Lord Provost of Edinburgh says he would never have had a role during his early days of advising as a gay man
The first openly gay Lord Provost of Edinburgh has urged young people today who worry about their sexuality to “be themselves and be confident”.
Robert Aldridge, who took office as civic leader last month with the resounding support of all politicians, said in his early days as a councilor it was unlikely a gay man would have been elevated to the historic role.
The 66-year-old said: “I don’t think that would have happened in the days of back to basics and all that.”
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But nearly 40 years later, following a seismic shift in attitudes towards the LGBT community, he said being same-sex attraction “is no longer a problem”.
He stressed that his election as Lord Provost “proves that anyone can be their best person, no matter where they come from”.
He said: “And I hope that if there are young people who are in school right now and who are worried about their sexuality, they can just be themselves and be confident and continue to live.
“Try and be confident, definitely my family has been very supportive of me and I know some people have more difficulty with their families but talk to people, your real friends will support you and it’s really a big relief when you’re genuine on who you really are.”
Mr Aldridge said it was ‘not a gay crusade on my part or anything,’ adding: ‘It’s just part of who I am.’
The nominations to be the five-party capital’s new figurehead testify to his decades of experience working cross-party on council and as a local champion in his Drum Brae/Gyle ward – which has undergone a succession of changes of name and boundaries since it was first elected there in 1984, then known as Park Grove.
When asked if donning the chain had been a longtime ambition, he replied: “I guess everyone is hoping in the back of their minds that they could actually get the huge privilege of being the Lord Provost.
“It wasn’t something I had planned, it was really overwhelming that people trusted me – I just hope I can live up to it.”
Aldridge was confirmed as the 258th Lord Provost of Edinburgh at the council’s first full meeting after local elections last month.
Simultaneously stepping down from his role as leader of the Liberal Democrat group, Councilor Kevin Lang was named to succeed him.
Speaking to members of the chamber for the first time, he spoke of the privilege he felt to be chosen as the new civic leader of “the best capital in the world”.
He also paid tribute to his predecessor, SNP councilor Frank Ross, for having “presided over this chamber with both good humor and quiet authority”.
“I could barely speak, I was so upset,” the provost said as he reflected on that day.
“The moment the chain was put in place was just an incredible sense of responsibility and privilege. It’s quite heavy, I think it’s around three kilograms – I feel the weight of history on my shoulders, literally.”
He added Councilor Ross had warned ‘you won’t know what hit you’ in casual chats between the two as he prepared for work.
He said: “It’s the volume of activity, it’s really very hectic, but I like it.
“There’s clearly a lot of civic duty that’s pretty traditional and happens every year like it should and what’s great is that it’s real – it’s not a fake Disney thing, it’s real, there’s punch behind it, a real tradition behind it and I think it gives real dignity to the city.
“It’s a position that’s been filled by a whole range of different people and, I hope to live up to that, they’ve all adapted very well and taken on the role of being almost the chairman of the board, taking on a less partisan role.”
He said the first month of occupying the old office had been “a mix of disconcerting and overwhelming”.
One of the first engagements he attended was the lighting of the lighthouses at Edinburgh Castle to mark the start of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
“There’s nothing like being thrown into the deep end and it was just a fantastic opportunity,” he added. “It was really interesting not only to be able to meet royalty and to be on board HMS Albion, which I think is the third largest ship in the Royal Navy and to meet a lot of charities including the queen is godmother on board there, but also the picnic at Princes Street Gardens, it was just excellent and oddly the weather in Edinburgh held up.”
A hugely popular figure among city councillors, Robert is affectionately known to his peers as ‘Dobby’, a nickname which he says ‘came from when I was two years old’.
“There have been attempts over the years to give it up, but it never happens, but it’s fine with me,” he said.
He joked: ‘I really need to get in touch with JK Rowling because I’m sure the house elf has just heard of me,’ adding the One City Trust, the association equality charity of which he is president “could get one percent of the royalties” from the Harry Potter series.
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As well as his long career as a local politician in the capital, Mr Aldridge has spent his life working with homeless charities, having served as chief executive of the Scottish Council for Single Homeless and chairman of the Federation European Union of National Organizations Working with the Homeless.
But he said he fell into this profession “by accident” right after being elected councilor 38 years ago.
“I needed a part-time job to make ends meet and there was a part-time job as an information officer for a homeless charity.
“People can make bad decisions in their lives and things can get out of hand and what we have to do is try to find a way to try and help them get back on track. I’ve been working with a number of homeless people who have gone through homelessness and are on the other side, they have jobs, they have families, they have reintegrated and it’s fantastic.”
Asked what he sees as the biggest challenge for the council over the next five years, the provost was unequivocal.
He said: “That’s how we’re dealing with the cost of living crisis. There’s a lot of people who are really struggling and it all ties into the rest of these issues. The board has limited powers, but what we can do, we must do it.”
However, he added that a minority administration heavily dependent on the support of opposition parties to lead the council “will go two ways”.
He said: “It could be chaotic with people just trying to stop anything from happening and I don’t think the people of Edinburgh would forgive that. They expect that once “They’ve had their say, we make the most of it and achieve what we can. Or, we can work together and there’s a lot of common cause in all the party manifestos.”
And Councilor Aldridge said the proportional representation system introduced in 2007 when he had already spent 23 years in the Houses has allowed the local authority ‘to become much more professional as a council and much more cohesive’.
He said: ‘When I walked in it was when militant renting took over the city; Princes Street was adorned with banners about better services, more jobs and it was a real sort of chill around the place.
“Now the parties have to work together to do anything and it creates chaos if people don’t want to play ball, or if we’re adults in the room, we can actually accomplish a lot.”
From the President of the Provost’s perspective, Councilor Aldridge will be able to closely monitor the progress of the Council in all areas for which he is responsible, while remaining largely apolitical.
He said the opportunity to serve as Lord Provost is “the greatest thing in the world” and looks forward to a busy summer, which will include welcoming all members of the Royal Family to Edinburgh next week.