Questions of Leith Identity


Posted by in November's Magazine

When asked by the editor of this fine publication to join the ranks of its illustrious columnists, I pondered at length what themes I could explore. In a way, it seemed self-evident: as most people who know me are well aware, I can wax lyrical on the subject of Leith until my audience starts looking shiftily at their watches. Oft cited topics are: our history, our Persevere coat of arms and, of course, our border.

Ah, the famous border, which in1920, at the time of Edinburgh colonisation, cut through the tenements at the Easter Road end of Albert Street. Tony Benn’s father – the MP for Leith at the time – argued against amalgamation with these words:

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“In the Great War I knew of times when men slept with their heads in Africa and their feet in Asia. But I know of no one who would make that a case for amalgamating Africa with Asia”.

I love borders. Maps with borders and the shapes they make that become so familiar: the boot of Italy, or France’s L’hexagone. I know intimately where the line went to define Leith from Edinburgh nearly 100 years ago. I am not, however, a real Leither, being born and brought up on the Southside of the Great Satan on the hill. I am a convert, and we all know that converts are the worst. The major despots of the last three centuries of European history – Napoleon, Stalin and Hitler – all grew up in countries other than those whose nationalisms they came to represent: Corsica (part of Genoa at the time of Napoleon’s birth), Georgia and Austria respectively. 

I love Leith, in the same way as I love Scotland. I also feel pride as I observe the multiple stunning views in our capital city that cause many a tourist’s jaw to drop; I’m full of admiration for Glasgow with its banter and sheer style, but my affinities extend beyond my native Caledonia. I have a bond with Yorkshire from living there at length in my early adulthood. Leith and Scotland, however, represent something more for me: I embrace everything about them both. And their borders define them both. We know where they begin and end. They decide who is in or out.

There is of course, no such thing as Leith nationalism. Being a nationalist implies there being a nation. There is no nation of Leith; more’s the pity. There is clearly a civic identity, which obviously includes the Sikhs, the Poles, the English and even those from Edinburgh – so long as they live here. In fact surely the Proclaimers are Leithers even though they live somewhere near Morningside, for heaven’s sake.

And there I’ve done it – using the ‘I’ word – ‘Identity’. Those two words: identity and borders, make up much of our daily news intake these days. And wrapping around them like a shroud, is that other word – Nationalism; increasingly a difficult word to use without a qualification. Even our Nicola confessed during a Book Festival event that she would rather the SNP didn’t have the word ‘national’ in its title – making supporters of the SNP into ‘nationalists’. Tommy Sheppard, our neighbouring SNP MP, said in a recent speech that he is not a nationalist but, if he had to choose a label, it would be, “a republican social democrat.” He went on to claim that the 2014 referendum was “concerned with empowerment, not identity.” Is identity becoming a dirty word too? Surely not.

I grew up with a positive, unequivocal view of the benign nature of nationalism. For example, our own variety wants more immigrants, not fewer. In the 1960s, when I signed up, it was the time of the Collapse of Empire. Nasser, Nkrumah and Nehru were all nationalists. They were the good guys in my romantic youth. So too were the Irish nationalists. Maybe it’s because later in my adult life I started to become interested in trying to understand the Loyalist cause in Northern Ireland (resulting in my feeling that they have at least a view that deserves a voice) that I started to take stock. Or maybe it’s because I witnessed, via the television screen, the horrors of nationalism let loose in the former Yugoslavia, that I began to question whether nationalism can be benign.

So for me Identity was, and is, a good fall back. I hear the term Leith Identity all the time and because Leith is not a nation, it can only be a civic identity. That is what Nicola and Tommy claim for the Scottish variety too – and good luck to them, genuinely. But after all this meandering over the ideas of borders, identity and nationalism, I reluctantly come to the conclusion that we should be wary of the term ‘nationalism’. If the neo-Nazis and KKK of Charlottesville can be described in the international media as ‘white nationalists’, then we know we have a problem with the N word.

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