In the age of Trump, Edinburgh gets its own populist movement – John McLellan

Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, and, yes, Greta Thunberg; we live in an era of simplistic populism and in Edinburgh we now have the new left-wing populists Citizen, or Ctzn as it’s called on its website.

Thursday, 2nd May 2019, 7:00 am
Has Les Miserables - screened recently on the BBC starring Dominic West, Lily Collins and David Oyelowo - inspired the recent talk of Citizens' Assemblies in Scottish politics. Picture: BBC

Maybe it’s because Les Miserables has just been on the box, but the SNP is at it as well, aiming to launch a “Citizen’s Assembly” to drive forward their independence agenda.

With the UK parliament, the Scottish Parliament, councils and, still, the European Parliament, all democratically elected with party political gatherings and elections behind them, I thought we had quite a few citizen assemblies, but obviously not.

Citizen, the new group launched last Wednesday with the aim of putting up candidates for Edinburgh Council, brings together a collection of activists and local campaigns with the goal of “transforming the capital into a place for people, not profit”.

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Founder Mike Small, who runs the pro-independence website Bella Caledonia, blasted property-owners “whose coffers are swollen on the misery of others”.

More bellow than Bella, he promised to fight “the grinding force of gentrification and social cleansing; the seizure and privatisation of public space and the lack of public housing.” Calling the masses to the barricades, he thundered, “This isn’t a capital city it’s a city of capital disfigured by exploitation.”

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In a political space already occupied by the SNP, Labour and Greens, it might be tempting for my fellow Conservative councillors and I to sit back and enjoy the new lot ripping into the Nationalist establishment, but it deserves to be taken seriously.

There are plenty of reasonable people in Edinburgh who believe there are too many tourists, fear the Festivals are taking over in August and worry about more development and more students. If you recognise yourself then while you might never have voted Tory, you’re conservative at heart.

As with much of the hard left, at its core is a conservative organisation whose main mission is not so much revolution but preservation, of the way it would like to see things kept or a return to the way they think things were, like the majority of housing back under political control.

Save Leith Walk, Save Meadowbank and Save the Central Library campaigns undoubtedly attracted political opportunuists, they were essentially defensive groups who loathed what the council was threatening to do. They were dedicated to defending their areas and not intent on storming the gates of Holyroodhouse to overturn the social order.

While veteran left-winger Lloyd Quinan did a good job in helping direct the Save Meadowbank campaign, he was also a bona fide local who was savvy enough to recognise the people who packed Meadowbank Church were not natural revolutionaries.

Where sensible people scratch their heads is stuff like the “grinding force of gentrification”, which for most is the same as making an area better. If gentrification is more shops, cafes and clean streets, and less vandalism, aggression and neglect then most will be all for it.

Similarly, if selling and marketing the city is bad, when the jobs dry up do you tell people that Manchester, Copenhagen and Dublin didn’t play fair?

From where we sit in the City Chambers, we don’t recognise a “rampant growth model” which “guides every single decision” or an “endless prioritisation of the rich against the poor”, but see an administration which actively dislikes marketing, is at best nervous about economic growth, and certainly could not be accused of prioritising the rich.

Instead it panders to virtue, like diverting funds from road repairs to satisfy the cycle lobby, pointless pilot projects like the Citizens Income and preparing to sting anyone who has a car park space at work. One way or another, the only way to guarantee more food on more tables is growth, but the more anti-economy groups like Citizen or the Greens demand, the more this administration is likely to cave.

Sunset on Leith

Rampant growth? Try telling global hospitality giant Hyatt, whose new hotel at Granton Harbour hit the planning buffers last week.

Hyatt’s European development chief Guido Fredrich must wonder what kind of place this is to do business, having said he was “thrilled” to be opening in Edinburgh which was “a new era for the company and creating a great new tourism opportunity for Edinburgh”.

To which the planning department said: “Oh, ye think so?”

Later at the same meeting a private flats development to preserve the art deco cinema frontage at Great Junction Street was held up because some councillors refused to believe the council’s affordable housing team and two housing associations that social housing wasn’t viable on a complex site along the Water of Leith.

Conclusion? Private investment is unwelcome in Leith. Anyone told Forth Ports?