This blog has never been shy when it came to criticism. Given my SNP background, it may be expected that it would be particularly harsh with perceived faults in other parties. And, given decades of dominance of my beloved East Lothian by them, its criticism of Labour has been especially crisp.
But, last night, at the conference dinner of the Association of Nationalist Councillors (ANC) at Airth, a Labour man through and through won the hearts—if not the loyalty—of those present with an after-dinner speech that demonstrated in spades why the looming retirement of Cllr. Pat Watters as President of CoSLA will be a loss to local government in Scotland—and to politicians of all stripes.
It wasn’t just that Pat had walked cheerfully into our lions’ den or that he took and returned Derek Mackay’s barbed banter, or that he gave as flowing and amusing an after-dinner speech as I’ve heard. It was how he took the measure of his audience and seemed to speak to each, as only someone with years of skill at the top of their game could.
With almost thirty years of success in Lanarkshire politics and three terms as CoSLA President behind him, Pat certainly has experience in depth. Also, his CBE and last year’s Herald Local Politician of the Year Award are signs that I’m far from alone in seeing this rising above party politics. In my first two terms as a backbench councillor, CoSLA delegates were overwhelmingly Labour. I came to see the organisation as a tool of that party. But post-May 2007 opened my eyes.
Because in summer 2007, I began attending CoSLA Leaders’ Meetings and worked with Pat for the first time. The huge changes in council composition, with no party dominant were reflected in CoSLA and Pat was faced with what must have been one of the toughest periods in his career, requiring resolute efforts to steer CoSLA through many choppy meetings so that it was respected—by all parties—as diligently following its core brief: to speak objectively for all Scotland’s 32 councils.
Achieving this did unlock major progress over the last four years, including Single Outcome Agreements including all public services (not just councils), council tax freeze, progress on Single Status with staff and a removal of ring-fencing of funds that allowed councils freedom to set their own priorities. “Parity of Esteem” became a reality. Many others were involved in all this but Pat steered CoSLA (and, by extension, councils) towards the possible and stood his ground when necessary to make it happen. But where he deserves huge kudos was in retaining his Labour credentials unsullied while championing the best interests of Scottish local government.
Even seasoned political observers like Brian Taylor have written pieces betraying their surprise that Pat handled things as astutely as he did. And this, I think, is the measure of the man—hard to find someone in the business who does not respect his ability and integrity, but harder to find someone who will be able to discern that quite unexpected direction that a sharp political mind will discern as the next step required.
Scottish local politics (and the good people of East Kilbride he has represented so well for so long) still have until next May to appreciate him. Working with him has been, for me, an education in how politics is indeed the art of the possible. I mean no disrespect to fellow councillors of any party in Scotland if I say Pat’s will be a tough act to follow.