On becoming dignified

by Stephen Tall on May 11, 2007

My year in charge of Oxford’s finances is now officially over. A new role beckons: Deputy Lord Mayor for 2007-08. A fair few people have expressed some surprise that I should wish to swap a place on the decision-making executive for a ceremonial post.

Which is understandable – I have confined my attendance of civic events as a councillor to those which have a personal meaning to me, such as Remembrance Sunday, or 2005’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of VE Day. I have always refused to wear a councillor’s robe, the only point of which (I think) is to separate councillors from the public, and elevate us above those whom we have been elected to serve.

I do not think it is the role of councillors to indulge in pomp and circumstance: we have been elected to do, not to show. But I have mellowed a little since I was first elected seven years ago. In my callow (more radical?) youth, I suspect I would have cheerfully voted for the abolition of the city’s civic posts. I would have been wrong to do so.

The three civic post-holders in Oxford do have a function and utility which could not easily be replaced by (say) the Leader of the Council, whose job it is to exercise political control. There are a range of events – from visits to schools and hospitals, to charity events, to businesses and voluntary organisations – where it is right the City should be represented, to show the importance we attach to what happens within our boundaries, and beyond.

So, for one year only, I shall don the robes of civic life, and allow a chain of office to be draped round my neck, and see a side of Oxford’s and the Council’s life which, until now, I have pretty much side-stepped.

Political life – like all other working life – should be about kaleidoscopic experiences. After three years scrutinising the City Council’s finances, I feel ready for something new, different and interesting.

One aspect, though, does intrigue me – the effect wearing a chain round your neck exerts on others. For the past year, I have held a responsible job, democratically accountable for Oxford City Council’s £220m budget as Executive Member for Better Finances. Few of my family, friends or colleagues from ‘civilian’ life have much cared. I’ve become Deputy Lord Mayor, and they’re all thrilled for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the attention, and I fully intend to do the best job I possibly can in the coming municipal year. But I can’t help feeling the British love of pageant, panem et circenses, can be more than a little overdone.