2007 - 2022

Negotiated Communities: Why the History of Community Action in Scotland Matters

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: https://scottishcriticalheritage.wordpress.com

Comments (6)

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  1. DAVID says:


  2. Alasdair Macdonald. says:

    This is a timely piece and, I think it is important for us to have a historical/historiographic archive from which we can draw on to see how politics can be done differently. Increasingly, since the second world war, while the ‘welfare’ state hugely enhanced the life chances of millions, there was also an increasing centralisation of powers away from municipal councils towards Westminster and, indeed, Holyrood. the active groups which vitalised ward parties gradually withered and, sadly, often became cliques. Politics at the local level has become a fairly shrivelled thing, albeit some vibrant blooms occasionally blossom. many of us have lost the skills of participation and public discourse.

    I think in this paragraph, the author has got to the nub of the issue:

    “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.”

  3. SleepingDog says:

    I wonder if participation in community activism tends to vary depending on environment and acuteness of problems. If emergency can concentrate minds and foster collaboration. If the chronic problems of “poverty, poor housing, low educational attainment and poor health [which] were still such entrenched features of urban life” are less easy to organise against than existential threats like war, natural disaster, industrial poisoning of the environment or extreme oppression. The latter acute threats can cast doubt on authorities’ ability to cope or provide adequate protection; protest against chronic threats can can be dissipated by promises of future alleviation.

    Complex, fragile, constrained urban settings with generationally unskilled populations may also look less promising for grassroots improvisation than rural settings populated with traditions of self-reliance and multi-skilling.

    In 1965, the BBC banned general showings its own documentary The War Game by Peter Watkins, alleging it would be too horrific:

    A more plausible reason to me is that the establishment did not want to weaken the State’s image as something incapable at all levels of defending its population from weapon systems it was currently targeting at others.

    If the State could not be relied upon in one foreseeable emergency largely of its own making, perhaps its usefulness was overrated by the public, and communities might be encouraged to take their own survival and prosperity more into their own hands, renegotiating their own social contracts.

    Not that all perceived existential threats are rational or unbigoted. As the article points out, activism can be conservative (I would also say possibly superstitious and hateful, too, at times) as well as progressive. Nevertheless, as one major difference since the 1970s and 80s is that the world is far more interconnected, perhaps today’s small communities can learn much from each other while gaining mutual respect and admiration.

  4. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Re your War Game reference and the subsequent paragraph (2nd line) did you mean ‘capable’ rather than ‘incapable’? That seems to be more consistent with the subsequent argument, with which I agree.

    I think that social media has the potential to facilitate activism because it connects people so well and creates communities which are widely separated in space.

    In places like China, the internet is heavily regulated to prevent such community building. I think that the efforts of many government leaders like Mrs May who are ‘leaning on’ the IT platform services are doing the same. Many of the trolls who infest so many comment places are employed by states and other organisations to disrupt discourse. We have seen ‘legal’ attempts to harass bloggers like Wings.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Alasdair, yes, thanks for pointing that out, I did rather twist the sense of that statement. I meant that the State wants to project an image of competence and necessity, while suppressing any idea that it could be unable to cope or optional/irrelevant/part of the problem in a given case.

      I read this article today:
      ‘Let us not wait for the government’: Nigerian man leads cleanup in world’s most polluted city

      which (assuming its accuracy) I think supports your point about social media, and mine about action enabled by acute or emergency conditions. Also it suggests that international frameworks (here the UN Sustainable Development Goals) can help catalyse change from grassroots upwards.

      Apparently historian Mark Curtis has also praised social media for covering news that establishment media suppresses:
      “We should be questioning government more but we should also be challenging the mainstream sources of ‘news’ and ‘information,’ which are actually keeping people in the dark or, even worse, pulling the wool over our eyes,” he said.
      “Social and alternative media is very encouraging – this is where people should be getting more and more of their information, bypassing mainstream sources.”

  5. Tarun says:

    This led to the establishment of a UK inquiry to explore undercover policing and its tactics – although it does not cover actions that took place in Scotland nor the role of Scottish Police. The Scottish government has refused to hold a separate Scottish inquiry – a decision confimed by Michael Matheson after his statement on Gormley’s resignation. But as an alternative, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate for the Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) was commissioned to carry out an internal investigation into Scottish undercover policing. On February 7 it concluded unequivocally that there was “no evidence” that Police Scotland had “infiltrated social justice campaigns”. The report focuses on the use of Scottish undercover policing in tackling serious crimes. A total of 423 undercover operations of this nature have been undertaken since 2000 in Scotland.

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