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Neil Davidson

The ghosts of struggle haunt festival city

(7 August 2004)

From Socialist Worker, No. 1913, 7 August 2004.
Copied from the Socialist Worker Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

AUGUST IN Edinburgh. And as the global middle class descends on the Scottish capital for the International Festival and Fringe, it can seem that the entire city is nothing more than a bourgeois cultural playground.

It is true that Edinburgh has never had the same size of industrial working class as Glasgow – although the class structures of the two cities are becoming increasingly similar.

But Edinburgh does have its own traditions of struggle – traditions that should be better known to socialists.

Most people who visit the festival will walk up and around the Royal Mile unaware that, within a few hundred yards of performers playing Peruvian nose-flutes or giving Estonian mime versions of Richard III, are the sites of many great class battles.

On the Royal Mile itself stands the old parliament building.

It was here that, in the dying months of 1706, crowds of several thousands demonstrated and rioted against the nobles who were preparing to sign the Treaty of Union with England in their class interests.

The crowd failed to stop the Union, but they did win several important concessions.

These included protection for the democratic institutions of the Church of Scotland, and prevention of increased taxes on essentials like salt and – how culturally stereotypical is this? – beer.

Around the corner, on George IV Bridge, is Greyfriars Kirk. It was here in 1638 that mass signings of the National Covenant signalled the beginning of the revolutionary challenge to Charles I across Britain – a challenge that is still too often simply referred to as the “English” Civil War.

Hidden in the north of the Kirk graveyard is the prison where the artisan and peasant Covenanters were thrown during the failed uprisings against Charles II after the Restoration of 1660.

Down in the Grassmarket is where public executions took place.

In 1736 the Edinburgh “mob” temporarily took control of their city.

It was in the Grassmarket that, with exemplary discipline, they lynched the hated Captain Porteous of the Town Guard, who had earlier ordered his men to shoot at demonstrators.

Along the Grassmarket in the Cowgate is the birthplace of James Connolly. And this brings us into the modern world of working class struggle.

Although he was rightly associated with the struggle for Irish freedom, it was here in the slums of Victorian Edinburgh that Connolly became a socialist leader and activist – and the only Scot who can stand comparison with John Maclean.

These struggles go on today. Above the High Street stands the castle, symbol of all that is militarist and imperialist about Scotland.

During the height of the anti-war insurgency last year a crowd of school students managed to occupy the forecourt.

These students – many from schools on the peripheral estates to the west of the city – were at the forefront of the great demonstrations organised by the Edinburgh Stop the War Coalition.

Marching down the High Street, it was difficult not to imagine the ghosts of the Edinburgh mob, the embodiment of the city’s radical past, saluting them – representatives of socialist future, and the real spirit of the festival city.

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