Brian Monteith: Joke gorilla is worth apeing

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It was 30 years ago but I can remember the gorilla as clear as day. There I was, standing in Edinburgh University’s Teviot Row Union about to have lunch, looking at a notice board that was covered in photographs and manifestos of students standing for election.

There was a sea of candidates, all pretty indistinguishable with their long hair and spots, apart from one, and that one was a gorilla.

It was no ordinary gorilla of course, just a gorilla mask, but as all the candidates were limited to a passport photograph, it looked like a gorilla was indeed standing for election.

It will come as no surprise, of course, that he won.

In fact, he romped home, well clear of the dreadfully earnest beardies, the oh-so sweet Priscillas and young fogy-like Hugos who all had to suffer the humiliation and embarrassment of being beaten – by a joke candidate.

I recall all of this because just this week we have heard yet more cries from business leaders for strong leadership of our city – which of course means strong leadership of the city council. And who can blame them?

I thought to myself, a monkey couldn’t do any worse.

The city lurches from one catastrophe to the next, one financial black hole after another, and when we look around our stunning environment with the wonderful buildings, scenic parks and bustling cafes and restaurants we have to say its success and beauty has been despite the council, rather than because of it.

Before people think I’m trying to make some sort of political point, let me state that the Tories losing power in 1984 was probably a good thing in that it allowed the stuffy old boys network to be swept away.

The disaster was that Labour stayed in power for so long, especially in 1992 when the Tories actually polled almost double the votes but won fewer seats. Labour councillors then became the establishment and brought with them their own faults, their own conceits and detached arrogance.

The traffic mayhem, neglect of facilities, unwarranted school closures congestion charging and then the trams. And that’s just for starters.

Then when the Liberal Democrats and SNP got into power we thought it couldn’t get any worse than before – but in many respects it has – for although Labour had lost touch with the people of Edinburgh, they at least had a plan – there was a degree of predictability.

Now it’s leadership by the push-me, pull-me duo of Cardownie and Dawe, or is it Dawe and Cardownie? Can anyone tell?

The relationship between the “leader” Dawe and her “deputy” Cardownie resembles Laurel and Hardy, or worse, Little and Large. But no-one’s laughing.

Policies are unclear, incoherent and overturned where they do exist, while the direction of travel is one step forward and three steps back – or sideways.

When we look around it is genuinely difficult to see which party we can vote for that will sort the city out.

No-one is managing to impress. All have had a go and the other stumbling block is that the proportional voting system means that we are now condemned to coalitions in the City Chambers for ever more.

This contributes to the weakness of the leadership, as the politicians constantly have to cut a deal with their partners rather than drive forward with policies that got them elected – that’s because their mandates can often conflict.

It’s a recipe for weak leadership and that’s what we’ve got.

Regular readers might remember that I have said in the past that cities like Edinburgh (and Glasgow, Aberdeen and Dundee) would benefit from having an elected Lord Provost who appoints his or her own team to run the city and is then scrutinised and held to account by councillors at regular meetings open to the public.

The system exists around the world from San Francisco to San Salvador and provides elected politicians that have to take responsibility and cannot hide from the public or they will be thrown out.

It’s rather how it is done in London – and although the London mayor has fewer powers (mostly running the transport system and having a say in the policing) it appears to work well and is popular with Londoners.

So why can’t we have it in Scotland? What’s stopping the Scottish Parliament introducing it here?

That’s easy. Just think about it. If you are the big cheese swaggering about representing Scotland, saying you will do this for pensioners and that for students – do you really want another big personality on the stage with you?

Another person who, unlike opposition leaders has an electoral mandate to say things can be done differently – even better?

The biggest threat to David Cameron is not Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg or George Osborne – it’s Boris Johnson.

In 2002, Hartlepool elected a man in a monkey suit for mayor. A joke candidate just like my gorilla? Well, he’s now serving his record-breaking third term of office.

Looking at Edinburgh I don’t think a monkey could do any worse, or even a panda. If only we had the chance to vote for an elected Lord Provost . . .