the thinking behind the trams proposals was fundamentally flawed. “It was ill-conceived from the outset, rushed through because people wanted to get the money from the Scottish Executive,” he says. Now it is clear that no further finance is available from the Scottish Government, it is up to the council to find a mechanism for bridging the funding gap, bearing in mind the opportunity cost of steering investment away from worthwhile projects elsewhere.
Whatever the final outcome, the true cost for the city goes beyond the eventual price tag. “The other problem is Edinburgh’s reputational damage, and as [it is] the capital city of Scotland, the reputation of Scotland to deliver major engineering projects,” he says. “It’s no laughing matter.”
He pays tribute to council chief executive Sue Bruce, in post since January, whose tireless dedication and hands-on approach has given the project its best hope yet of success. “Sue and other senior officials who are relatively new here have been prepared to roll up their sleeves and get involved to an extent which hadn’t been demonstrated before,” he says. “She’s got more chance of delivering something than perhaps people who were involved in it in the past had – not just because it’s a fresh pair of eyes, it’s because she’s an excellent chief executive.”
Cardownie has also been caught in the media storm surrounding the aftermath of the loss-making Gathering event in 2009, and in particular a press release issued by the council which suggested a council-backed tourism body would cover the private-sector debts of the company behind the two-day event. A report from the Parliament’s audit committee questioned the credibility of evidence given by Cardownie, council leader Jenny Dawe, former chief executive Tom Aitchison and director of corporate services Jim Inch.
According to Cardownie, the audit committee’s procedures were “pretty lamentable” and, in some regards, contrary to natural justice. “Four people who gave evidence orally were told they lacked credibility,” he says. “Evidence provided in written form some time after the oral evidence was preferred, and yet we never got sight of this written evidence. We weren’t asked to comment. We should at least have been invited back in light of the fact the media officer had a different view of what had happened to explain any perceived discrepancies.”
With hindsight, he believes the four could have been justified in walking out of the session. “Given the nature of the questions we were being asked and the manner in which they were put, on reflection, I’m surprised we lasted as long in that room as we did without making apologies and just leaving,” he says. “We’ve all been involved in local government for a long time so we’ve got a thick skin so we toughed it out.”
The fact that the council’s intervention was motivated by good intentions makes the resulting fall-out all the more galling, he says. “This all started by Edinburgh trying to do something positive, looking at ways creditors could be paid,” he says. “We didn’t have to, it wasn’t our event. It was born out of a desire of councillors and officials in this city to do their best in terms of recompensing, if we could, the creditors, and salvaging the name of the Gathering in order to have similar events in the future, but run properly.”
He is confident that a forthcoming report from Deloitte will exonerate the four individuals involved and draw a line under the affair. “I’m hoping the report when it’s out goes to the council and that’ll be an end to the matter, because we’ve got to get on with other things, it’s a distraction,” he says. However, once the report is out, he will be considering legal action against members of the audit committee who, he says, effectively accused him of lying. “I will be making tracks down to my lawyer because I have concern about some of the statements that have been made about the veracity of my evidence,” he says.
But then Cardownie is no stranger to controversy. When he switched allegiance to the SNP camp, he found himself ostracised by his former colleagues and unable to get any of the motions he proposed recorded in the minutes because no one would second them. Six years on, “one or two” still bear a grudge. “But it doesn’t bother me, because, quite frankly, I don’t regard them as being very strong politicians anyway – it’s a bit petty and personal,” he says. “It gets referred to now and again during debates but you expect that, that’s politics, I’m not going to lose sleep over that.”
These days it is “far more important things” that concern him, primarily the wellbeing of his family and his own health. The emotional speech made by Andy Kerr on losing his East Kilbride seat to the SNP, when he paid tribute to his wife and three daughters, hit home. “It sounds trite, but it’s true,” he says. “Keep your feet on the ground, and remember what’s important.”
He takes a similarly philosophical view about his own career. He has not decided whether to stand at the local government elections next year, saying he never plans too far ahead. “Nobody holds a gun to my head in terms of standing again, you have some days you wish you hadn’t been involved, but that’s more than outweighed by the days where you’ve made some positive contribution,” he says. “All these things will take care of themselves, and if you start worrying too far ahead in the future you’ll never get on with what’s happening now.”
It seems unlikely, though, that he will be putting himself forward as an SNP candidate for a seat at the next Holyrood elections. “Life’s too short to worry about getting elected to parliament,” he says. “The next elections are in five years’ time, so I’ll be 63. I’m wanting to be sitting in the Bahamas with a piña colada in my hand!”
Though, after so long in the political limelight, that life might be a bit too quiet for comfort.