A tale of two cities: Scotland’s post-Brexit dilemma

Beneath the festivals and castles, Edinburgh is just as divided as the rest of the UK.

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Joyce Forsyth’s knitwear shop is nestled in a knobbly stone building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Colourful jumpers hang in the tiny window, but it’s the scraping sound that draws me in. I find Forsyth working away at a knitting machine.

It’s a picture-perfect image of traditional Scottish crafts, but Forsyth is thinking about something distinctly modern – access to the European single market. She voted against Scottish independence in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in June this year.

She stops mid-jumper to tell me: “We should be united with Europe, and united as a country.” Having to choose one or the other would put her in a “quandary”, she says, but adds: “I would probably look at Europe. It’s economics.”

Forsyth’s view is typical: the 500,000 inhabitants of Edinburgh consider it an international city. Climb one of its seven hills and you will see, besides the castle, the unfinished tribute to the Parthenon on Calton Hill, the Enlightenment-inspired squares of the New Town, and the domes of a university designed to attract the world’s brightest talent. This is Edinburgh as it wants to be seen.

There is a gritty side, but it doesn’t appear on the postcards. Keep going past the Victorian neighbourhoods, and you’ll get to a place with no handmade jumpers, organic grocers or artisan coffee. On the run-down estates surrounding the city, benefit cuts bite and the heroin epidemic never went away.

Unlike the UK as a whole, most Scots voted to remain in the EU. Edinburgh feels the incipient constitutional crisis the referendum has caused acutely. In 2014 this was one of the most pro-UK areas in Scotland, with 61 per cent voting against independence. In the EU referendum, three-quarters voted to remain.

The citizens of this city are now facing a dismal prospect. As the pro-independence Scottish government pledges to try to avoid Brexit, they must decide whether their loyalties lie with the UK or the EU.

The European years have been kind to Edinburgh. In the 1970s, so my parents tell me, everything was closed on a Sunday and the pubs had sawdust floors. Now, expensive cafés thrive and shop windows in the New Town display designer clothes.

Leith Walk, which leads from the city centre towards the port, was the backdrop for Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of heroin and life on the dole. Now, it’s lined with restaurants and coffee shops. It is there that I meet Duncan Hothersall, who runs the online forum Labour Hame. It was set up after the once-dominant Scottish Labour was beaten soundly in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. I ask him how the party so closely associated with Scotland, the Union and the EU is responding.

“More people than I would have expected after the EU vote are inclined to independence,” Hothersall says. Most Labour activists in Edinburgh are pro-European, he adds: “I can’t think of a single Eurosceptic member.”

The promise of access to the single market is a powerful one. James Welby runs Tattie Shaws, a grocer’s shop in Leith. Usually in summer, the price of imported vegetables such as peppers drops, but with sterling so weak, prices have stayed high.

“I’m all for leaving Britain, but still being in the EU,” he says, in between serving customers. “The next thing is to try to negotiate to stay.”

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is trying to do just that. She has spent the summer with representatives from Brussels and Westminster. Her message is simple – in 2014, Scotland voted to stay in a UK inside the EU. Brexit breaks that contract.

Sturgeon has been praised for her post-Brexit leadership. But others sense an SNP plot. Cat Headley is a solicitor who became a Labour activist during the Scottish referendum. After failing to win a seat in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, she campaigned to keep the UK in the EU – but on 24 June experienced defeat again.

Nevertheless, Headley’s views on the UK have not changed. Recalling the aftermath of the Brexit vote, she says: “There were a lot of people commenting how they might feel differently about independence.”

But she believes that Brexit could bolster support for the UK. “Voters are going to see the consequences of big constitutional change in terms of jobs and the economy. They are going to learn from that.”

For all its left-wing credentials, Edinburgh is a business-minded place. Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, is buried in an Old Town kirkyard. Some of the most impressive sandstone buildings are the headquarters of banks. When I was growing up here, these financial giants were associated in my mind with the city’s increasingly elaborate firework displays. The 2008 crash left residents stunned, and the fireworks somewhat disappointing.

Much of the city’s chattering class lives in south Edinburgh, where the wide Victorian streets are lined with lime trees and large houses. J K Rowling lived here for a while, and so, still, do the authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

According to Labour’s Daniel Johnson, the constituency MSP for Edinburgh Southern, 80 per cent of the constituency voted to remain in the EU. “On polling day, we were being hooted at with thumbs up,” he says. “To have such a positive campaigning experience, and then come out with the wrong result, was really upsetting.”

In the poorest parts of Edinburgh, more than 27 per cent of households lived in poverty in 2014, according to the City of Edinburgh Council. In affluent areas, by contrast, the figure was 17 per cent. In 2012 the National Union of Students found that only 1.4 per cent of children from Edinburgh’s poorest areas were achieving the grades demanded by top universities.

These neighbourhoods voted to leave the EU, Labour activists say, just like other poor parts of the UK. Beneath the surface, Edinburgh is as divided as the rest of Britain – with the added complication that the independence debate has been reignited by Brexit. “There are two countries,” Johnson says. “We are in one of them.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article appears in the 15 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation