Alasdair Gray, Body Politic, Book review., Books, Capitalism, Economic Growth, Edinburgh, Edinburgh's Economic Strategy, Enlightenment, History, Iain Banks, Ian Duncan, Ian Rankin, Medicine, Nationalism, New Town, Paul Johnston, Politics, Science Fiction, Scottish Literature, Technology, The City, The City State, The Creative Class
The Case for Edinburgh as a City of the Future.
The first contribution to this series studied how Scottish nationalism usually detracts from a straightforward appeal for popular sovereignty; the second admired the historical ideal of the city-state; the third identified Jane Jacobs’ definition of the city as an economic invalidation of nationalism; whilst the fourth considered the growth of the “mega-region” and the emergence of cities which are as populous and wealthy as nations. Our conclusion: to paraphrase a line which the novelist Alasdair Gray had once famously paraphrased, the life of every city contains the early days of a better nation.
An analysis of the development of mega-regions is in danger of picking up, as it goes along, the view that human society is somehow evolving of its own accord, perhaps in line with some as yet undiscovered historical rules. The decline of nations and the rise of mega-regions will seemingly fulfil an inevitable orientation of political systems around economic realities. If this series had departed from a left-wing starting-point, by criticising Scottish nationalism for its inadequate assertion of popular sovereignty, it was soon wandering through the terrain of the right and assuming that popular politics can only destabilise natural economic processes. From this perspective, the nation is a contrivance which subtracts from the city’s creation of wealth and the city should be freed from all political consciousness, to prosper, as it were, automatically.
In fact, every city advances by virtue of one political decision at a time and there will always be occasions in the history of a city when decisions about the deployment of its resources have either renewed or postponed its development. It is all too easy to find occasions in Edinburgh’s history when the wealth which its people have created has gone with the wind. The massive investment of capital in the 1698 Panama colony of “New Edinburgh” and its negligible returns; the half-built Parthenon atop Calton Hill, abandoned to the elements in 1829 after a public subscription could not match government funding; the Scottish parliament building which opened in 2004, three years late and four times over budget; and the ghost of a decommissioned tram system which opened in 2014, five years late and three times over budget (or more when the original funding is measured against the line actually constructed).
But these disasters are ultimately eddies in the tide. The history of Edinburgh is the history of an ongoing investment in the city’s infrastructure, university, cultural institutions, and centres of science and medicine. The boldest decision in the history of Edinburgh was that to construct a “New Town” north of the existing city after 1765, with the associated bridge building and reclaiming of land from the Nor Loch. It could be argued that the growth of Edinburgh was stunted by the decades of delay to this project, which was first granted a charter by the future King James VII and II in 1679; but had the project been delayed until the nineteenth century, then the city would have faded into provincialism, as generations of Enlightened thinkers decamped to London. The Unionist fervour of the New Town, with its streets originally planned in the shape of a Union Jack, in practice entailed counterbalancing London and levelling the Union’s scales. It is sobering to eye the grandest of our construction projects today and then turn to the sheer ambition of duplicating an entire city centre and remaking it completely, as a pinnacle of modernity.
For one on the Left, it might seem that the state’s forcible reinvestment of their own wealth is far more compelling within the dynamo of a city. They can see what their wealth has made, and, behold, it is very good. The latest institutions to beautify the city and move it forward, the Informatics Forum at Potterrow or the BioQuarter at Little France, might leave them feeling less demoralised about the capacity of the state, or large public organisations, to improve their lives. When they look at what they get for their money within the nation-state, then there are no comparable benefits. The nation-state regales them with laborious military systems and gigantic bureaucracies which seem to exist only for themselves. British militarism, for example, has to be kept chugging along indefinitely, however remote or spurious the threats to the nation’s “defence.”
One on the Left might be justified in withdrawing their politics from the national stage. The need to sponsor the nation-state might reduce them to the fiercest conservative, who is content with only the barest of governments. National resources here become something like a dormant volcano; a fund for those occasions when cities find themselves allied against a spectacular threat. The need to sponsor the growth of the city, however, might inflate the same individual into a generous socialist, who is ready to invest in anything which smacks of the future.
Yet when seeking to apply a new revolutionary politics to Edinburgh, we encounter an obstacle in the city’s very openness to new ideas. In an essay contained within Culture, Nation and the New Scottish Parliament (2007), Ian Duncan suggests that Edinburgh has only spun itself into a phantasmagoria as a strategy for coping with irrelevance:
Stripped of the substance of sovereignty at the Acts of Union – of kings and court in 1603, or parliament in 1707 – Edinburgh acquires instead, in the passage to modernity, an antiquarian and aesthetic aura; it becomes storied and picturesque, its status as capital of Scotland reimagined upon a phantom foundation of literary representation and historical association… Edinburgh’s sublimity is the shadow cast by the absent state – a world-size shadow from the imperial center, but also a shadow in time, out of Scotland’s past.
This is a great, fascinating argument and I am disposed to add another thin layer to it. With the state, and the onerous responsibilities of government gone, the surplus of Edinburgh’s middling ranks who had not been sucked up by the law courts were liberated to invest their energies into new disciplines. These did not merely encompass “cultural production and aesthetic forms,” as Duncan emphasises, but science and, crucially, medicine. James Young Simpson invented surgical anaesthetic in the city in 1847 and Joseph Lister lectured about antiseptic at the University of Edinburgh in 1869: achievements which came with the slow, steady accruement of a culture of medical inquiry. The endurance of this culture is the principle reason why the city is today building a portfolio of medical research centres including the MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine and the Queen’s Medical Research Institute.
Scientific research is not a central component of Edinburgh’s economy. The city’s top three employers are still the NHS, the Council, and the University, and the highest percentage of its workers is employed in healthcare and social work. More of Edinburgh’s citizens are employed in the arts than in manufacturing. Yet there is a consciousness amongst policymakers (expressed, for example, in the city’s 2012-2017 Economic Strategy) of the need to make Edinburgh a lasting home for organisations which require high-skilled labour. The fickleness of venture capital and the lucrative returns from property investment will inevitably impede growth in this sector. Edinburgh is, however, already home to a fertile skills base. Last year the Financial Times reported that, “Out of the near 1,600 university spinouts in the UK since 2001, 504 were from Scottish universities and almost half of those (244) were from Edinburgh university despite the country’s much smaller population and student numbers.”
Edinburgh is a city with its own civilisation, or at least it seems that every other community in Britain is significantly less civilised than Edinburgh. To trace the roaring blood of Edinburgh’s literary achievements to its political decapitation brooks no contradiction to a city which also spouts science and medicine. Often Edinburgh’s literature, or the literature influenced by the city’s culture, was preoccupied with new ideas and thereby allied to scientific inquiry. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1887 creation Sherlock Holmes (who was based partly on the Edinburgh physician Joseph Bell) were both, within the context of nineteenth century literature, identifiable works of “science fiction” which interrogated the latest theories and assumptions about the human condition.
Duncan has only the room to sketch his argument and most of his analysis is concerned with Edinburgh novels from the 1990s. Even here, we see an open-mindedness which appears to come naturally to Edinburgh’s literature, coupled with a faith in Edinburgh’s exclusivity. On the latter front, Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels (1987-2013) are usually potted within the setting of Edinburgh, just as American superhero fictions transform New York into a supremely autonomous metropolis, a city-state in itself. Rebus’s Edinburgh is steeped in history and uniquely profound, whilst the rest of the nation is a flat, washed-out tableland beyond the city’s borders. The grouchy Rebus nicely personifies Edinburgh: he brings enlightenment on his own terms, usually independent of the more established, bureaucratic authorities.
Iain Banks and his alter ego Iain M. Banks feature prominently in Duncan’s analysis. Banks’ The Bridge (1986) reimagines the Forth Rail Bridge as a fantastical city-state which stretches for hundreds of miles; whilst the characters within (M. Banks’) Feersum Endjinn (1994) live like insects in a similarly-scaled castle, which was built, possibly as a sort of folly, by humans who have since left the planet. In Feersum Endjinn, the people of the future are, for all their wondrous technology, marooned within a monument whose grandeur they can no longer replicate. They have the same relationship to Enlightenment as Edinburgh’s current citizens have to the New Town. The underlying link is the city as a technological feat; the elderly youthfulness of architecture which stands testament to the Enlightenment.
The twist in this novel is that the absent Diaspora have left behind technology to help the remaining humans deal with a looming environmental catastrophe, and here the wheel has turned full circle. The dark history of Edinburgh cliché, the ways in which Rebus’ Edinburgh can never wash out the stain of its past, is replaced by a world which is now similarly haunted by the virtuous optimism of the Enlightenment. Duncan quotes some lines from John Gibson Lockhart’s Peter’s Letters to his Kinsfolk (1819), in which it is claimed that Edinburgh forever imposes “the idea of the comparative littleness of all human works… the proudest of palaces must be content to catch the shadows of mountains.” But Edinburgh is today eclipsed by its civilised past rather than drowned in the shadow of its wild natural features.
Enlightenment, or (in Kant’s definition) “man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage,” is now as absent as the state. The nightmare of Paul Johnston’s 1997 detective novel Body Politic is that Edinburgh has reverted to being ruled directly, by a paternalistic state, as a substitute for Enlightenment.
Duncan does not rate Body Politic very highly, believing that its “reactionary politics” is matched by a “clumsy execution.” Johnston’s novel is admittedly not the cream of the middlebrow, with one of its characters even taunting the hardboiled detective, Quintilian Dalrymple for “doing your Philip Marlowe impersonation.” Yet Body Politic has a unique relevancy to this series in taking a leap out of the implicit and envisaging Edinburgh as a city-state.
Rather than freely choosing this destiny, Edinburgh has instead had independence forced upon it by the disintegration of the United Kingdom into “dozens of warring city-states.” We re-join Edinburgh in 2020, when the “Council of City Guardians” has achieved “stability” by transforming the city into a closeted totalitarian regime, which only errs from Stalinist convention in its Edinburgh snootiness. The snobbish and anti-American guardians ban televisions and cars (partly because there is no petrol) and they clamp down on freedom of speech, democracy and private property. Edinburgh still earns most of its wealth by showcasing the city-centre to tourists.
This dystopia, like all dystopias, is a product of its time. We are reminded of the dangers of science fiction falling short when Quint is told that some crime-scene photographs are (yes, in 2020) “being developed.” Johnston’s dystopia at least keeps the city’s leading hospital in Lauriston Place, whereas it is in fact lately banished to Little France, leaving behind a crater festooned with yuppie apartments. In 1997, Scottish nationalism was a fringe movement, and so Edinburgh and Glasgow do not stick together when the Union slides. Body Politic also articulates a paranoia about Blairite social manipulation, with the hero complaining, “stability, work and housing for everyone, as much self-improvement as you can stomach. But what about freedom?”
The mid-nineties aesthetic is hardly a handicap to Body Politic since the whole point of the story is that there has been no social, political or technological improvement since Edinburgh became a utopia. Despite this, Johnston cannot bring himself to disqualify Edinburgh as a city-state. In Quint’s world, it is perfectly natural that the nation has collapsed and that Edinburgh, autonomous in itself, should provide the logical alternative. Quint was originally idealistic about Edinburgh’s city-statehood and when he encounters a Council banner which reads “Edinburgh – Independent and Proud,” he admits to still feeling “deep down… some admiration.” This gives the mystery a remote, apolitical character – in affirming Kant’s contention that “enlightenment requires nothing but freedom,” it places Enlightenment above any conception of the state.
In Feersum Endjinn, the hapless soldier Uris Tenblen is lured by a ghost to descend too far, to where the floor becomes the ceiling and he plummets into the room below and a surprise city of death. This is a good metaphor for the present series, which has been enticed by the ideal of the city-state and Edinburgh’s history as a semi-autonomous political entity, to think that the city could actually flourish as an independent state.
The time has come to drown dreams in realpolitik. It is self-evident that if some future government declared Edinburgh to be an independent republic, the affront to geopolitics would lead to the city’s ruinous isolation from international finance. Whilst divorcing Glasgow might be culturally worthwhile, the cities’ economies are too interlinked to make such a separation practicable. Defining the borders of an independent Edinburgh too closely would leave the city without a reliable energy supply. The grimy republic in Body Politic offers probably the most accurate translation of a fantasy about Edinburgh’s independence into realism. A campaign for Edinburgh’s independence would be also likely to reiterate the characteristic mistake of Scottish nationalism: the hope that a new political community will provide some sort of purifying retreat from capitalism or globalisation or mass democracy.
As an ideal, however the city remains invincible. Furthermore, as the nation-state becomes steadily dilapidated and the authority of its institutions increasingly declines, the credibility of the city can only rise. In an age when new technologies such as stem-cell therapy are likely to transform human society beyond all recognition, only the physical proximity of the city can attract and bring together revolutionary skills and expertise. In this the city retains the same function that it had possessed when the first settlements had gathered around fire, but the city today confronts profoundly political choices about its future. The city should accordingly unveil itself as a sovereign community. Its people should work as they live, in the early days of a better nation.