Disgraced former Glasgow council leader Stephen Purcell admits cocaine use and fear of blackmail plot

One of Labour's brightest stars in Scotland reveals alcohol abuse and thoughts of suicide

The disgraced former leader of Glasgow council has admitted using cocaine and said fear of a blackmail plot helped push him into an emotional breakdown, thoughts of suicide and alcohol abuse.

Stephen Purcell, seen as one of Labour's brightest political stars and a future leader for the Scottish parliament, shocked Glasgow and his party by resigning suddenly as council leader earlier this month.

An admitted workaholic who oversaw substantial internal reforms at the council, Purcell checked himself briefly into a rehabilitation clinic, citing stress and exhaustion, before resigning as a Labour councillor as well.

His departure sparked a surge of allegations about his links to wealthy party backers and their lucrative civic contracts, and claims of a cover-up of his drugs misuse, seriously undermining Labour's pre-general election planning and its attempts to retake the Glasgow East Westminster seat from the Scottish National party.

As the SNP confirmed it will demand a formal inquiry by Glasgow council later this week, Gordon Brown publicly praised Purcell in an attempt to kill off the controversy.

The prime minister told the Herald that Purcell's resignation was "a personal sadness, a tragedy" and urged voters to focus on the city's future and its successful regeneration.

In an interview with the Sun, Purcell, 37, admitted using cocaine "no more than half a dozen times" after being given it at a party. He confirmed that two detectives from the Scottish serious crime and drug enforcement agency visited him privately to warn him he was at risk of blackmail after a video of him taking the drug came to light.

Purcell said this revelation added to his sense of loneliness and pressure, and his increasing dependency on alcohol. He often drank alone. That added to his deep depressions. "My head was literally bursting with the pressure," he said.

"For the past 12 months I have had increasing feelings of loneliness. These were particularly heightened if I had too much time on my hands, such as during holidays, Christmas and new year."

By late February, he was unable to "shake it off". That weekend, his depression was so intense he considered suicide and decided to resign, checking himself into a clinic in Peeblesshire and volunteering to take depression and alcohol-substitute medication.

After his resignation on Tuesday 2 March, Purcell went to Australia and then to Ireland to escape a significant controversy that erupted in Glasgow over his private life, the council's own handling of the affair and Labour's links to powerful businessmen in the city.

"The problem was inside my head," he said. "I had utterly convinced myself I had a drink problem and that I could not cope with the embarrassment of it coming out that I had used cocaine. I was letting down my family, my constituents; [the] personal guilt was immense. I told my family about my drinking. [I] was basically having an emotional breakdown."

Purcell denied showing any favouritism to Labour funders in awarding council contracts, with particular reference to Willie Haughey, an influential businessman and council contractor. "I make absolutely no apology for our reputation as an administration that is business friendly," he said. "I have never once seen a hint of corruption. Regulations are tougher than people think. Everything is audited and legalled."

The SNP group leader in Glasgow, James Dornan, and the MP for Glasgow East, John Mason, said Purcell's disclosures that he told council colleagues of his cocaine use had to be investigated. Dornan will table a council motion calling for an inquiry later this week.

Strathclyde police and the Scottish public spending authority Audit Scotland last week rejected SNP demands for an inquiry into Purcell's conduct and council contracts, but Mason insisted the police think again.

"This interview confirms not simply that he used cocaine but had a very real fear that gangsters had a video of him and could blackmail him," Mason said. "This goes beyond the individual and brings in questions of propriety in the council that are of genuine concern to my constituents.

"Continuing concerns in the newspapers over council contracts, connections to city businessmen and now gangsters are legitimate points that should be investigated."

Dornan added: "Councillor Purcell's resignation has simply exposed the cracks in Labour's façade. "The questions facing the Labour administration go well beyond Steven Purcell's personal situation."


Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ex-Glasgow council boss Stephen Purcell investigated over drug use

Detectives begin criminal inquiry into Labour politician's use of the class A drug and 'other matters'

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

16, Apr, 2010 @10:36 AM

Article image
Labour loses control of Glasgow city council as SNP makes gains
Scottish National party on course to become city’s largest party as Scottish Tories pick up seats across country

Severin Carrell Scotland editor

05, May, 2017 @12:02 PM

Article image
Labour fears SNP will storm its Glasgow bastion
Party's city dominance under threat for first time in decades as voter apathy adds to local elections' unpredictability

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

01, May, 2012 @4:38 PM

Article image
Glasgow council facing court action over lack of housing for homeless people
Shelter Scotland seeking review of what it says is authority’s illegal denial of services

Libby Brooks

02, Oct, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
Spectacular fall of Stephen Purcell shocks Scotland's political world

An in-depth look at events surrounding the resignation of Glasgow's young council leader

Kevin McKenna

07, Mar, 2010 @12:06 AM

Glasgow council homes setback
The transfer of Glasgow's council housing to ownership by a city-wide residential authority is likely to be brought forward by a month.

Stephen Khan, Scotland editor

07, Apr, 2002 @7:31 AM

Article image
Glasgow puts 'city deal' before Scottish independence | Peter Hetherington
Peter Hetherington: Buoyed by the Commonwealth Games, Glasgow is emphasising its strong links with other UK cities and a £500m investment from Westminster

Peter Hetherington

22, Jul, 2014 @12:00 PM

Article image
Labour frustrates SNP with significant gains in Scotland

Alex Salmond's party fails to win in Glasgow but takes councils elsewhere meeting goal to overtake Labour by share of vote

Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

04, May, 2012 @8:38 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on the 2017 local elections: a clear and present warning | Editorial
Editorial: The council elections show Theresa May on course for general election triumph. Opponents of her hard Brexit plans must respond or face an even worse defeat


05, May, 2017 @5:57 PM

Article image
'It's disorienting': former Glasgow MP left claiming universal credit
Recent Labour MP Paul Sweeney awaits response to claim made as result of lockdown and losing seat in December

Libby Brooks Scotland correspondent

16, May, 2020 @8:00 AM