James Kelman

Storm in the Palace
Summer 1990

Visitors to the European City of Culture during recent weeks will have found more going on than either themselves or the city fathers could have anticipated. They have landed in the midst of a pitched battle, otherwise known as “the Elspeth King affair”, a complex web where allegations of humbug and cover-up fly back and forth. And a steady trickle of reports have appeared in the national media. But some observers cannot under-stand why this apparently trivial issue should cause such repercussions.

The explosion was ignited by the creation of the new post of Keeper of Social History in the city’s Museums and Art Galleries department. This was regarded by some as a possible ruse to finally wrest control from Elspeth King, Curator of the People’s Palace for the past 16 years. Assisted by her deputy, Michael Donnelly, King transformed a semi-derelict building into one of the finer social history museums in Europe. In the words of Alasdair Gray: “When she took over it had all the interest of a giant lumber-room full of objects too fascinating to throw away, but which no other public place could use.” King and Donnelly have spent much time and effort saving irreplaceable relics of the city’s past from the District Council Rubbish Collection Unit. In 1981 the People’s Palace won the European Museum of the Year Award; two years later it received the British Museum of the Year Award. King is rated by many within her profession as one of the top curators of social history in the English-speaking world.

But what's in a name? Within the bureaucracy of the museums and art galleries services the post of Keeper is graded superior to that of Curator. In effect the powers-that-be created a boss to put her in her place. She is being victimised in a shameful fashion.

The campaign in support of Elspeth King has cast doubt not only on the “Culture City” enterprise itself but on aspects of contemporary town planning which in turn serve to highlight the shift in philosophy of government over the past decade, both locally and nationally. Of particular concern is the continued erosion of democracy and the manner in which a Labour controlled council like Glasgow District seems to relish the opportunity of implementing even the more extreme aspects of Tory party policy.

King overcame the humiliation of queueing for an interview for her own job. When she did apply she failed to get it. Labour MEP Janey Buchan is on record as having heard months before the actual interview that this was to be the case. It is said that other insiders were aware of it around a year before. But the charade was played to the bitter end. Control of the People’s Palace and its artefacts now passes from King to the newly created Keeper. One of the most recent instructions to King is that she must not receive or dispatch a letter without having it read and initialled by a superior.

There are those who may yet wonder what all the fuss is about. Within the public sector these days tales of injustice are commonplace. One of the first tactical exercises in the new approach is to railroad out those employees who continue to harbor “old-fashioned principles” - examples are rife in the health, education and social services. But the obvious parallel is with the shabby circumstances surrounding the move from London to Manchester of the National Museum of Labour History. Julian Spalding, current Director of Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, was engaged in negotiating the NMLH move north. It was Spalding who chaired the committee that rejected King’s application for the post of Keeper and instead appointed Mark O’Neil. Along the way he made the by now notorious comment that there were “no jobs for the girls”.

Labour MP Gwyneth Dunwoody has referred to what is happening in Glasgow as “almost a mirror” of what occurred in Manchester when Terry McCarthy was sacked after being in control of the NMLH for some 13 years. McCarthy refers to “this new breed of gallery director/business manager (which) sees people like Elspeth and myself as anathema. They can't deny our academic qualifications and therefore go on about us not having the right business acumen.”

Ironies and complexities abound. Julian Spalding’s successful application for the Directorate at Glasgow was at the expense of Elspeth King, who had also applied for that job. Such is her reputation that she was the only employee of the museum services to be shortlisted and interviewed for it. It now seems certain Mr Spalding was “destined” for the post.

Needless to say, many people both in and outside Glasgow are appalled by what has happened, and a support campaign has been formed. It has occasioned the biggest post-bag to the Glasgow Herald since Billy Graham's barnstorming evangelical tour back in the 1950’s. The District Labour Party itself has “deplored the decision not to appoint Ms King”. The issue has been raised in the House of Commons by Norman Buchan. A petition was signed by 10,000 people, including many Labour councillors. But those in authority fail to be moved. And slowly, but surely, by implication or association, other matters have dredged their way to the surface. In this year of 1990 the strategy adopted by Mr Patrick Lally’s Labour-controlled Glasgow District Council closely resembles that of the national government. Lally is rather less circumspect than Mrs Thatcher but conducts and justifies himself in a similar manner.

One significant factor in the present controversy is the inability of officialdom to countenance criticism. While freedom of speech is under attack elsewhere in Britain, people should not be surprised to find it a “problem” here also. Elspeth King is denied the right to defend herself publicly. She is not allowed to speak to the media. She is not at liberty to express her fears of the damage the new regime will cause to the People’s Palace under a policy opposed not only to her own but to the basic principles of the Labour Party itself.

Lally has also barred his own Labour councillors from commenting on the affair. Yet officials who fall into line can talk to anyone they like. This extraordinary double standard continues to allow statements to be issued by Spalding and O’Neil, the new Keeper of Social History. It has also empowered the senior administrators of the “Culture City” enterprise to enter into the attack; they see the present controversy as a threat to their own “1990” endeavours.

One letter in support of Elspeth King, published by the Glasgow Herald, bore the names of some 63 people, including such well-known critics and artists as Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, Philip Hobsbawn, Liz Lochhead, Peter McDougall, Alan Spence, Agnes Owens, Tom Leonard, Archie Hind, Pat Kane, Freddie Anderson, Billy Connelly and Bernard MacLaverty. Lally’s response arrived in a 2,000-word statement to the press. He dismissed the group (and the support campaign in general) as “these dilletanti”, “well-heeled authors and critics”, “professional whingers”. Within the same document he very ably summed up his own approach to art and culture: “It is the intention of the City Council and our colleagues on Strathclyde region…to use the title (Cultural Capital of Europe) to the maximum advantage - we are going to milk it for all it is worth…”

Elsewhere, writers and critics have been referred to as “an embarrassment to this city and all of its cultural workforce”, in which context “cultural workforce” refers to arts administrators. Some epithets include “those who deliberately choose to exclude themselves” (from the “cultural celebrations”); “pathetic, factless, plant-walking, anti-1990-ism”; the “pro-poverty lobby”. Other terms are more familiar: “crypto-communists”, “self-proclaimed anarchists”, “trotskyists”, “racists” (Mark O’Neil is Irish while Julian Spalding, the man in charge of both, is English).

The part of the controversy touching on questions of art has shown those at the helm of the 1990 programme to be rather inept, with “culture” more often than not being a synonym for “etiquette”. Some old-fashioned red herrings have landed on the beach, of the “high art” versus “working-class art” and “tradition” as opposed to “the modern” variety. On the one hand critics are dismissed as elitist while on the other they are called philistine. Officials are also playing the patriot game; Glaswegians who criticise the Year of Culture or its leading exhibition, the critical and financial disaster, Glasgow’s Glasgow, are criticising the city itself.

There has been a battery of reports in recent weeks. These include the revelations concerning the actual costs of European Culture Capital year. As much as 10 per cent of the general services’ budget has been “milked” from every council department in Glasgow except housing to pay for the “Cultural Celebration”. Admission charges have been introduced for the MacLellan Galleries and the Glasgow’s Glasgow exhibition, in direct opposition to the principle of free access for the people to their own artistic and cultural heritage. Glasgow’s Glasgow itself, now being described as “the flop of the year”, is set to make a loss of some £3.5 million. The charitable company formed to operate the exhibition has had a £3 million loan from the District Council transformed into a “grant”. Four directors of this company are officials of the District Council itself, including Spalding.

There is now news of further demolition in the Gorbals; structural change at the City Halls; more private development along the banks of the Clyde. There is the £600,000 sale of a prime site in the centre of the city, now being rushed through in spite of other professional estimates that set its value around the £5 million mark. The Labour administration is said to be “anxious”, in the current financial year, to sell off assets and realise capital receipts”.

Perhaps the most illuminating report of all concerns news of private development of Glasgow Green itself, where the People’s Palace is situated. This ancient common land lies at the very heart of the city and has been sacred to generations of Glaswegians for some 1,000 years. Like the People’s Palace prior to the advent of Elspeth King and assistant Michael Donnelly, the Green has suffered quite outrageous neglect for many years. In contemporary parlance this too is a “prime site”. Glasgow District Council have it on the planning agenda.

The city is being run as though it were a public company having to operate in an expanding free market economy. Using vehicles such as ‘European Capital of Culture Year’ it is being made attractive to potential shareholders in line with its inevitable privatisation.

The good assets are exhibited while the bad assets are kept out of sight. Some assets have already been sold and others are being polished in anticipation, “Experts” are to be empowered “to get on with their job”. Within the logic of this philosophy of government, local or national, there is no room for dialogue, the very essence of democracy. This is why the campaign in support of Elspeth King has taken such root. It is also why another campaign has now been launched, this time in support of Glasgow Green.