You have heard of Edinburgh (the city, as it happens, in which I was baptised; which I have loved all my life). You may not have visited Sighthill or Dumbiedykes, but perhaps you know the view down George Street. Now there is a new sight at the George Square end: a round and tapering hotel which has been unkindly compared to a golden dog deposit.
Some time ago there was commotion that the ‘Edinburgh Christmas’ had placed helter-skelters, wheels and all rides of that kind in Princes Street Gardens, the drained loch full of green at the base of the Castle Rock. The big toy buildings were thought to stand oddly beside Playfair’s buildings. But ‘Edinburgh Christmas’ is a great economic multiplier for this city. The city was glad of it.
Why bring these local difficulties before you? Because they say something about slacktivism.
Described by better-disposed observers as having a ribbon design but seen by others as a walnut whip, the building stands just behind the statue of Dundas. That has been a third Edinburgh controversy; about his statue. Dundas was the man who stopped two attempts by Wilberforce to abolish the slave trade; Dundas it was who insisted on gradual abolition. Wilberforce’s bills were set to fail but gradualism alone could get votes behind it. Gradual abolition was as necessary to the economy as the 2008 bank bailout: had the slave-owners gone bankrupt in a day, their supplying businesses would have gone bankrupt, the banks been broken, the country deflated for no better future. Dundas’ own motives, oddly, are by the bye. The entire society was wired with profits and debts from enslavement.
Many are keen to take the Dundas statue down. In their proposed universe, we would keep the new money from the new economic multiplier whilst removing the shameful reminder of the old one. There will be thirty restaurants too. The rebuilt St James Quarter would stay because the city after COVID, which cancelled Christmas, is concerned about revenue; as are we all. Should we see ourselves as others see us?
I am not for one moment suggesting that anything about the new hotel or the new complex is to be compared with the slave trade: nothing is and that is not what I mean. That is not my implication; I am not saying that. No such link can be made to the global real estate investor behind the Edinburgh construction. I don’t mean to relativise chattel slavery, either.
Yet in a broader sense for which the consortium cannot be held responsible, everyone is involved in labour questions. Our entire economy is wired to them but plays them down. Alleged enforced labour by Uyghurs is just one example — one which ‘modern slavery’ laws in the UK do nothing to change — yet we would consider ourselves righteous and correct were we to demonstrate over the dead stone body of yesterday’s villain in the shadow of the economics of today. We would feel we had done something, were we to take that statue down and leave nothing but the new Quarter on that horizon. Dundas is a villain, but the economy in which we live and breathe is just stuff that happens like weather.
No one on the Left ever used to claim that these economics had an individual activist solution: that used to be the point of solidarity and the social idea of change. The Left needs to start talking about the social idea of change, perhaps, not the idea of social change — which is a concept so vast and vague that it takes in everything while altering nothing (but accommodates gestures). The social idea of change is that we all must change if any are to do so. Perhaps the Left is too fragmented, distracted and theoretical now to choose this way. Yet that is also the only way that social change can avoid turning into a coup or a rout — or being postponed by slack.
I think I shall get used to the tapering, wispy roof of the new hotel. I think I shall see it, in time, standing quasi-parallel to the Dundas pillar, as the sort of ironic contrast that architects love and which can be found beautiful. I felt that way after a while about the helter-skelter in its blancmange pastels next to the neo-Gothic monument to Sir Walter Scott. He, too, was a great one for re-inventing the past.