Eva Bolander's shopping list has done us all a disservice
Hillary Clinton once joked that if she ever wanted to “knock a story off the front page”, all she had to do was change her hairstyle. Unfortunately, for Glasgow’s Lord Provost, it is her haircuts that have become the story.
And in a cash-strapped city where the council is being taken to court for not fulfilling its legal duties to house the homeless, that is not a good look.
Over a period of two years, Eva Bolander claimed £8,000 in expenses for clothes, beauty products and 23 pairs of shoes, earning her the moniker of Glasgow’s Imelda Marcos. She spent £435 on seven blazers between May 2017 and August this year, and claimed up to £992 for 14 dresses, £665 for five coats, £374 for six jackets and £152 for underwear.
Bolander, an SNP councillor, who earns nearly £40,000 a year as the civic leader of the council, also filed expenses of £751 for ten haircuts, £479 for 20 nail treatments and £66 for make-up. On one day alone she spent £500 on shoes.
We can’t shout sexism when we are scrutinised for what we wear and then defend a woman’s right in high office to claim for such fripperies as having her nails done
As James Kelly, a Labour MSP for Glasgow, said: “In just one trip to John Lewis she spent more on herself than what a worker being paid the national minimum wage earns in a whole week.”
The Lord Provost also claimed £358 for a pair of spectacles and £240 on two hats from the milliner William Chambers.
And while one defence has been that Bolander had not claimed as much as she could have from an annual pot of £5000 reserved for the civic leader and her deputies to help with personal expenses, there is literally no defence for why she thought it appropriate to spend the money on nearly two dozen pairs of shoes, £75 haircuts or getting her nails done.
The fight for equality is a battle hard fought. But the price of political power has often been the unequal scrutiny, and sometimes vilification, of women’s bodies and their wardrobes. And that is plainly not fair. As the Handmaid’s Tale author, Margaret Atwood, said in conversation with classicist and historian Mary Beard for Front Row Late on BBC Two, “Politics is hell in general but I think it’s probably double hell for women because not only do you have to have a position, you have to have a hairstyle.”
Gas guzzling Rolls Royces and heavy gold chains of office are the archaic trappings of a world of entitlement that so many other institutions have already left behind
And it is true, that female politicians endure endless commentary about their hair, their looks, their make-up. In 2008, it was Angela Merkel’s décolletage while attending the opera, which captured the headlines with the Daily Mail’s backbench salivating over pictures that produced the headline Merkel’s weapons of mass distraction. Former Labour MP David Hamilton once infamously described Nicola Sturgeon as “a wee lassie in a tin helmet” with reference to her hair, and in the same year that Bolander was running around John Lewis tearing up the aisles in her grotesque shopping spree, the first minister and the then prime minister, Theresa May, were suffering the full-on misogyny of the Daily Mail again, with a front page splash that featured their legs, shoes, and a headline that read ‘Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it’.
The Mail’s decision to objectify the country’s most prominent female politicians, focusing on what they looked like rather than what they stood for, might have been a throwback to the 1970s reserved for that tabloid, but sexism in politics still abounds. In part it is intended to silence or belittle, and despite all women’s advances, one of the most unyielding questions still facing them in politics is, what is she wearing?
So, I do have some sympathy for women on the front line and the cost of keeping up appearances, but it’s why I am so angry with Bolander. Her shopping list has done us all a disservice by denigrating her position and allowing it to be reduced to a debate about the frivolous. Her extravagances have only fed into the mindset that what women wear matters more than what women say. And for that, I find it hard to forgive her.
Given the scandal over the Westminster expenses scandal that laid political profligacy bare and is still fresh in the mind of an electorate scunnered with politics, every person in elected office should ask themselves, at the very minimum, the fundamental question: ‘how would this look?’ And this looks bad.
This isn’t about party-political point scoring, because every party has its scandals, but the SNP is judged to a higher bar because it’s a party that promised a different kind of politics. A fairer, more transparent, kinder, way of doing things. And in the pursuit of creating an independent nation, every day should be a rehearsal of how much better that might look.
And what it shouldn’t resemble is the troughing days of yesteryear.
Gas guzzling Rolls Royces and heavy gold chains of office are the archaic trappings of a world of entitlement that so many other institutions have already left behind. And Bolander’s expenses claim has only served to remind of the grotesque gravy train culture that can poison public office.
But worse for me as a woman is that while women have fought hard for equality and we are still have a way to go, we can’t shout sexism when we are scrutinised for what we wear and then defend a woman’s right in high office to claim for such fripperies as having her nails done.
Bolander’s crime wasn’t in using an allowance to ensure that she was turned out respectfully as a representative of the city, it was in not being cognisant of how, in one of the country’s poorest council areas, this would be seen and instead of putting her hand in her own pocket, she dipped into the public purse.