SELL THE FAMILY SILVER?
As Glasgow struggles with past mistakes and eight years of SNP cuts made in Holyrood, some argue it's time to pawn off the city's cultural assets
Researching and writing these articles takes time, so please consider hitting the subscribe button below. Any support is deeply appreciated
In a speech to the Tory Reform Group on the 8 of November 1985, former Prime Minister Harold MacMillan delivered a speech in which he criticised the policies of the then PM Margaret Thatcher. He is often misquoted as having said '“selling off the family silver”, but the substance of his contribution summed up an era. The analogy he drew was a simple one, filled with truth, that during times of great difficulty you will often find those in power searching for ways solve the oppressive gap between lower levels of what is earned versus what is being spent.
“First of all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go…”1
MacMillan, Earl Stockton (he chose the name after the northern working class constituency Stockton-on-Tees he had represented from 1924-1945) went on to elaborate on his comments.
MacMillan, as a Tory of the post-war consensus, was decrying Mrs Thatcher’s decision to view the huge sums of short term money raised from privatisation as if it were income. Such solutions, he argued, are only beneficial in the present. Injecting much needed capital immediately, but leaving the issue of a gap between income and spending unresolved longer term.
MacMillan was highly critical of the rise of monetarist economic theory, ruminating on the difference between his favoured economic theory and the one favoured by Mrs Thatcher. Speculating on where monetarism had come from he said,
“Was it America? Or was it Tibet? It is quite true, many of Your Lordships will remember it operating in the nursery. How do you treat a cold? One nanny said, 'Feed a cold'; she was a neo-Keynesian. The other said, 'Starve a cold'; she was a monetarist”
THE parallel is apt for where Glasgow finds itself in 2022, as Scotland’s largest city. The finances are a mess, and it is the result of a mixture of failures stretching across political parties. The city is struggling amid the legacy of a long running equal pay crisis, alongside eight years of SNP crafted austerity in Holyrood.
For those who do not know, in January 2019 the SNP, now running Glasgow City Council (GCC), settled a long running dispute over equal pay. It had been argued successfully that women were being paid less than men in jobs of the same grade. The dispute, beginning in 2007 (when Labour were running GCC) witnessed “traditionally female-dominated roles such as catering or home care ended up being paid up to £3 an hour less than male-dominated jobs such as refuse workers or gardeners".”2
Ultimately the SNP, when coming to power agreed to settle the dispute, costing £548m. This money to compensate the women impacted by unequal pay is still rumbling on despite the settlement, as unions demand this bill be paid by GCC faster.
But this dispute has occurred within the context of eight years of SNP cuts crafted in Holyrood parliament. It has been reported that the net impact of successive Scottish Government budgets and policies has resulted in nearly £1bn in cuts to Scottish local authorities3. In Glasgow itself, the SNP council that had - admirably - moved to swiftly settle the unequal pay crisis that they inherited, have failed to show a similar alacrity in resolving this legacy of cuts. The SNP City Council has pointedly failed to show similar eagerness to oppose or push back on Ms Sturgeon’s cuts coming from the national level. In fact, Cllr Susan Aitken has actually went out of her way to defend the SNP austerity imposed from Edinburgh.
Responding to the financial pressures on local authorities, Cllr Aitken decided to attack the “old style socialism of Scottish Labour”, issuing a call for “ending paternalism”,
“Ending paternalism means citizens will have to take tough decisions themselves, though…Aitken says she “fundamentally disagrees” with the idea that citizens “can’t manage unless the council is there, not just holding their hand but doing it for them”. The culture change is far from complete, though. “We’re not quite there yet,” she admits.”4
Perhaps the reason she and her SNP colleagues have been so eager to settle the equal pay dispute was not just because it is self-evident women should enjoy equal pay; but also because it offered a chance to kick the Labour opposition? Criticising and resolving pay disputes handed down from a previous (Labour led) council administration is just so much easier than pushing back on your own national leader in Bute House.
And the pity is, the short changing has continued as the latest SNP budget issued by Finance Secretary Kate Forbes. We have borne witness to further real terms cuts to Scottish councils5. This is despite councils’ - the length and breath of Scotland -warning that unless they receive upwards of an “extra £1bn” a tipping point can’t be avoided6. Sadly however, here in Glasgow the SNP administration locally has preferred to champion a Thatcheresque commitment to “ending paternalism” over seeking a more sustainable settlement from the national government.
It is in this context that I read the thoughts of Gary Smith of the GMB. He has proposed selling off the City’s Salvador Dali masterpiece ‘The Christ of St John of the Cross’ currently hanging in Kelvingrove Art Gallery.
“A haunting £60m painting of Christ should be sold to meet Glasgow’s equal pay bills, according to a top trade unionist.
Gary Smith of the GMB said council bosses should be prepared to flog the Salvador Dali masterpiece and give the cash to women denied a fair wage.
He blasted: “There is no way this discrimination is going to be paid for off the back of hard-pressed workers in a cost of living crisis.”7
Now the issue I have with Mr Smith’s proposed solution is that he is guilty of the same mistakes Thatcher made in the 1980s, and what Cllr Aitken is currently making here in Glasgow. That is to say, to treat a one off ‘fire sale’ of a prized asset and view the proceeding funds raised as if it were income. It isn’t. The problem - the real problem - remains. Glasgow City Council has a financial gap, spending more than it is raising in regards to income.
A solution which would avoid a need for Cllr Aitken’s cuts, or Mr Smith’s pawning off the City’s cultural heritage is increasing income. Pressure must be placed on the SNP nationally to reverse their budget plans of imposing a real terms cut on Scottish councils. The solution is to compel the Scottish Government to agree a fair and sustainable financial settlement. Increase income, not selling off the city’s artistic masterpieces.
Art and culture is always viewed by those responsible for keeping things running as low hanging fruit to be dispensed with. Treated as an easy cut back during times of fiscal pressures.
But Glasgow doesn’t need Cllr Aitken’s crusade to “end the old style socialism of Scottish Labour”. Nor does it need to lose its cultural heritage to plug the financial gaps caused by Nicola Sturgeon’s fobbing off her cuts onto local authorities. What the city needs is a fair deal from Holyrood.
Speaking only for myself, I for one have no faith in Ms Aitken or the SNP locally to ever discover the backbone necessary to push for this fair deal. Perhaps it is time for some other party to be given the nod by voters in the local elections in May?
Knowles, Elizabeth (2014), Oxford dictionary of quotations, eighth edition, https://oupacademic.tumblr.com/post/76558708335/misquotation-family-silver
Bradley, Jane (2019, October 14), ‘Equal pay workers Glasgow Council 'forced to pay fees’, The Scotsman, https://www.scotsman.com/news/equal-pay-workers-glasgow-council-forced-pay-fees-1405257
Bol, David, (2021, March 14), ‘SNP told to 're-set' councils' relationship after £937m cuts revealed’, The Herald, https://www.heraldscotland.com/news/19158278.snp-told-re-set-councils-relationship-937m-cuts-revealed/
Mackay, Neil (2021, August 8), ‘NEIL MACKAY'S BIG READ: A brave new Glasgow? Council leader outlines £30bn vision to transform the city’, The Herald, https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/19498971.neil-mackays-big-read-brave-new-glasgow-council-leader-outlines-30bn-vision-transform-city/
Scottish Government (2021, December 9), ‘Scottish Budget 2022-2023’, pg 6, https://www.gov.scot/publications/scottish-budget-2022-23/pages/6/
Bol, David (2021, November, 15), ‘Councils warn SNP extra £1bn needed in Budget to simply ‘survive’ after ‘neglect’’, The Herald, https://www.heraldscotland.com/politics/19718217.councils-warn-snp-extra-1bn-needed-budget-simply-survive-neglect/
Hutcheon, Paul (2022, February 28), ‘Glasgow council urged to sell £60m painting to meet future equal pay bills’, Daily Record, https://www.dailyrecord.co.uk/news/politics/glasgow-council-urged-sell-60m-26340826