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R.I.P. ‘Tradition’

Looking back over Magid Magid’s time as Lord Mayor of Sheffield, Isabelle France asks: What happens when an entire city steps outside of its comfort zone? Pretty much what you would expect: conflict, outrage - and a little bit of hope.

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Former Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid.

Chris Saunders

“I always say, tradition is just peer pressure from dead people,” Magid Magid tells me. “You should always question everything. What’s the value? If there’s no value, do it differently.”

Our links to tradition are often more subtle than they first appear. We hold them closer than we realise. So when someone challenges or rejects them, it can stir something powerful in us. Even in a country that is so cynical and self-deprecating, the link between generations often feels precious. Which is why, in 2018, Sheffield nearly tore itself apart trying to uphold its traditions - ones it didn’t even realise it had.

When Magid Magid became Sheffield’s Lord Mayor there was an air of anticipation. Many were excited to have Magid represent the city. He certainly stood out as young, black and vocal, a stark contrast with the list of middle-aged white men and women who had previously held the office.

His inaugural portrait as Lord Mayor made that point loud and clear. Magid stood squatting on the balustrade of the Town Hall with the large mayoral gold chain around his neck, wearing what would become his signature Doc Martins. This was a break from tradition to say the least. The portrait went viral and over the next few weeks articles began to be widely circulated that praised Sheffield’s new, cool, untraditional mayor.

But his appointment also sparked outrage. A scroll through Magid’s social media posts from the time reveals constant cries of disrespect. Disrespect, that is, for an office that had almost overnight become the highest court in the land. Comments ranged from sudden and drastic concern about dirty shoes on furniture (Magid reassured me that every pair of Docs were fresh) to furious remarks, misspelt insults and all manner of attacks.

You have no right to be mayor of anywhere in our country! It’s an absolute joke that YOU are the major of Sheffield. This country is going downhill fast. This clown has no respect for our nation, its people or its traditions.

It felt like, as if from nowhere, there was a call to arms to protect Sheffield’s traditions. But what traditions? Sheffield has appointed over 200 Lord Mayors since 1843 and I personally am yet to learn of one fixed mayoral tradition that has any wide public understanding. I know they wear their ceremonial chain and appear at fundraising events - but Magid did both those things.

The problem is that traditions were never designed for people of colour. They were never created with anyone other than white citizens in mind. Often it’s the case that institutional traditions are designed to create, control and retain power amongst the upper echelons of society. So it should come as no surprise that when people say ‘not traditional’, what they so often mean is ‘not white’.

Magid knew one thing before he became mayor: he was going to do it his way. What he didn’t know was just how many problems would arise from doing it his way. By the end of his term, he had become the top item for discussion on the Labour council’s agenda. Magid tells me that one councillor had come to him in tears, saying, “We’ve always done it this way. You’re ruining everything.” The Council tried to act on a motion to change the constitution of the Lord Mayor for the first time in its history.

Magid told me that he wanted to open up the role to everyone and remind people that they had a stake in their city. “I did everything with the best of intentions.”

He established the position of Sheffield Poet Laureate (originally Otis Mensah, soon to be Warda Yassin); he invited a member of the public to be his consort for every event; he held a Mexico Solidarity Day; he joined the public in singing along to Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again at the Showroom; he visited various workplaces to hand out consolatory sweets after England dropped out of the World Cup; he famously banned Donald Trump from Sheffield.

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Former Lord Mayor of Sheffield Magid Magid.

Chris Saunders

It was never expected that that ‘traditions’ would need to take into account the life experiences of people who face marginalisation, hostility in communities and institutional failures every day. But these voices can unite and are uniting in calls for change. Tradition is sturdy and consistent. Change is constantly altering its path. It is unknown. Most people do not embrace the unknown because comfort comes from the safety of knowing what comes next. After one nondescript person in office comes another and another, and so on. It’s fine for them to make small, incremental changes in places that mayors have always done.

Magid got pushback on every decision he made, particularly from those in positions of power. One story sticks out. Magid began inviting local creatives to perform at the monthly full council meeting, in the hope of showcasing creative talent and gaining a sense of reclaiming the space of Town Hall for the people of Sheffield. For all his hopes, he reports that “literally 80% of the Labour councillors would walk out”.

I also spoke to Tony Downing, our current Lord Mayor, for this piece. His interpretation is different. He told me that he liked Magid and that he was aware of the racist abuse he got from the public. But he tells me he never saw any problems in the institutions they worked in.

It seems tradition gives us each a different coded message. For those who benefit, tradition tells us to keep going, that this is what is expected, that if you play the game right, by these set rules, then you will thrive. For many black people it’s a constant reminder of the barriers that are put up to ensure they never get ideas above their station, a reminder that these places aren’t for them.

Yet I look around and I see no way in which traditions have protected us. They haven’t stopped wealth inequality, starvation or climate change. We need change, and that change that will not come from the same group we’ve always let call the shots. It comes from different perspectives and different experiences. It’s brought by people who have stared the issues in the face and lived to tell the tale.

In 2018, within a month of Magid taking office, Sheffield had become the talking point of the whole of the UK. Love and admiration flooded in, people looked at us and wanted what we had. A network of positivity surrounded us. And why? Because just one time, one Lord Mayor posed for his portrait a little differently, a little… ‘non-traditionally’.

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