A cobbler takes on the city council

Allegations of theft, racism, harassment: Labour Durham would like to keep them all quiet. But counc

In Durham cathedral the other day, technicians were cluttering the place with cables ready to film J K Rowling's book Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. White cobwebs hung in the triforium arches high above the echoing nave. Snow lay crisp and even in the cloisters. A pair of live owls with fly-on parts looked startled, as owls do. Tourists think this is the finest show in town, but the citizens of Durham - including members of its Labour-run city council - know better.

Ten minutes' walk across Palace Green takes you to Claypath, a steep street of shops and pubs and the premises of The Durham Cobbler (est 1854) and its muscular proprietor, Tony Martin, 37. For the past 18 months, Martin has waged war against the power of this Labour heartland. His www.cobblers2thecouncil.tsx.org website has become the clearing house for news of the alleged misdeeds of the city fathers and civic officials. These include fraud, blackmail, racist harassment, theft - and, in the case of the council's head of recreation (who later resigned), romps with four women employees, recorded on nine hours of tape found in his swimming-pool locker. Labour has ruled Durham for generations and, when you browse through the cobbler's website, you begin to understand why Tony Blair, as recently reported, may be sympathetic to the idea of breaking such baronial strongholds by introducing proportional representation for council elections.

Martin's shop window, plastered with newspaper cuttings ("Council chiefs face theft quiz"; "City chief arrested in land deal probe"; "Durham council are corrupt and racist"), attracts attentive crowds. Occasionally, flattened against the glass like a banshee with steering trouble is a solicitor's rocket. One of them warned, on behalf of three Labour councillors, that, if the notices remained two days after receipt of the letter, "proceedings will be served upon you personally without further correspondence".

The cobbler's problems started two years ago when the Prince Bishops shopping centre opened just down the hill, its developers laying double yellow lines along Claypath. Martin's business (which has halved since then) was affected because many of his customers are elderly and could no longer park outside his shop.

"The shop's been here as a cobblers since 1854," Martin says. "My father took over in the Seventies and I've worked here 24 years . . . We used to do all the miners' hobnail boots, and we've got pensioners in their eighties who came in here with their parents as a little child. When I saw Colin Shearsmith, the city council's chief executive, about the yellow lines, he said they'd been put in for safety reasons and that my answer was to leave Durham and set up somewhere else. I got a bit heated and said: 'The council's got a vested interest in this to make sure the new centre works. You'll regret the day you did this. I'll make you pay for it.' He said: 'What can you do about it? You're just a back-street cobbler.'"

One cannot vouch for the accuracy of this story; Shearsmith refused my request for an interview. But what is beyond dispute is that Shearsmith, along with a local businessman, Robert Fulton, was arrested (and later exonerated) by police investigating allegations of fraud over £60m worth of city development schemes.

Martin says that attempts have been made to silence him. Police were urged to prosecute him under the 639-year-old Justice of the Peace Act, on the grounds that someone might throw a brick through his window. They refused to do so, but confirmed to me that such a request had come from city councillors whom they declined to identify.

Other councillors have tried to sabotage a new CD, Old Durham Town, recorded by Martin with a local band, Sugarwood, and based on the original Sixties song by Roger Whittaker. They complained to Whittaker's management group, BMG in London, that the Martin version was "political" and ought to be stopped. The cobbler played it for me on the jukebox in The Big Jug, the pub next to his shop. One verse goes: "I've been in business over a hundred year/Told all the council about my fear/ They just growled and start to sneer/They said 'Son, you betta leave this town'."

Even the local MP, Gerry Steinberg, has been dragged into the dispute. His office is directly opposite the cobbler's shop, and Martin says that he taunted Steinberg in the street about Shearsmith's arrest. The fiercely individualist MP went nuclear and called him "a fucking arsehole".

Steinberg, MP since 1987, confirms this and also that drugs squad officers (without his prior knowledge, he insists) used his office in Claypath to spy on the cobbler's shop after receiving allegations - which were never substantiated and which Martin describes as "ludicrous" - that it was being visited by drug pushers.

Martin showed me a letter that the MP had written to a senior councillor, Bill Kellett, about Kellett's role in asking the police to investigate the city's financial affairs. Steinberg called Kellett's action "scurrilous and beyond the silly infighting that has been taking place in the Labour group", and invited him to consider his position.

Kellett is a former Labour group leader. When he held that position, four councillors launched a raid on his drinks cupboard, which later led to a police inquiry. Kellett told me that, when the police interviewed him about the incident in 1997, he did not press charges because of the imminent general election. He also explained why he took his concerns about the council's finances to the police, rather than to his Labour group colleagues. "I never forget," he said, "that when I took over as leader, a very senior councillor, with 30 years in the party, looked me in the eye and said: 'Get what you can, any money you can, while you're leader. If you don't, someone else will.'"

Labour's latest troubles concern allegations of racism, which are being investigated by the party's regional organiser, Brian Thistlethwaite. The central figure in the row is the council's former chief safety officer, Abiodun "Mac" Williams, who is due to become chairman of the city's magistrates bench in January.

Earlier this year, Williams accepted a £6,500 council pay-off and gagging order two days before he was due to give evidence at an industrial tribunal. A five-page document, detailing his complaints, has now been posted on Martin's website. The cobbler claims that Thistlethwaite told him: "You put that stuff in your window and your feet won't touch the ground. We'll have you in court."

This version is vehemently denied by regional headquarters. "Mr Thistlethwaite recalls telling Mr Martin that what he put in his window was nothing to do with the Labour Party," a spokesman said.

Williams's testimony paints an extraordinary portrait of a council riven by institutionalised drinking and public altercations, which, on one occasion, led to a fight between two recreation officials. When Williams questioned them, one said angrily: "It has nothing to do with you, you black bastard." Other senior officers are said to have referred to Williams as "the blackie of Byland Lodge [a council office]" and "the dark cloud".

Then there was Mildred Brown, the council's deputy leader. When she saw Williams looking gloomy, she is alleged to have said: "What's the matter with you, you black bastard?" Yet Williams's own document then records: "I replied telling her she was 'completely out of order'. . . From the look on her face, Cllr Brown appeared to be devastated at what she had done. She immediately apologised and put her arm around my shoulders and, with tears in her eyes, said: 'I would not hurt you for the world'. . . I did not even think of taking the matter further, as I was more than satisfied that no hurt was intended."

When I telephoned Brown about the Williams account, she said: "It's been alleged I made that remark, sir. I'm not saying anyone's telling truth or lies."

Shearsmith issued a statement through the council's press officer. "There is a confidential agreement which the friends of Mac Williams are turning into a farce to try to keep some life in a story which is more than ten months old. Durham City Council has kept to the agreement and cannot reply in any detail to questions. There was a year-long investigation into the claims by Mr Mac Williams . . . alleged racist remarks were part of that investigation and not one of them was substantiated during a very lengthy and detailed investigation."

The mystery remains as to why Williams drew back from the tribunal at the last minute, thus saving the council possible public embarrassment. Williams cannot comment, but there are hints that he was advised to lay off because his union did not want to damage its relationship with people on the council.

It seems unlikely that the council has heard the last of this affair. The curtain of damning paper still flutters in the cobbler's informative window, and even in the party itself there are voices saying "enough". Joe Anderson, a senior Labour councillor and twice mayor of Durham, told me: "There's people at the town hall caused all this and still working there. I went to school with some of them and Mac was left on his own to deal with this muck. What they did to him was filthy. I can tell them this: I've been a councillor for 28 years and I've got a big dossier in a safe place. When I pack it in, I'm going to let it all out."

As for Martin, he is standing as an independent city councillor next year and is looking forward to the access he will get to official files.

"There are a lot of people in Durham who basically think the council's let them down," he says. "They're that frightened the way the council's run things, they'll not speak up, and I've been a sort of outlet for them. It's given people a lot of hope and courage. They are coming forward and standing up to be counted."

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).