Bill Jamieson: Edinburgh prim and frigid? Nonsense

Edinburgh may have voted No, but our capital is far from a conservative city. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh may have voted No, but our capital is far from a conservative city. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Share this article
Have your say

Blaming Edinburgh for voting the ‘wrong way’ ignores history and the dual nature of the Scottish character, writes Bill Jamieson

Oh, futsy, reactionary Edinburgh, hang your head in shame! You’ve let Scotland down, you mean, dour, crabbit, miserable people! You voted the wrong way in the independence referendum. And for that, and your prim, cautious, fearty ways, you should be stripped of the honour of being Scotland’s capital. This should be transferred to that pulsating, dynamic, energised, radicalised … Glasgow.

So argues Mike Stevenson, iconoclastic head of Thinktastic, a public policy consultancy.

So divided has the independence referendum left Scotland that it was only a matter of time before we turned in on ourselves in an internecine, tribal explosion of denunciation and loathing.

In referendum-fever Glasgow, he writes: “I felt like a Parisian on the eve of the French Revolution”. But “at the heart of this explosion of opportunity and self-realisation was Edinburgh – our douce, safe, managerial, capital city – seated primly and frigid like a virgin aunt at a hen party.”

How inappropriate its values now seem in a modern Scotland. “When we need energy, self-confidence, ambition and drive, from Edinburgh we get stasis, conservatism and inhibition… Its Labour establishment worked hand-in-glove with City interests to ensure no scale was left un-mongered.” Edinburgh, he said, “appeared static, paralysed by fear and inertia”. Glasgow “is the real capital” and “while Edinburgh will always be Scotland’s political and financial centre, those alone should not be the qualifications for a capital”.

Keep up to date with all aspects of Scottish life with The Scotsman iPhone app, completely free to download and use.

It’s all Edinburgh’s fault! Denunciation, ridicule and revenge: what a grim harvest is now ours to reap – and suffer at the hands of those casting round to hang the mortifying necklace of existential shame. Were this an end of it, we would not need to trouble ourselves. But there is a disturbing sense of this being not a closing of wounds but an opening, not an ending but a new beginning of division and bile.

This critique is manifestly blind, not just to Scotland’s capital city, but to the attitudes and values of Scotland as a whole. Let’s remember that Edinburgh was not singular or exceptional in the way that it voted in the independence referendum. It voted with the majority of the people of Scotland, across many different regions and districts, Highland and Lowland, east and west, urban and rural. A clear majority of Scots, not just Edinburgh, voted No: a small pettifogging fact, perhaps, to the communards of separatism and division. But it does require the regrettable necessity of recognition.

Can the spirit of revolutionary Paris really be invoked to inspire Scots to ignore this truth and turn on their fellow countrymen for the mortal sin of not voting the “right” way? And how inspirational is it really, when that other regrettable fact of history, the Fall of the Bastille, was so quickly followed by bloody beheadings and the Reign of Terror.

Edinburgh is as true and faithful to the spirit of Scotland as it has ever been. It has betrayed nothing and let down no-one. For in truth there are many strands and many colours in the weave of Scotland. We have never been a homogenous people, but a nation comprised of many different strains.

There is, as there has always been, a romantic, rebellious, Jacobite Scotland, radical in outlook and eloquent in the cause of change. Were this not so, the broader United Kingdom would not have been informed, educated and inspired by such outstanding political leaders as Keir Hardie, James Maxton and John Wheatley. This strain is still very much alive and evident in the groupings of the ‘45-ers’.

But there is another strain that has run through Scottish life, which is equally “part of us” and equally worthy of recognition. This strain is characterised by a more cautious, guarded, sceptical and prudent mindset. It is undemonstrative and marked by a politic circumspection in thinking and behaviour.

These are the values that have stood behind Scottish law, accountancy, insurance and finance for more than 300 years and which formed the basis of Scotland’s reputation in wealth management and conservation.

Today that sector, centred in but by no means confined to Edinburgh, is the steward of £800 billion of funds, employs almost 100,000 people directly and generates around £7bn for the Scottish economy. It has achieved this as much by innovation, experiment and adaptability as by learning from the past. Be mindful of who we write off as “static” and “paralysed by fear and inertia”.

As for Edinburgh, it is barely recognisable in Stevenson’s macabre characterisation. So let me, as an Ayrshire, west coast Scot, brought up with Glasgow as my first and fond city, and who has come by degrees to appreciate the capital’s attractions, set out an alternative portrayal.

This is a city renowned as a centre of learning and discovery. It is culturally diverse, socially alive, historically rich and visually stunning. It is one of the leading visitor destinations in the world and is frequently voted the most desirable city in Britain in which to live.

It attracts more than 1.2 million visitors a year. It is the number one festival city in the world, with 17 festivals throughout the year. Tickets sold for the Edinburgh Festival are exceeded only by the Olympics and the World Cup.

It has a great literary tradition and was the first city to be designated as a Unesco City of Literature (2004). So much for “stasis, conservatism and inhibition”.

It has an educated populace, and with great universities and business schools, students comprise 20 per cent of the population.

It is ferociously proud of its history, defensive of its architecture and appearance and sensitive to considerations of place and environment. Within it can be found the mediaeval, Hanseatic charm of the Old Town and the elegant symmetry of the New Town. But it cannot be described as a conservative city. It prides itself in its international and cosmopolitan character, its cultural and social diversity, its openness to ideas and its altogether liberal outlook.

As for “frigid as a virgin aunt at a hen party”, it’s certainly a capital for hen parties. This is the city of 400 pubs and more restaurants per head than any city in the UK. And it certainly knows how to party.

There are, as with any city, low spots and shortcomings. It may be too in thrall of its past for new and ground-breaking architecture. It may hesitate to embrace a new thing unless it has brooded on how it might work in practice – and even then it’s none too sure. The lessons of the Holyrood parliament building and the construction of the trams drive this caution home.

But this is an outlook you will find across Scotland, and it has saved us to some degree from the depredations and vandalism that have befallen many English cities.

Edinburgh is not perverse, or static, or paralysed. It is Scottish through and through, and fully earns the mantle of being Scotland’s capital city. As for Mr Stevenson, he really should know better: his consultancy business is based not in Glasgow – but in Scotland’s great capital.