North Edinburgh Social History Group’s Never Give Up, a history of community activism in the Pilton, Drylaw, Muirhouse, Royston and Wardieburn areas of Edinburgh, is a superb publication from several quite different perspectives.
Firstly, unlike many fairly subjective accounts of local communities, it is not merely a collection of reminiscences, but is centred on careful and systematic research. A superb timeline, illustrating Scottish, UK and international history from 1843 to 2010 puts the local history firmly in the context of wider events. The local events themselves are explained not only in the words of the local activists but from a range of other records including the press, council reports and minutes and trade union records. In capturing the history however, the human narrative has never been lost and the voices ring loud across the years, expressing the pride, the pain and the anger of communities too frequently ignored.
The production of Never Give Up achieves another quite remarkable feat. Its creation was a mighty effort in itself but its publication offers the communities, both from which it sprang and which it describes, a sense of their own achievements over these last 70 years. What emerges is what Burns called “the pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth”, a proper recognition of the human potential of the vast mass of ordinary folk. The ultimate measure of the publication will be the extent to which it helps reignite a self-belief in the capacity of communities to operate collectively and challenge those whose hold over power is at the expense of the many.
It is also an intellectual and moral rebuttal of those who dismissively speak of ‘the underclass’. The concept of a passive mass, unassimilated into wider social norms, dependant on benefits, operating economically on the edges of the black economy, has been an excuse for the political right (including the Blairites) to demonise the poor and to shift responsibility for the economic shortcomings of the market system from those who run it to its victims. It has also been an excuse for those on the left, puzzled by the effects of de-industrialisation and the subsequent shrinkage in the traditional, unionised and collectivist working class, to explain the seeming disappearance of collectivist politics on a mass scale. Never Give Up paints a different picture. Although it accurately records the now broken connection between trade union activism and community activism, it also illustrates the continuing capacity of even the poorest communities to create and re-create cultural, sporting, welfare and political organisations and campaigns. We may inhabit a crassly consumerist society. Individualism may be rampant but the lesson which Never Give Up begs us to learn is that Margaret Thatcher was wrong when she stated that ‘There is no such thing as society.’
There is society and there are communities. As well as a necessary reaction to exploitation, the urge to operate collectively is deeply human, a recurring, almost elemental, instinctive force. Never Give Up powerfully reminds us of that.
The above article was first published in Concept, Vol 2, No 3, Winter 2011