ON August 4, 1981, Nelson Mandela was given the Freedom of the City of Glasgow. At the time, the future president of South Africa was still under lock and key, 17 years into the 27-year term he would serve in Robben Island after being jailed for life in 1964.

Five years later, in the summer of 1986, the signage in St George Place just off Buchanan Street was taken down on the ­orders of the District Council. They ­decided the street should bear a new legend: Nelson Mandela Place. It bears it still.

The city centre street wasn’t chosen by accident. At the time, the South African consulate worked out of offices on the fifth floor of the Glasgow Stock Exchange building. The diplomats can hardly have relished the prospect of sending out correspondence from an address named after their regime’s most famous political prisoner.

Throughout the 1960s and 80s, civic ­gestures of solidarity with the forces ­resisting the racist regime in South ­Africa blossomed across the UK. Political and ­symbolic measures were taken – but ­economic ones too. From the 1960s, the anti-apartheid movement began to put ­pressure on consumers and ­local ­government to boycott goods from the segregated state. Shoppers were urged to “look at the label” and leave South African fruit, sherry and cigarettes on the shelves.

Several public authorities responded too, using what economic power they had at their disposal to cut off international ­support for the apartheid regime. In 1981, local government in Sheffield cut ­companies with South African subsidiaries out of its investment portfolio. Other ­pension funds followed.

Sporting, cultural and academic boycotts in universities followed across the country. Banking group Barclays became one focus of student activism, with sit-ins, pamphleteering, and disruption to AGMs.

Nelson Mandela has become a safe ­answer for politicians of all stripes if they’re asked to name a political idol. On his death in 2013, then prime minister ­David ­Cameron described him as “a ­towering ­figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death – a true global hero.”

If you have a short memory – and ­politics thrives on a sketchy recall of the fossil ­record – it is easy to forget that ­expressing admiration for Nelson Mandela wasn’t ­always a comfortable political cliché for every superficial centrist politician ­looking to burnish their anti-racist ­credentials. For most of the modern history of the Tory Party, Cameron’s tribute to Mandela was pure heresy.

Margaret Thatcher famously joined President Regan in denouncing the ­African National Congress as “a typical terrorist” organisation as late as 1987. Tory antipathies towards Mandela and the ANC cut across party generations, ­underpinned both by racism and Cold War anxieties. Senior Tory politicians savaged the idea of Mandela’s unconditional release from state custody. The Federation of ­Conservative Students notoriously ran up “Hang Mandela” posters and ­badges, and a score of future Tory MPs – ­including Cameron – were forced to deny ­involvement later in their careers.

The Thatcher government also took more tangible steps to hamstring local government’s ability to participate in the anti-apartheid divestment campaign. The Local Government Act of 1988 – now better known for banning British schools from teaching “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” – prohibited public authorities from taking “non-commercial” considerations into account in awarding public contracts.

This ban included considering “the ­territory of origin” of any goods supplied and “any political, industrial or ­sectarian affiliations” involved. Framed as an ­anti-discrimination measure, the 1988 Act ­effectively told public authorities they must turn a blind eye to the discriminatory practices of foreign powers in dishing out public contracts.

You probably haven’t heard about it – it attracted less than a squeak of ­publicity – but last week, the UK ­Government ­unveiled plans which make the 1988 ­boycott restrictions look milksop. The 2019 Tory Party manifesto included a commitment to “ban public bodies from imposing their own direct or indirect boycotts, disinvestment or sanctions campaigns against foreign countries”. Last week’s proposals make good on that threat. If passed, the bill will ban many of the measures now celebrated for ­making a significant contribution to the ­anti-apartheid struggle in the UK.

Unlike some of the more controversial proposals to emanate from Whitehall of late on everything from protest and ­policing – these proposals will apply to public authorities the length and breadth of Scotland, including Scottish councils and Scottish universities.

THE Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matter) Bill, introduced on Monday by Michael Gove, aims “to prevent public bodies from being influenced by political or moral disapproval of foreign states when taking certain economic decisions.”

In its way, the bill perfectly encapsulates the incoherence of the UK Government’s attitude towards everything from free expression, academic freedom and local democracy. The bill’s authoritarian tendencies are best summed up by section 1 – “disapproval of foreign state conduct prohibited”.

If passed, it will be unlawful for any public authority to take decisions on procurement, investments and pensions which are informed by “political or moral disapproval of foreign state conduct”.

Systematically discriminate against your people? As far as the UK ­Government is concerned, that’s a private matter quite apart from the neutral commercial considerations which should properly ­inform public procurement.

Persistently violate basic human rights? Nothing to do with us. Breach ­international law by waging ­aggressive war against your neighbours? We’ll judge that on a case-by-case basis. Under the new regime, public authorities are ­expected to say show us the money and sign on the dotted line.

The Treasury is the new ­“enforcement authority” for these restrictions. ­Under the new rules, Whitehall will be ­empowered to write to these ­notionally ­independent ­public authorities, ­demanding explanations for any hint, ­suggestion or suspicion that their procuring decision-making might be informed by “political or moral disapproval of foreign states”.

Under the new rules, the Treasury will gain new powers to issue monetary ­penalties to any public authority straying out of line. UK ministers alone will decide what the maximum sanctions should be.

That isn’t the end of the problems with this bill. Gove wants to ban public authorities from publishing statements indicating they intend to divest – or even suggesting they might want to do so “were it lawful to do so”. He boasts this will stop any “public bodies from expressing support for themselves engaging in boycotts and divestment campaigns”.

Encouraging universities not to invest in tyrannical regimes and their corporate cronies is characterised as ­“imposing subjective views about foreign policy on public institutions”, “shutting down rather than open up debate, serving to undermine free speech and educational study”.

As far as the UK Government is ­concerned, it turns out students in the 1980s were just pioneering cancel ­culture and stopping a free and fair debate of the ­merits and demerits of a racially ­segregated society. Shame on them.

Clause 3(5) gives the UK Government the power to create a list of sanctioned enemies of the people against whom ­boycotts and sanctions will be permitted. Russia, unsurprisingly, features prominently in the bumph coming out of the Department for Levelling Up. So does the state of ­Israel and the territories it currently occupies in defiance of ­international law.

Under the proposals, there are no ­circumstances in which ­ministers can add the state of Israel, or the ­occupied ­Palestinian territories, or the ­Golan Heights to this list of potential ­sanctionees. In the whole field of international ­relations, these territories alone will be protected by law against any ­public ­authority boycott.

In October 1993, Nelson Mandela ­visited Glasgow City Chambers. “While we were physically denied our freedom in the country of our birth,” he said, “a city 6000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system, and declared us to be free.”

Gove’s bill casts the local ­politicians and activists who took a stand on apartheid as interfering busybodies, ­illegitimately exploiting public platforms to promote their own subjective views.

Perhaps local authorities should apply to the Cabinet Office for sanction for the flags they fly over city chambers. Perhaps councillors should be required to seek permission from the Secretary of State for Levelling Up to ensure recipients of the freedoms of their cities and towns are consistent with the current hypocrisies constituting Foreign Office Policy.

Scrape the name off Nelson Mandela Place, it says. God forbid local politicians should do anything political.