Ideas of ‘community’ can all too often be viewed as either conservative and insular, or as a radical alternative to state bureaucracy. Lucy Brown argues that the history of community action in Scotland since the 1960s shows a more complex but distinctive form of politics, through which people sought to manage the emergence of the welfare state on their own terms, and which has always been at risk of subordination to government policy.

Although the labour movement in Scotland has been the subject of much important and instructive research, the activities of smaller, less formal and often short-lived community groups have received far less attention. It has often fallen to local history groups to keep their memory alive (see, for example, the work of the North Edinburgh Social History Group).

Strength Through Unity: Local community group, Easterhouse 1982

There seem to be several reasons for this historiographical gap. Many community protests were localised affairs; indeed, some activists at the time were concerned that community action was too parochial – and might even distract from class struggle. Community protest also tended to straddle the division between ‘new’ social movements (concerned largely with issues such as identity and lifestyle) and older class politics, making them difficult to pin down. It is also worth remembering that community activism could serve conservative interests – from conservation groups to Neighbourhood Watch – which tend to make less popular subjects for historical analysis.

And yet, a conceptualisation of politics which does not focus exclusively on political parties and trade unions is vital if we want to understand the ways groups (women, the elderly, young people, the unemployed, people with disabilities) who could not access or did not feel themselves fully represented by official institutions fought their political battles. To ignore extra-parliamentary politics is to marginalise these groups as political actors.

A key example was the Craigmillar Festival Society, set up in 1962 by residents of Craigmillar, an estate on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Although it began as a cultural project, the Festival Society soon recognised that collective action could impact on a wide range of problems facing the area. By 1976, it was running 57 neighbourhood projects. It also campaigned for better schools, better housing and more amenities, and against certain planning initiatives – such as a new relief road which would cut through the area. In 1978, the Festival drafted a Comprehensive Plan for Action which laid down 400 recommendations detailing how to improve life in the local area, later submitted to Edinburgh District Council’s Planning Committee.

Meanwhile, a list of organisations active in Pilton (North Edinburgh) gives a snapshot of the sorts of issues motivating community action groups elsewhere in the city. During the 1970s and 1980s, these included: West Pilton Dampness Action Group, Flats Fight Back, the Muirhouse Dampness Campaign, Pilton Action Committee, Pilton Peace Campaign, Save Our Nurseries, and the Pilton and Muirhouse Anti-Poll Tax Union.

1970s community newspapers from Edinburgh

Why Community Action?

This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the constellation of global upheavals which have become known simply as ’68’. The date has come to symbolise all sorts of contested and contradictory phenomena. This ambiguity has made it hard to identify an obvious ‘Scottish ’68’. According to Peter Marcuse, 1968 “was not necessarily a reaction against a moment of economic crisis per se”, so much as a reaction against a society which seemed increasingly spiritually bereft, or which stifled those aspects of life that were not economically productive. Values associated with the counterculture (such as the demand for a better future, the right to self-expression, or a declining deference towards authority) sometimes fed into Scottish society in indirect or ‘prosaic’ ways. For most people in Scotland, the sixties did not herald dramatic or revolutionary change, but rather a subtler ‘freeing up’ or ‘changing of priorities’. We see this reflected in the tendency towards campaigns focusing not only on concrete demands for basic services and amenities, but also the demand for a better quality of life.

This aspiration had longer roots in the utopian ideas of the post-war welfare state. By the late 1960s, enough time had passed for people to begin to question why (despite the rhetoric of the ‘affluent society’) poverty, poor housing, low educational attainment and poor health were still such entrenched features of urban life. The history of community action reminds us that the welfare state did not arrive fully formed in the mid-1940s; its delivery at the local level was, and remains, the product of negotiation between communities and government.

Community activists have often positioned themselves as radicals – a trope which has much currency in Scottish political discourse, and which has been given succour by the long running assumption that ‘community’ somehow sits in defiant opposition to capital or centralised political power. And yet, during the 1970s, building community capacity to participate in the decision-making process and the delivery of state services became a key policy objective, particularly after the reorganisation of Scottish local government in 1975. Understandably, many on the left have been sceptical of the ways in which the rhetoric of community has been applied – in a bid to secure legitimacy and consent – to activities and practices that have very little to do with community empowerment (not least of all the Community Charge, or Poll Tax). The moralistic and prescriptive rhetoric of social inclusion – associated with New Labour but prevalent in the policy discourses of all the main Holyrood parties – is in many ways rooted in this uncoupling of terms like ‘community’ and ‘participation’ from their more critical or assertive possibilities.

The history of community action (which often overlapped with the more formal and sometimes state-funded practice of community development) complicates comfortable narratives about the assumed relationship between organisation at the grassroots and disruptive or radical ends.  Nevertheless, to overlook Scotland’s community politics is to overlook the many positive and constructive ways people responded to the spaces in which they lived, endeavoured to carve out a better life for their families and neighbours, and generally sought to enact the responsibilities and defend the rights of social democratic citizenship against encroaching neo-liberalism during the 1970s and 1980s.

Lucy Brown is a PhD student based at the University of Strathclyde’s Scottish Oral History Centre.

Featured image of Jack Kane Centre mural, 1976, photo by Andrew Crummy



This article was first published at Scottish Critical Heritage. Reproduced here with thanks. It’s a great site, check it out here: