Coney No Do That?
Glasgow City Council has declared war to the famous “Wellington Cone”. The news have been met by a wave of joyful citizen activism that any town planning team bantering about the buzzword “participation” can only dream of. Glasgow City Council proposed to revamp the monument of the Duke of Wellington in front of Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art, to make it close to impossible for revellers to adorn the Duke’s bronzen head with the popular traffic cone. In response to these news, cheeky online commentaries document #conegate on the social networking sites facebook and twitter, a petition appeared to protect the cone as an iconic piece of Glasgow’s heritage, and some cone enthusiasts organised a public party to celebrate the city’s most fluorescent icon.
Yes – conegate is probably one of these apolitical, short-lived hypes that are so symptomatic of our internet age, and it would be unfair to suggest that it speaks out for Scottish independence, or to speculate that it might evolve into an ongoing campaign. But conegate certainly is about more than just an orange cone. It’s the opposite of apathy, the opposite of a risk-averse, health-and-safety-obsessed and infantilised culture, and the opposite of passive acceptance of the Council’s power over public spaces. It also happens to be a distinctly local answer to a distinctly British unionist memorial from the colonial era – but more importantly, conegate stands for a kind of tongue-in-cheek Glaswegian humour and approach to life.
While Glasgow City Council has since withdrawn its initial proposal, it continues to raise concerns about “public safety” and considers to submit renewed plans to raise the height of the Duke’s plinth. On the facebook page “keep the cone”, a well-known former MSP wisely suggested that the £65,000 earmarked for the Duke’s plinth may be better spent on adding a first female statue to the proud display of Scottish masculinity on George Square. Other suggestions focused on spending the money to address some of the root causes of the city’s widespread social problems. The Council, which claims that the cone removal costs the city an annual £10,000 considers the cone to be symbolic for Glasgow’s “depressing image”. One might wonder a) if it wouldn’t be considerably cheaper to simply leave the cone in place on the Duke’s head, and b) if Glasgow has a depressing image, whether this it not due to the city’s severe health inequalities, which famously account for a fifteen year gap in life expectancies between certain areas that are only a few miles apart? But of course I could be mistaken, and the cone is to blame.
Embroiled in the endemic paralysis of overzealous health and safety concerns, the Council fails to acknowledge that the cone represents something increasingly scarce among inner-city cloned high streets that are about to explode into a seasonal consumerist frenzy: Citizens’ heritage, monuments which represent the spirit of a city and its residents, public street art that engages with urban landscapes without damaging it. Conegate is symptomatic for a thirst for creative engagement, civic participation, and reclaiming public spaces – a thirst for the freedom to choose what we rest our eyes upon in the place we call our home.
The Council’s approach to public planning often seems out of touch with the lifeblood of the city – billions poured into silver and oddly-shaped riverside development projects, while there are no single establishment in which casual strollers can sit by the Clyde and have a cup of coffee when the sun is out, and the big question mark that is the potential legacy of the Commonwealth Games for the people of Glasgow, are just some examples. I don’t want to single out Glasgow City Council, however – public planning seems estranged from the people in a lot of places. Yet it’s this city which I know best, which has been my home for many years, and in which citizen campaigns like conegate, the controversy around the redevelopment of George Square, and attempts to save architectural landmarks such as the Egyptian Halls have demonstrated again and again that public planning shouldn’t happen behind closed doors. The democratic spark is very much alive, and local authorities could rebuild trust (and ultimately, make their job a little easier) if they fan those flames, so that the sparks may spread to every corner of our cities, towns and villages, and to our forests, mountains and islands. And, of course, to our cones.