A view from Calton Hill

Heraclitus, the notoriously enigmatic pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, thought that existing objects could be characterised by pairs of contrary properties, and that these properties, by virtue of the tension between them, were essential to the continued flourishing of the whole. He termed this phenomenon the ‘unity of opposites’. Somehow, he thought, the ongoing conflict between opposite properties enabled a single, unified object to persist.

Although it is unlikely that Heraclitus – who is said to have preferred aristocratic models of government – would have intended it, his odd theory seems highly applicable in the field of politics (that is, as Heraclitus would probably have understood the term, ‘of, for or relating to citizens’). There is, I think, something to the idea that those societies that flourish and endure are, very often, characterised by just this sort of dynamic tension, between different classes or income groups – and that where the gap between those groups or classes becomes too great that cohesion is threatened.

I was thinking about this on Sunday as I walked up Edinburgh’s Calton Hill, with its curious collection of classical monuments (Dickens described it as ‘a rubbish heap of imaginative architecture’) and its tremendous views across the city and out to the Firth of Forth. This must be among the best places in Edinburgh to begin learning about the city and how it developed, from the smoke-blackened, boozy disorder of the Old Town and its narrow medieval streets, to the precise geometrical elegance of the New Town’s squares and circuses.

The development of the New Town in the late eighteenth century saw the wealthier citizens of Edinburgh move out of the cramped and unsanitary conditions of the Old Town to more genteel, spacious homes set on wide roads, with large, green civic spaces. The poor remained in the relative – and fast deepening – squalor of the Old Town. Overcrowding, poverty and inadequate sanitation led to epidemics of cholera and other diseases in the first half of the next century.

The Old Town of the eighteenth century was cramped and it was dirty. But it was also vibrant, brilliant and exciting, a melting pot of new thinking and ideas, in which the poorest citizens rubbed shoulders daily with the wealthiest and most educated, and where the old order was taken apart and new principles put in its place. The Scots, David Hume wrote, were now ‘the People most distinguish’d for Literature in Europe’, and that at a time when ‘we have lost our Princes, Our Parliaments, our independent Government, even the presence of our chief Nobility’. This loss did not create a vacuum but rather a space for debate, fierce, convivial and fearless, much of it centred on the Old Town’s numerous taverns, of which Hume, among others, was a notable and enthusiastic frequenter.

A number of factors made the Scottish Enlightenment possible, among them the quality of Scottish education and its openness to ideas from the continent. The growth in the educated population of Scotland meant this renaissance in thought was not confined to a small number of literati, or to the ranks of the aristocracy, as it was in France, but was, as the historian Tom Devine notes, ‘widely diffused throughout the ranks of the educated classes’. The ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment were not only aired and debated in the pubs of Edinburgh’s New Town, but were also ‘described, analysed, questioned and refuted in pamphlets and journals such as the Scots Magazine, in the contemporary press, in sermons and surveys like John Sinclair’s massive Statistical Account of Scotland, published in the 1790s, which provided an examination of the way of life of over 900 parishes compiled by the local ministers.’

It was this broad dissemination, Devine argues, that ‘ensured the social acceptance of basic ideas that might otherwise have remained arcane, remote and abstract’ and which helped ground them in observation and the practicalities of life in eighteenth-century Scotland. They saw human experience as the touchstone of true understanding. The Edinburgh literati may have been, to varying degrees, born to privilege but their lives were not so remote from those of other classes that they could be indifferent to them, while the spread of school education in Scotland during the second half of the seventeenth century and the rapidly expanding middle class meant there was a large and engaged audience interested in their ideas.

Undoubtedly, too, those ideas and the rejection of hitherto unquestioned – and unquestionable (Scotland’s last execution for heresy took place as recently as 1696) – authority seeped into the consciousness of the poorer classes of society. The wealthiest had close, face-to-face relationships with the poorest, often sharing the same buildings (the rich on the upper floors, the poor on the lower ones) and they frequented the same churches, brothels and alehouses. Skilled artisans helped swell the membership of the city’s numerous learned clubs and societies, and university access widened to include the children of merchants and tradesmen.

The nineteenth century saw Edinburgh’s New Town flourish, while the Old Town plunged deeper into squalor and increasingly wretched poverty. The rich and the poor began to lead separate lives. By 1880, when the educationalist, environmentalist and town planner Patrick Geddes moved there, the Old Town was notorious for its appalling housing and poor living conditions. Geddes moved into James Court, where David Hume had once lived but which was now little more than a slum. Geddes believed that social change needed to come from the bottom up, rather than be imposed from above (however well-meaningly). He improved his own building and encouraged his neighbours to work together in improving theirs as well as their wider community. Geddes also believed that a vibrant community required a mixture of people from different backgrounds living side by side and enjoying the kind of face-to-face relationships they had in mid-eighteenth century Edinburgh. He founded a hall of residence in renovated properties around Edinburgh’s Lawnmarket, including one in Riddle’s Court, another former Hume residence, which now houses, among other things, the Edinburgh offices of the Workers’ Educational Association (appropriately, Geddes’s Latin inscription above the archway to Riddle’s Court reads Vivendo Disciumus – ‘By Living We Learn’)

Geddes didn’t believe in getting rid of tradition. His idea was to build around it, improving what was good and valuable, building better housing where necessary, and making use of derelict spaces, often through the creation of gardens and other green spaces, which he thought essential to the flourishing of community. He saw the city as a microcosm of society, as a kind of blueprint for wider social organisation. A flourishing community, he thought, meant people of different classes living common lives. This created the best conditions for making successful societies. Likewise, in his academic life (Geddes purchased the Outlook Tower on Castle Hill – now known as the Camera Obscura – to be a sort of sociological laboratory), he believed in bringing disciplines together, in thinking and learning holistically – that our view is better when we see the connections, the ways in which things are held together, as well as the things themselves. Places of learning, like people, need spaces in common.

I’ve written before about Machiavelli’s Discourses and his view of social conflict as useful, even necessary, to the success of a state. He is perhaps as unlikely a bedfellow of Geddes as you could wish to find, but they do have one thing in common. Machiavelli, like Geddes, saw that a stable, successful society required a degree of commonality between classes, a sense that all classes are living comparable lives, a part of the same society. The rich, Machiavelli argued, should not become so rich that they become arrogant and indifferent to the needs and demands of other groups, and the poor perceive them as remote and out of touch. And the poor should not be so poor that they live without hope or the prospect of a better life. These ‘opposites’, to borrow again the language of Heraclitus, need to be in close enough proximity to make possible the sort of dynamic tension that is necessary for the survival and flourishing of a society. As Geddes also saw, vibrant communities are untidy communities, mixed, diverse and dynamic, with a rough equality between classes – enough at least for people to see that they are living their lives in common.

This is a hard lesson for us today. In recent decades we have seen, on a larger scale, a process not dissimilar to that which split Edinburgh in two in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century. The rich have become richer, their lives ever more remote, their wealth unimaginable to the vast majority of ordinary people and their grip on politics, the professions, the arts and the higher reaches of the education system increasingly firm. At the same time, as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation warned this week, insecure, low-paid work is putting record numbers of working families in poverty. Two-thirds of the people who have found work in the past year are employed in jobs paying less than the living wage (with many on zero-hours contracts with no guarantee of minimum hours). Between 2008 and 2013 average pay for the lowest paid fell by 70p per hour for men and 40p per hour for women, while the richest 1,000 Britons increased their wealth by more than £155 billion. Growing inequality unsurprisingly correlates with declining upward mobility. Life chances are increasingly dependent on who your parents are.

The education system, one of the key means by which we might reduce poverty and narrow the income gap, is, at the same time, becoming more and more polarised, with a broad liberal education – another fairly basic requirement of human flourishing – increasingly the preserve of the children of the rich, while the less advantaged make do with training which may give them skills but falls some way short of providing them with an education. As Michael Young foresaw in his satire The Rise of the Meritocracy, an education system which confers approval on a small minority of its population (and qualifies the success of everyone else) effectively hands that minority control of the means to reproduce itself. To see the consequences of this you might compare, as Young later did, the social origins of members of Atlee’s post-war cabinet with those of Tony Blair’s – or with those of Ed MIliband’s shadow cabinet.

Little wonder then that the political class has become less plural and politics a much narrower business in which most fundamental questions – including those about the conditions in which people can best flourish – are off limits. Austerity politics has become a most effective cloak under which to pursue often fairly radical ideological goals to which human ends are secondary – all largely unchallenged by a compliant media with an equally strong and undisclosed ideological commitment. It is depressing indeed, but perhaps unsurprising, that in times such as these a party of closed-mined xenophobes – a coalition of the rich, the ignorant and the desperate – should be considered a compelling, even progressive, alternative.

Patrick Geddes recognised that people, like any life form (Geddes was also a botanist), thrive in the right conditions. Politics should be about identifying and helping improve these conditions for everyone. As those great theorists of adult education John Dewey and R.H. Tawney also saw, at the heart of this must be the idea of a common life – a life which embraces all in a community, treats every member as free and equal, and attaches equal value to the needs and aspirations of all. Sadly, we are fast becoming not one but two countries – divided by wealth, opportunity and prospects for advancement. Working-class people are not only unrepresented (fulfilling Michael Young’s prediction of the consequences of educational selection) but, by and large, unheard, except in contexts which demean or diminish them. As Geddes realised, only by being immersed in the lives people lead can you begin to understand them. The government’s boasts about the resilience of the economy mean little when the lives of so many are getting worse, with little out there to give them hope of something better in the future. I doubt many members of the current political class have much understanding of how utterly demoralising and damaging it is to be branded a failure by the education system and then denied the means of turning things around and making your life better. It seems that everywhere you look second chances are either disappearing or becoming unaffordable to most. Geddes showed that people can build communities which are rich, vibrant and fulfilling, but we must first create conditions which, in the enduringly brilliant words of Raymond Williams, ‘make hope practical rather than despair convincing’.

Spaces of hope: adult education and democracy

In the Scottish Portrait Gallery, in Edinburgh, are two portraits of the philosopher David Hume by his friend Allan Ramsay. One shows Hume resplendent in red military uniform, one of the trappings of a diplomatic appointment to Paris. The Hume it depicts is kind, intelligent and humane, but a little complacent, even, dare I say, self-satisfied. It is a fine portrait, one of Ramsay’s finest, but I much prefer the other, earlier, portrait. This is the convivial, brilliant Hume, the generous, expansive, politely combative Hume of Edinburgh’s clubs and taverns, the guiding spirit of the Scottish Enlightenment.

This wonderful portrait was painted in 1754, the year that Hume and Ramsay, with Adam Smith, set up the Select Society, a weekly debating club for the great and good of Edinburgh society. Topics discussed at club meetings ranged from the treatment of women in ancient and modern society, to paper credit and poor relief (though more incendiary topics such as religion and Jacobitism were off the agenda). It was by no means the only such club in eighteenth-century Edinburgh. Debating societies proliferated about Edinburgh’s Old Town, where some of the greatest thinkers of the Enlightenment lived cheek by jowl with some of the city’s most impoverished residents.

Old Town Edinburgh was a boozy, squalid and wildly boisterous nest of courts, wynds and closes. The poet Thomas Gray wrote that the city was at once the ‘most picturesque (at a distance) and nastiest (when near) of all capital cities’. Pigs were herded from the fields and penned in the Canongate each night. The stink was atrocious. There was no sanitation to speak of and, for the poor, life could be nasty, brutish and short. Daniel Defoe wrote of Edinburgh: ‘I believe that in no city in the world so many people have so little room’. One consequence of the overcrowding was that there was little geographical distance between rich and poor. The wealthiest often shared the same buildings as the poorest (the rich on the upper stories, the poor at the bottom). They drank in the same drinking dens, where the likes of Hume and Ramsay cut their debating teeth and where social status meant little.

Scholars have pondered the reasons for the sudden, remarkable ‘efflorescence’ of original scholarship and creative thinking that took place in Edinburgh in the eighteenth century. Scotland was more open to continental influence than England and many of the ideas of the French Enlightenment found their way into Scottish universities and into polite society (Hume described himself as an ambassador from the world of learning to the world of conversation). The Scottish education system was unusually advanced for the time. After the Reformation, reformers had worked to establish a school in every parish and, over the course of a century or so, literacy levels had improved across society. But just as important was the space offered by Edinburgh’s numerous taverns and societies for discussion. Most of the societies met in pubs where the discussion was stimulated by the generous amounts of alcohol consumed. In the wake of the Act of Union in 1707 there appears to have been a freeing up of thinking about philosophy, politics, history and economics, and a willingness to go further into first principles and the wellsprings of human social life. As Enlightenment scholar Arthur Herman notes, Edinburgh was like a ‘giant think tank’ but one that ‘was not cut off from everyday life. It was in the thick of it’.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough hear some of these issues discussed by a group of adult students in a community centre in north Edinburgh. The group was discussing the Scottish Enlightenment as part of Power to the People, a course, run jointly by Edinburgh City Council and the Workers’ Educational Association, which uses film, literature, photography and song to explore some of the Scotland’s great movements of social protest. Skilfully led by Edinburgh Community Learning and Development Worker Lynn McCabe and WEA tutor Derek Suttie, it was a vibrant and revealing session, getting to the heart of the group’s interests and concerns and effectively dissecting some of the tensions at the heart of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh.

The students talked about how the divide between rich and poor was (quite literally) cemented when the wealthy professional class, who largely comprised the ‘literati’ of Edinburgh (unlike the leisured philosophes of the French Enlightenment most of Edinburgh’s thinkers made a living in one profession or another), moved to the spacious and better-planned New Town, leaving the working-class poor to the overcrowding and squalor of the Old Town. Herman argues that the move ‘opened up a new chapter in modern urban history’, by underscoring class division with physical as well as cultural distance. The group, which includes a number of veterans of community activism, was alive to the massive social and cultural cost of this divide, and to its continuing relevance.

The class discussion was wide-ranging. The students considered at length whether the ideas of the Enlightenment would have filtered down to working people, whether there was a strong desire for change in the wider population, and where working people would have gathered to discuss and debate. Lynn argued that while poverty made people angry, often the only way working people could express their feelings was through violent struggle, as in the Porteous Riots of 1736. That struggle though is inadequately recorded. Ordinary people did not have the time to reflect on their lives or on the way society is structured, often telling their stories orally through poetry and song. Even now, said community activist Anna Hutchison, the people of Edinburgh do not know the history of their own city – certainly not the real history.

Five of the students, including Anna, all of them activists, are also founder members of the North Edinburgh Social History Group, which, over the past few years, has set about capturing the history of their community. ‘In areas like ours, everything we’ve ever had we fought for. It wasn’t just handed to us,’ Anna says. For decades, she tells me, the community has had to struggle for the basic amenities others in the city take for granted, waging campaign after campaign for better housing and community conditions, better play facilities for children, and battling to keep vital local services alive. It’s an amazing story of resilience and creativity in the face of injustice and indifference. But in recent years community participation has been declining, with many older activists walking away, frustrated by an ‘engagement’ agenda which seemed designed to manage dissent and control communities. There was a need, says fellow activist Roberta Blaikie, for the community to remind itself what it was capable of achieving. ‘Local people have always had to fight for the services they have,’ she says. ‘It hasn’t always been the way it is now. People don’t realise that. We wanted to show people – including ourselves – all the things that people like ourselves have achieved, all the battles they have won, to give us the projects we have now.’

The group worked closely with Lynn to develop a project that, they hoped, would provide a lasting record of the community’s struggles, while also reinvigorating the spirit of activism, particularly among younger people. They set about researching and recording the history of community activism in the north Edinburgh communities of Pilton, Drylaw, Muirhouse, Granton, Royston and Wardieburn. Over the course of a year, they collected a vast amount of material, including press cuttings and photographs from 30 years of back issues of community paper the North Edinburgh News, campaign footage and recorded interviews. The more they gathered, the more ambitious they became, eventually bringing together material on 70 years of activism in a book, Never Give Up: A community’s fight for social justice, a short film and an exhibition of photographs.

The book’s launch, held at a community arts centre, was attended by more than 100 people, including old and new activists, and led directly to the founding of a new campaigning group, North Edinburgh Fights Back – a new critical space in which new and old activists have been able to develop a response to budget cuts and the privatisation of local services. According to group member Brian Eddington, the launch was, ‘a fantastic event, probably the biggest event there has ever been at North Edinburgh Arts’. Since the launch Roberta and Anna have spoken to schools to raise awareness among younger people of what has been achieved in the area. Scran, the Scottish online learning resource, has helped the group put the material it collected into an online exhibition so anyone can view it, and almost a thousand copies of Never Give Up have been distributed (with a reprint on the way). Eager to build on what they had learned, and to engage others in the study of social history, the group worked with Lynn McCabe to develop a new course, Power to the People, looking more widely at the history of protest in Scotland.

After the class I ask Lynn about the thinking behind the Never Give Up project. The idea, she says, was both to capture the history of community activism in north Edinburgh ‘before it was too late’, and to reinvigorate the spirit of activism in the area. It is obvious that both aims have been met, to some extent at least. Critically, though, for Lynn, it was also obvious that the activists had responded energetically to the opportunity to take stock, to reflect and to think about what next. Power to the People provided an extension of the space Never Give Up created for reflection and debate, but wider this time and more diverse. Creating that space, and giving people an opportunity to reflect on and talk politics, was critical, Lynn explains. ‘For a lot of people who have been active in groups for a while there’s less and less space for people to have the discussions about politics. This is a luxury for a lot of people who have been involved in tenants’ groups, campaign groups, all these kinds of things. It’s a luxury for people to sit back and to reflect and think and read and discuss and debate. Although this is a course I want to see something coming out of it where ideas and education are informing action. It’s also about remaking the connections in that community, which were fractured and have been fractured for years. And it’s about building the alliances again, building the bridges, building the connections, and making new ones as well.’

The availability of that sort of space, and its contribution to the ‘moderate revolution’ of the Enlightenment in Edinburgh, was one of the themes of the group’s discussion. As Lynn argues, adult education is a means of creating such spaces, of making these connections, and of cultivating the skills and capabilities necessary to work well as a group, to cooperate in effecting change and to engage effectively in democracy and civil society. Lynn’s students talked about respecting other people’s opinions more, developing better listening skills and learning to channel their anger in constructive, useful ways. Anna and Roberta both gained confidence in public speaking through sharing their work with local schools. Some felt more optimistic about the future of activism in their area and others saw great potential in the social history model they had developed. Importantly, the neutral space of the classroom (loosely construed) gave them a place in which to consider what was wrong in their community and to wonder how things might be different. It created a place in which the often confining narrowness of people’s personal, work and imaginative worlds could be challenged, and with them injustices and inequalities which, in the ordinary course of life, seem natural or inevitable. The social history group’s work is, perhaps above all, a challenge to the everyday defeatism they encounter on the streets of north Edinburgh, particularly among young people.

WEA Scotland has supported both initiatives and has undertaken a number of comparable projects of its own. Bathgate Once More looked at the story of the British Motor Corporation factory in Bathgate, for a quarter of a century the centre of Britain’s motor vehicle industry. Like Never Give Up, this project gave students a chance to draw on their own ‘real, lived experience’ and to direct their own learning, producing materials that can be used by teachers, linked to Curriculum for Excellence areas. ‘I think it’s important for children and families to be learning about Scottish history and identity,’ says Elizabeth Bryan, Edinburgh Area Tutor Organiser for the WEA. ‘Planning our programmes around learners’ interests means it can be personal, it can be to do with family, it can be to do with community and society or their work – and that’s a great strength.’

Jayne Stuart, Director of WEA Scotland, agrees. ‘As the world changes and financial models change, it is very difficult often to keep the focus on these areas that are really important in terms of community and society. It’s where we see ourselves at the forefront of social change and social movements, something we are retaining through very tough economic times, as part of contributing to democratic society. I see education as very much part of that. It’s an essential, particularly at this time in Scotland when we are on the threshold of making a major decision about our future.’

The class I attended concludes with a discussion of Robert Burns’ great political poem, A man’s a man for a’ that. The group explore some of the themes of the poem – class, poverty and equality – and the session ends with a sung rendition of the poem. I’ve always loved the poem and it seems to me as relevant now as it has ever been. I’m moved by the passion on display, and, when the song ends, a little hopeful.