There can be no denying the notability of Maria Fyfe, who died last month. Born in the Gorbals in 1938, the child of a tram driver and a shop assistant, she became, as Nicola Sturgeon said, “a feminist icon.” Rising to prominence in the days when the Scottish Labour Party was still left wing, she became the first female MP for Maryhill, Glasgow. And now there is a petition to rename Maryhill Library after her.
Maryhill Library needs no change of name. It is a library, in Maryhill, and it belongs to the people of Maryhill, as it has for 116 years. It is a place where anyone can go for information and be treated with kindness and respect by the staff who serve the community. It is not the territory of any politician or political party. When Maria Fyfe had her office there, it was a constituency office, not a personal space.
It is significant that the proposal to rename the library after her comes from Keiran O’Neill, the Scottish Labour and Co-op candidate for Maryhill and Springburn. The Scottish Labour party is now a grim ruin of the party Maria Fyfe was a member of. Under the inept and dishonest leadership of Richard Leonard, it is right wing and sexist. It resisted equal pay for women at Glasgow City Council, and then when the council agreed to equal pay after 8000 workers went on strike three years ago, Mr Leonard audaciously praised the decision. Naming the library after Maria Fyfe would be a chance for the current Scottish Labour Party to emphasise its (merely historical) link to her.
This is not a criticism of Mr O'Neill; I appreciate his support for the Wyndford Tenants' Union, of which I am a member, and if he were in the SNP (of which I am also a member) I might vote for him. But the difference between the person and the party brings up a broader reason why public libraries, and other services, should not be named after individuals.
We are living in an unprecedented culture, and cult, of personality. It is how America got Donald Trump, and how England got Boris Johnson. Policy takes second place to personality, if it takes any place at all. History shows this is the soil in which fascism grows, and it is vital that we venerate the institutions that are essential to our culture — libraries, and the NHS, being two of them — rather than individuals who took part in them.
And this is not to deny the historical importance of monuments. Maria Fyfe campaigned for a statue of Mary Barbour to be erected, and it might be equally fitting to erect a statue of Maria Fyfe. But no individual, however admirable they may have been, should have their name or likeness on the services that belong to us all.
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