Socialist Worker

The radical history of Edinburgh

The city hosting many of the G8 protests has a long tradition of resistance, says Colin Fox MSP, national convenor of the Scottish Socialist Party

Issue No. 1958

Edinburgh has been the site of many progressive protests, such as this anti-war march in 2003

Edinburgh has been the site of many progressive protests, such as this anti-war march in 2003

Welcome to Edinburgh for the biggest political demonstration this city has ever seen. We will be making history here in July amid strong dissenting traditions.

Those traditions are perhaps not often mentioned in the handbooks published by the city fathers or numerous visitors’ guides.

But they remain proud and inspiring nonetheless.

With pipers outside Waverley train station to greet new arrivals and flags fluttering off many fine buildings across the city skyline, Edinburgh can be seen to play to a “tartan and shortbread” image of Scotland.

The opulence and grandeur of the medieval Old Town and the Georgian New Town add to this view.

Each August, thousands of well-heeled visitors arrive for the world’s largest and most famous arts festival — and yet seldom see beyond the touristy centre of town.

It is also easy to see in the vast array of banks and insurance companies present here that Edinburgh is one of the most important financial centres in western Europe.

The city’s enormous wealth is clearly displayed in the architecture of the plush headquarters of professions, such as scientists, lawyers, surgeons and so on, who blossomed as a result of Edinburgh’s significant role in the Enlightenment.

Fighting traditions

The radical history of Edinburgh is not so apparent to the naked eye.

Few monuments exist to mark its fighting traditions. But these traditions are significant and strong.

Let’s start with the Royal Mile — people who live here prefer to refer to it as the High Street.

This is a site that has seen many significant popular mobilisations.

In late 1706, several thousand ordinary citizens demonstrated against the nobles who were preparing to sign the Treaty of Union with England because of what the union meant for their class interests.

They did not stop the union, but they did ensure that the independence of certain civic, popular democratic institutions, such as the Church of Scotland, were protected.

Just around the corner on George IV Bridge is Greyfriars’ Kirk.

In 1638, mass signings of the National Covenant in the kirk heralded the beginning of the challenge to Charles I in what became known as the English Civil War.

The dissenters appeared again in 1736 when they temporarily took control of the city and executed the commander of the town guard.

Riots ensued in 1792 at the exclusion of the masses from the political process.

Radical groups

Then, and later on, Edinburgh was a stronghold of various radical groups such as the Friends of the People, the United Scotsmen and those involved in the Pike Plot in 1794.

Edinburgh was also a centre of opposition to Britain’s involvement in the war against revolutionary France.

Out of a population of between 70,000 and 80,000, 11,000 citizens signed a petition calling for a halt to the war.

Riots in 1800 and 1801 signified that the opposition was also concerned about the economic impact on ordinary people.

Edinburgh was the first place outside radical and republican poet Robert Burns’s native Ayrshire to erect a statue to honour him.

Campaigning for the right to vote saw the ordinary citizens of Edinburgh active in the reform movements of the 1830s, 1860s and 1880s.

Although industrialisation did not begin in Edinburgh until the 1850s, trade unionism among skilled workers like printers, stonemasons and upholsterers dates from the turn of the 19th century.

Because of this, much of the radicalism of the Chartist movement for the vote in the 1830s and 1840s was located among the skilled artisans.

Nine-hour day

Nonetheless, the Edinburgh stonemasons were the first in Scotland to win the nine-hour day in 1861, when much of the New Town was being built.

Out of the strike, which turned into a three-month lockout, the workers set up a house building cooperative.

A decade later this cooperative had built 1,000 affordable homes for workers in the city. The most famous of these are the seven sets of “colonies”.

Socialist pioneer James Connolly was born in the slums of Edinburgh in 1868.

Before departing for the US and Ireland, he was an active socialist in the city, being sacked for trade union activities.

Connolly acted as secretary of the Scottish Socialist Federation, which was formed in 1888 in Edinburgh and published its paper, the Labour Chronicle, in the city from 1894.

Connolly contested local elections in the city in 1894-5.

Britain’s first Marxist organisation, the Social Democratic Federation, was active in Edinburgh in the 1880s and agitated around the land issue. Edinburgh University Socialist Society was one of the first such student societies to be formed in the 1880s.

Labour Party formation

Edinburgh was also an active player in the formation of the Socialist Labour Party in 1903 and what was to become the modern Labour Party before the First World War.

Like elsewhere, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in Edinburgh began unionising from the 1880s onwards.

The Leith dockers and carters were at the forefront of this, as was the Edinburgh Trades Council.

Just after the First World War, Edinburgh bank workers formed, with their colleagues in Glasgow, the Scottish Bankers’ Association, the counterpart of the Bank Officers’ Guild in England.

During the 1930s, Edinburgh was the end-point of many of the hunger marches organised by the National Union of Unemployed Workers.

After the Second World War, Communists and socialists in the labour movement set up the Edinburgh People’s Festival, “by working people for working people” to counter the high-brow elitism of the International Festival.

Although a great success in 1951 and 1952, the People’s Festival was proscribed by the Labour Party and Scottish TUC, effectively cutting it off from much needed support and finance.

Red citadel

In the 1960s, only two of Edinburgh’s parliamentary constituencies were held by Labour.

But by the 1980s, Edinburgh was a “red citadel” like Liverpool, Sheffield and Lambeth, with the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock calling Edinburgh “the dirt under the finger nail of the Labour Party”.

Ron Brown, Labour MP for Leith, was one of the leading left wingers in Britain at this time.

Ron later became a founding member of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) which grew from one branch in the city in 1997 to six by 2000.

Edinburgh has always had a much smaller industrial base than Glasgow, but the proximity of many coal mining villages around its outskirts hugely influenced the labour movement in the city.

The 1984-5 miners’ strike was a hugely polarised class conflict in this city.

The Henry Robb shipyard in Leith was occupied in 1984 by its workers in an attempt to stop its closure.

When the occupation and strike was over, many workers went into the postal industry.

Throughout the 1990s, Edinburgh postal workers were by far the most militant in Scotland and as well organised as any postal workers to be found in similar strongholds like Liverpool or London.

Their social club remains the focal point where all the radical groups in the city gather for meetings.

What of more recent times? In 2001 the Edinburgh May Day Committee was formed to resurrect the annual celebration of working people, and the Edinburgh People’s Festival was refounded.

People’s Festival

In 2003 the city, together with the wider Lothians region, elected a socialist to represent it in the new Scottish parliament. I have the great honour to be that MSP. I also play my part in organising both May Day and the People’s Festival.

Last year, the launch of the broad based “declaration for a republic in Scotland” took place with enormous success on Calton Hill, one of the hilltops in the city.

It is hoped this will now become an annual event which will harness the immense support which exists here for a modern democratic Scottish republic.

So in a city rich in almost hidden radical traditions, take inspiration. July 2005 should feed our determination to change the way the world is.

Make poverty history — make capitalism history.

Be part of history in Edinburgh July 2005.

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Sat 2 Jul 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1958
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