The new Royal Borough has a new Mayor. Amid the splendour of Christopher Wren’s Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College, Councillor David Grant took office as First Citizen of Greenwich.
The great and good of Greenwich life (who we seem obliged nowadays to call ‘Stakeholders’) were in attendance: The Deputy Lord Lieutenant, the Borough Police Commander, business representatives, charity leaders, the Chairman of the Royal Artillery Museum, Military top brass, Freemen of the Borough, assorted Councillors… But, the chances are, not you, dear reader. Though paying for the celebration out of your taxes, the public were not invited.
Of course, we can’t fit 230,000 people into the hall, and it is undoubtedly important to thank the community representatives and (urgh, that word again) ‘stakeholders’ who play an important role in making the Royal Borough what it is. But I honestly think we are missing an opportunity to involve more people in this annual civic celebration.
But first, a sketch of last night’s proceedings. With the assembled guests seated, serenaded by an odd selection of Italian operatic music played over the loudspeakers, an expectant hush falls. “Pray be upstanding for the Worshipful The Mayor” calls a loud voice from the back, and we all upstand. Councillor Jim Gillman, red-robed, fur-trimmed and preceded by the ceremonial mace (historic function – clouting peasants out of the way) makes his way up the central aisle to the raised dais at the end of the hall, where the identically-robed Mayor-elect Grant is waiting.
Oh yes, “Mayor-elect”. I call him that, because for the last few years, the ceremony in the Painted Hall has been purely symbolic. When I was first on the Council, the event had the status of the Annual Meeting of the Council, during which the Mayor was actually elected by Councillors. This also meant, of course, that under local government legislation the public had a right to attend, and the opposition parties were able to have their say on the nomination. Those familiar with Greenwich politics will see the problem with that last point. Any opportunity for dissent is viewed as inconvenient by the Labour leadership, who decided a couple of years ago to dispense with the democratic element of the evening. So the Annual Meeting is now held a week before at the Town Hall, safely away from invited guests, and the new Mayor’s accession is deferred.
So back to the ceremonial. Mayor Gillman has bid us not be upstanding, and we are now downsitting. He makes his valedictory address, reminding us of his eventful year in office. This was his second time in the role, and he gets a genuine laugh for pointing out that whilst Charlton Athletic’s promotion may not have been his doing, the same thing happened during his previous term in 1985/6. He leaves to warm applause, and takes a bow.
Next up is the annual state-of-the-Borough address by Council Leader Chris Roberts. This follows a basic formula every year – a roll call of the year’s triumphs, some tributes to the incoming and outgoing Mayors, then some thinly-disguised political propaganda for how wonderfully his administration is doing. His praise for David Grant includes comparing him to another Mayor, Boris Johnson, apparently due to their mutual habit of standing with their hands in their jacket pockets. Mr Mayor-elect looks nonplussed. Then it’s onto the politics, and soon soundbites like ‘growth not austerity’ are bouncing off James Thornhill’s magnificently painted walls and ceiling before ricocheting into the audience. Mid-way through, a baby starts to cry. It surely speaks for many.
Then the actual ‘Mayor-making’ begins. Jim Gillman reports the previous week’s election, and invites his successor to sign the declaration of acceptance of office. They then move round in front of the top table and, and with the help of an assistant the Mayoral chain and badge (18-carat gold and ‘shaped like an astrolabe’) is transferred from old Mayor to new, in slightly awkward silence. Once it is safely around the neck of its new wearer, applause breaks out, and the participants return to their seats. There follows a charming musical interlude, as children from St Alfege school perform African-themed songs and a dance routine that has Mayoral, councillorial and stakeholding toes tapping.
Music over, the new Mayor makes the last (and thus most well-received) speech of the night. Witty and gently sardonic, Councillor Grant promises to do his best to be impartial in his chairing of Council meetings, and particularly not to be condescending towards the opposition. He also makes what sounds to be a slight dig at the Leadership, stating that the Council should listen to the people and be responsive. “We are a democracy” he says, to wry smiles from many. And with that, it is over. We are bidden to be again upstanding, and the macebearer leads out the Mayoral party, after whom we troop down to the Queen Mary Undercroft for refreshments and a mixture of forced pleasantries and genuinely useful conversations with those holders of stakes.
So, all very nice for those of us invited. But to return to my original point, it could be so much better. We saw with the public celebrations of Royal Borough status in February that involving the community in civic events is a great way to bring people together. In fact, each one of last night’s speakers mentioned the fact. So here’s an idea – let’s do something similar every year. Instead of the exclusive ‘Mayoral inauguration’, let’s open it up. ‘Royal Greenwich- The Mayor’s Show’– can you imagine it? No? Well, OK, here goes:
It is Saturday lunchtime. The Council meets in the splendid Victoria Hall of Woolwich Town Hall for the Mayor-making ceremony (and ideally the AGM too, but let’s not quibble). There are the usual speeches, the exchange of the chain of office, and the great and the good head up to the committee suite for a modest buffet. Outside, however, people have begun to gather along Wellington Street and in General Gordon Square.
At 2pm, there is a trumpet fanfare, and the new Mayor and Mayoress, preceded by their macebearer, emerge from the Town Hall. The Mayor waves his hat around, as Mayors are wont to do, before walking at a stately amble down Wellington Street (briefly closed to traffic) and into the square. There, entertainment has been laid on all day, with community stalls and other activities taking place. The Mayor (not the Leader) gives a speech of welcome, before being serenaded by a variety of excellent performances by local schoolchildren and arts groups.
At the end of the show, the Mayoral couple travels to Greenwich, where at the Old Royal Naval College another community event is getting underway. After another speech of welcome, they watch a parade made up of schoolchildren, scouts and guides, and marching bands. In the evening, a dinner in the Painted Hall raises thousands for the Mayor’s charities, and the day is rounded off by a fireworks display. Business sponsors ensure the whole event can be held at little or no cost to the taxpayer.
Possible? I think so. It could be scaled up or down – a march-past by the King’s Troop would be superb. Moving the main celebrations to other parts of the Borough each year would be good, or the Mayor could visit other events in Eltham and Charlton on the way to Greenwich. In short, the start of the civic year would become a big public celebration, showing off all that is best in the Royal Borough. That’s something we could all be proud of.
Councillor Nigel Fletcher is Greenwich Conservatives’ spokesman for Culture.