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Gang of Four: What do Scotland's Lord Provosts really do?

Scotland's four serving lord provosts

Gang of Four: What do Scotland's Lord Provosts really do?

Jacqueline McLaren’s office is full of light. After the Lord Provost of Glasgow moved into her official chambers in 2022, the new broom took down the stoorie old curtains and switched out the artwork on the walls. 

There’s a painting of the canal-side slope she skidded down on a sheet of cardboard as a girl in Maryhill, another of its mid-century council housing, and a third of a grimy back court with soot-soaked tenement walls and broken windows alongside a photo of her laughing, chain-of-office gleaming, at a Royal Navy event. McLaren says the images are the story of her life, but they also suggest something about the unfiltered way in which she sees her city. “I’m an ordinary Glaswegian doing an extraordinary job,” she says.

As the city’s designated “first citizen” and Lord Lieutenant, SNP councillor McLaren is the civic head and convenor of Glasgow City Council and the King’s representative there. And she’s one of a select band of four Scots who hold the office of lord provost at any one time.

While there are civic heads of local government across the country, only the quartet of authorities – Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, and Glasgow – have a lord provost at the top and McLaren, whose appointment follows a local ‘community champion’ award, feels she stands out from her fellow chain-wearers. “I’m the only woman,” she points out.

It’s hard to say what John Stewart would make of the current set-up, with McLaren leading a team including a depute lord provost and 18 bailies to handle hundreds of civic events every year, also chairing full council meetings and hosting visits by and engagements for the royal family. It was Stewart who was the first lord provost of Glasgow way back in 1450, when the role was more in line with that of a chief magistrate. There have been hundreds of holders since then including Dame Jean Roberts, who, in 1960, was the first woman to don the gold chains.

So there has been some modernising of the role, but should there be more? Proponents of elected mayors think so and want to see the structure of Scottish local authorities shaken up. Think tank Reform Scotland has suggested that all Scottish councils should be run by directly elected mayors, as in London and Greater Manchester, who would hold regular meetings with the first minister, improve accountability and create a “better balance of powers”. Although that political role is distinct from the civic post of lord mayor, and not directly comparable with that of lord provost, its introduction would be a major shift for Scottish councils and David Cameron, the Lord Provost of Aberdeen, is “not convinced”.

It's a bit of a first-world problem - 'my gold's too heavy'

Robert Aldridge, Lord Provost of Edinburgh

“If you’re going to do mayors, where are you going to do them for?” he asks. “If you’re asking me if I thought there was a case for reform of local government, I would probably go down the route of looking at the number of unitary authorities. Rather than having elected mayors, I would prefer to see, instead of our 32 local authorities, maybe 20 local authorities set up, and make them function better.”

“I actually prefer a system where every councillor is equal,” says Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Robert Aldridge, who also happens to be his city’s longest-serving councillor. Aldridge, of the Lib Dems, fears shifting to a mayoral system would create “a civil service which provides for the government, rather than the council as a whole”.

“I know there can be some advantages in directly elected mayors, such as having quick decision-making, but I’m a great democrat and I think that cut and thrust of political debate leading to an acceptable budget and scrutiny may be a bit cumbersome, but it ends up with a better decision. I’ve always been very wary of too much power in one person’s hands.”

Aldridge stepped down as leader of the local Lib Dem group to take up the post, which also made him the honorary Admiral of the Firth of Forth and the city’s “chief mortician” – though he says he “luckily” hasn’t had to do anything in that capacity yet. He has a “self-denying ordnance of not being hugely, assertively party political” and tries not to get involved in “particularly contentious” matters of that kind, because he feels it is important that he is “someone who promotes inclusion rather than division” in a local authority which shifted from SNP to Labour control at the last election.

In Aberdeen, where the SNP is in administration, Cameron – a former president of the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland and chairman of NHS Grampian – says he tries to “remain as neutral as [he] can be” while heading what is “fundamentally a political forum”. It can be a delicate balancing act when convening full meetings of the council, he suggests. “While I’m trying to be neutral as the convener, I wouldn’t be the lord provost if I wasn’t an elected member and, as an elected member, part of the administration of the council.

“At the end of the day, I have got a casting vote. It would be political suicide to vote against the administration. It’s highly unlikely the lord provost in any of the four cities would go against the administration, if it was something that was being proposed and voted for by the whole administration.”

While Scotland’s lord provosts have different approaches to the job, all say they are “honoured” to hold it, and that they are ambassadors for their regions. Dundee’s Lord Provost Bill Campbell, who is also the local Armed Forces champion, has attended everything from Broughty Ferry’s annual Ne’erday Dook to Indian Republic Day in a varied and busy diary, but is now trying to be “more proactive, seeking out meetings” with organisations he hasn’t yet worked with. “I’m definitely out there trying to represent the city. We’ve got some fantastic organisations doing fantastic work. Dundee is a great city with so much to offer. 

I'm biased, but any lord provost would be

Bill Campbell, Lord Provost of Dundee

“I’m biased,” he goes on, “but any lord provost would be. It makes it easy to do the role. I genuinely believe it with all my heart, and I consider myself very fortunate.”

Not for Campbell the pomp of office – he’s “feng shui-d” his rooms and “slimmed things down”, clearing out unnecessary furniture and using his “trusty iPad pro to do everything”. People always want to talk about the chain, he says – which is 18ct gold and features a cloudy emerald given to the city by King George V in 1914. There’s an emerald in Aberdeen’s too, and a recent insurance valuation put the bling at around £300,000.

The chains are, they say, metaphorically heavy with the weight of office, but they’re literally weighty too. “I think it’s 2.5kg,” Aldridge says of Edinburgh’s. “It’s a bit of a first-world problem – ‘my gold’s too heavy’ – but it is absolutely magnificent. When you first put it on you feel the weight of being part of a long historical tradition. It’s kept very securely in a safe and when I wear it I’m always accompanied by a city officer. I think people think they’re there for me, but they’re there to protect the chain. I’m under no illusions – they can always get another lord provost.”

Aldridge, who is the first openly gay man elected to the role in Edinburgh, has brought about some tweaks to the way things work, with his partner becoming the first official Lord Provost Consort. A picture of him standing next to Queen Camilla at her birthday event was shown on ITV’s Lorraine, causing much excitement in his family. Aldridge argues that the lord provost is a “kind of symbol of a city” and McLaren, who is preparing for a programme of activity in 2025 to mark Glasgow’s 850th year since the granting of its burgh charter, concedes that though “everyone always wants a picture”, it’s not her they’re really interested in, “it’s the chain”. “I’m all about adapting and moving on,” she says, “but I think it’s really important to keep the tradition of the office going because it’s very valuable to the city”. 

Despite the bling and the non-stop civic receptions – and the expense rows surrounding predecessors like Aberdeen’s Peter Stephen and Glasgow’s Eva Bolander, who between them claimed for shoes, underwear, and suits – all four reject suggestions that they are paid to party, earning between £30,150 and £45,230 for their roles. “I’m sure we are value for money,” Aldridge says. “The [civic] cars are all paid for, they’re eight or nine years old now and I get the bus in every morning from home.

“The civic side is a really important part of the soft power of the city, with investment, with the community of visitors. We have to recognise that Scotland’s capital city has to behave like an international capital city and that involves a certain amount of civic engagement. My strapline is I have the best job in the world in the best city in the world. 

I just hope that my grandchildren... are proud

David Cameron, Lord Provost of Aberdeen

“There are fixed periods of activity, and at the international festivals you tend to get the best seats at the best shows. It’s fantastic. And I have the great advantage of being able to listen to a whole range of different people. It’s the interrelationship between different things which is most important that I can get a bit of an overview of – X policy affects something over there – and I can have a word behind the scenes and say, ‘have you thought of that?’, but I’m not in the position of throwing political weight around. What I can do is open doors for people and ask questions and hope that the political leaders come to the right conclusion.”

“A lot depends on who you are, on your own personality,” says Cameron on whether the job goes to the head. “I know I’m the first citizen, but I don’t feel any different than I felt before I was ever involved in politics. I can see how you could really get carried away with all of this, but I just hope that my grandchildren look back in years to come when I’m no longer here and are proud of what I have done,” he says, welling up.

He’d planned to stand down from the council after two terms before it was suggested to him that he “might be offered the opportunity” of the LP job if he stood again. “That was an honour – if it was going to come to me, I didn’t want to walk away from it,” he says, reminiscing about dancing at Romanian dinners and getting to know Aberdeen’s Igbo community. “I didn’t appreciate just how much time being the lord provost takes up, or that there are weekends when you maybe have five events to attend. I need to be careful I don’t eat too much. I don’t think of that as a perk, but maybe it is.

“It’s fantastic, but your life is taken up with all of this,” he says, adding that he “wouldn’t do another term”. “There comes a time when you think enough is enough and you appreciate your grandchildren.”

“My job is to sell Glasgow,” McLaren says. “I’m selling it to the world.”

She talks about visiting universities and attending investment summits, and she enthuses about the innovation and research for the space and other sectors happening in her local authority; about policing students from Oman, the city’s sizable population of French speakers and the Mongolian couple who sent their son to see her after the UCI Cycling World Championships came to town. “We need to let people know that when they come to our city, they’re honorary Glaswegians,” she goes on. “We’re an international city and a lot of families want to come here – we have thousands of international students at our universities and in one of our schools there’s 100 different languages spoken.”

We need to tell them... 'this belongs to you'

Jacqueline McLaren, Lord Provost of Glasgow

She’s recently been working with local schoolchildren on a city-wide contest to find an official animal for Glasgow, which she hopes will become as well-known as Greyfriars Bobby is to Edinburgh. She’s had class loads of kids in for tours of the marble-clad halls of the City Chambers, and she wants to demystify local government and emphasise to all that the chain and the artwork are not hers, but belong to the people.

“That’s the message that needs to go out – it’s their city too,” she says of the pupils. “We need to tell them ‘you are going to be a part of this, you are going to be custodians of this city, this belongs to you’.”

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