Beneath the festivals and castles, Edinburgh is just as divided as the rest of the UK

Edinburgh Castle. Image: Getty.

Joyce Forsyth’s knitwear shop is nestled in a knobbly stone building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Colourful jumpers hang in the tiny window, but it’s the scraping sound that draws me in. I find Forsyth working away at a knitting machine.

It’s a picture-perfect image of traditional Scottish crafts, but Forsyth is thinking about something distinctly modern – access to the European single market. She voted against Scottish independence in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in June this year.

She stops mid-jumper to tell me: “We should be united with Europe, and united as a country.” Having to choose one or the other would put her in a “quandary”, she says, but adds: “I would probably look at Europe. It’s economics.”

Forsyth’s view is typical: the 500,000 inhabitants of Edinburgh consider it an international city. Climb one of its seven hills and you will see, besides the castle, the unfinished tribute to the Parthenon on Calton Hill, the Enlightenment-inspired squares of the New Town, and the domes of a university designed to attract the world’s brightest talent. This is Edinburgh as it wants to be seen.

There is a gritty side, but it doesn’t appear on the postcards. Keep going past the Victorian neighbourhoods, and you’ll get to a place with no handmade jumpers, organic grocers or artisan coffee. On the run-down estates surrounding the city, benefit cuts bite and the heroin epidemic never went away.

Unlike the UK as a whole, most Scots voted to remain in the EU. Edinburgh feels the incipient constitutional crisis the referendum has caused acutely. In 2014 this was one of the most pro-UK areas in Scotland, with 61 per cent voting against independence. In the EU referendum, three-quarters voted to remain.

The citizens of this city are now facing a dismal prospect. As the pro-independence Scottish government pledges to try to avoid Brexit, they must decide whether their loyalties lie with the UK or the EU.

The European years have been kind to Edinburgh. In the 1970s, so my parents tell me, everything was closed on a Sunday and the pubs had sawdust floors. Now, expensive cafés thrive and shop windows in the New Town display designer clothes.

Leith Walk, which leads from the city centre towards the port, was the backdrop for Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of heroin and life on the dole. Now, it’s lined with restaurants and coffee shops. It is there that I meet Duncan Hothersall, who runs the online forum Labour Hame. It was set up after the once-dominant Scottish Labour was beaten soundly in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. I ask him how the party so closely associated with Scotland, the Union and the EU is responding.

“More people than I would have expected after the EU vote are inclined to independence,” Hothersall says. Most Labour activists in Edinburgh are pro-European, he adds: “I can’t think of a single Eurosceptic member.”

The promise of access to the single market is a powerful one. James Welby runs Tattie Shaws, a grocer’s shop in Leith. Usually in summer, the price of imported vegetables such as peppers drops, but with sterling so weak, prices have stayed high.

“I’m all for leaving Britain, but still being in the EU,” he says, in between serving customers. “The next thing is to try to negotiate to stay.”

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is trying to do just that. She has spent the summer with representatives from Brussels and Westminster. Her message is simple – in 2014, Scotland voted to stay in a UK inside the EU. Brexit breaks that contract.

Sturgeon has been praised for her post-Brexit leadership. But others sense an SNP plot. Cat Headley is a solicitor who became a Labour activist during the Scottish referendum. After failing to win a seat in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, she campaigned to keep the UK in the EU – but on 24 June experienced defeat again.

The modern heart of political Edinburgh: the Scottish Parliament, at Holyrood. Image: Getty.

Nevertheless, Headley’s views on the UK have not changed. Recalling the aftermath of the Brexit vote, she says: “There were a lot of people commenting how they might feel differently about independence.”

But she believes that Brexit could bolster support for the UK. “Voters are going to see the consequences of big constitutional change in terms of jobs and the economy. They are going to learn from that.”

For all its left-wing credentials, Edinburgh is a business-minded place. Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, is buried in an Old Town kirkyard. Some of the most impressive sandstone buildings are the headquarters of banks. When I was growing up here, these financial giants were associated in my mind with the city’s increasingly elaborate firework displays. The 2008 crash left residents stunned, and the fireworks somewhat disappointing.

Much of the city’s chattering class lives in south Edinburgh, where the wide Victorian streets are lined with lime trees and large houses. J K Rowling lived here for a while, and so, still, do the authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

According to Labour’s Daniel Johnson, the constituency MSP for Edinburgh Southern, 80 per cent of the constituency voted to remain in the EU. “On polling day, we were being hooted at with thumbs up,” he says. “To have such a positive campaigning experience, and then come out with the wrong result, was really upsetting.”

In the poorest parts of Edinburgh, more than 27 per cent of households lived in poverty in 2014, according to the City of Edinburgh Council. In affluent areas, by contrast, the figure was 17 per cent. In 2012 the National Union of Students found that only 1.4 per cent of children from Edinburgh’s poorest areas were achieving the grades demanded by top universities.

These neighbourhoods voted to leave the EU, Labour activists say, just like other poor parts of the UK. Beneath the surface, Edinburgh is as divided as the rest of Britain – with the added complication that the independence debate has been reignited by Brexit. “There are two countries,” Johnson says. “We are in one of them.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of the Staggers, where this post was originally published.


Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.


Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.


The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.

The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.