Auld Reekie anarchy

Article about the Edinburgh Unemployed Centre and its sabotage by the local Labour Party from 1995 in the libertarian communist journal, Subversion.

Submitted by Steven. on June 20, 2011

Introduction: The following article was sent to us by a contact in Edinburgh. It is a good illustration of the anti-working class nature of the Labour Party and Trade Union bosses. The struggle also demonstrates the futility of playing the bosses' democracy game and the need for independently organised, collective direct action to defend working class interests.

Auld Reekie's unemployed got an early Christmas gift from the Labour-run Regional Council when, at dawn on 1st December, police and bailiffs battered down the barricaded back door of the former Edinburgh Unemployed Workers' Centre and evicted the rudely-roused occupation nightshift onto the capital's frigid streets.

The Centre's emergency phone-tree was immediately activated and within an hour scores of unwaged activists had gathered before and behind the building to prevent removal vans and council workers from plundering and boarding up Scotland's only autonomous, unfunded, self-managed community centre. By noon about 70 protesters were standing-off 9 vanloads of Lothian's finest and had determinedly but peacefully blocked 2 attempts to move the vans to the Centre's doors.

But at 2pm the police attacked in force, moving a hidden second line up behind the picket which they then encircled. As the circle tightened, protesters were knocked to the ground and some were crushed against walls. 21 were arrested and taken to the city's notorious St Leonards' Station, home of the Special Branch and scene of numerous mysterious cell deaths. Most of those arrested were charged with breach, some with police assault. All were held in soundproofed single cells for up to 12 hours before being released on cognisance of attending court. During their incarceration, despite the stifling isolation, the unbowed protesters mutinied in concert, the men beating out a tattoo on their cell doors while the women's wing was rent by a 'scream-in', causing vociferous rage in their captors.

The sprit of resistance remained unbroken, but the 6-month occupation of the Centre had been smashed, by the Labour council.

The Labour council might have won the battle, but the war rages on. The conflict has its roots in a transfer of power within the management board, from 'Labour movement' bureaucrats to the non-aligned grassroots unemployed activists who actually used and ran the Centre. Here's the story...


The Edinburgh Unemployed Workers Centre Trust was set up in 1981 on Labour/Trade Union guidelines as part of that movement's miserable response to mass unemployment. Originally situated in the basement of the Trades Council building where it functioned as a small resource centre and where it was clique-riddled, the EUWC moved in the mid-80s to part of a disused church off the city's Royal Mile. Funded by the Region, and in a more accessible situation, the EUWC attracted unwaged activists and broadened out, and became known as 'the Centre'.


The Centre was, theoretically speaking, managed by a board of seven trustees. A full-time paid worker was employed by them, an ex-TU official who soon became the focus of a sycophantic clique. But the day-to-day running of the Centre and its activities were decided by users-group weekly meetings. The users group contained two broad factions - the 'Labour movement' clique and a growing band of independent unwaged activists, who were involved in the fight against welfare cutbacks, formed a thriving Claimants Union and became highly active. The Centre became a focus for the anti-Workfare campaign. Then came the Poll Tax.

In 1989 the Centre moved to a three-storey disused school, owned by the council, in Broughton Street, on the fringe of the city's affluent Georgian New Town. Things looked promising, but the internal differences were increasing. The Labour controlled council was sending the bailiffs in against Poll Tax refuseniks. At the same time the Centre was an organising base for independent anti-Poll Tax activists. The Labour council was not happy, especially when the Centre's trustee board had four 'independents' elected to it from the users group, leaving the party bureaucrats in a minority of three. The Regional Council then cut off all the Centre's funding.


By the end of 1991 the money was almost gone. The Centre's future became the subject of increasingly acrimonious rows among the trustee board. The war began in February 1992. One weekend when the Centre was empty, the three Labour trustees changed all the locks. Uniquely perhaps, the unemployed found themselves locked out. They were quick to rally and attack. Next month the users group and the majority of the trustees smashed back into the building, and reopened it for the unwaged public to use as was intended. On re-occupying the building, they discovered that the Centre's printing press had been used to produce a Labour Party manifesto, lucratively exploiting the Centre's charitable tax status.

Within weeks the ousted Labour clique was back. Their heavies broke in one Sunday morning in March. They weren't after the building this time, choosing instead to plunder all the Centre's equipment - £25,000 worth of computers, presses, cameras, washing machine - the lot, including the charity's accounts and minute books. They even took the teabags.

The pigs remained aloof from what they saw as 'a civil matter'. Legal aid was repeatedly denied to recover the stolen equipment which had all been bought with public money for public use, and was now locked in garages or installed in a party-run centre in Dalkeith, near Edinburgh.


The persons responsible for the theft were Labour councillors Tony Kinder and Des Loughney, both of them members of the Region's social work committee - the Centre's landlords. The third was Jim Milne, boss of the Dalkeith centre where some of the stolen equipment was installed. The redundant paid worker, George Wilson, was involved. Des Loughney is also secretary of Edinburgh & District Trades Council. These were powerful enemies, and they were soon to exercise that power.

Without any funding or equipment the Centre users chose to fight on. The building was opened right up, space rented to a wide variety of non-aligned political and community groups. The upstairs hall was used for successful gigs. The money came in, the Centre survived. The council's attempt to strangle it had failed. So they adopted a new ploy.

At a social work committee meeting in February 1993, with two renegade trustees attending, it was suddenly remembered that a clause in the Centre's lease had been inadvertently left out. The clause stipulated that the Centre could not be used for fundraising activities of any kind, without express permission. The gigs were stopped and the bills accrued, but the Centre fought on, and survived.


With the five-year lease running out, the building was gone over by a sarcastic and hostile social work inspectorate in early 1994. The subsequent social work report, entitled 'Application for Lease Renewal, EUWC' was a blatant concoction of contrived and artificial evidence, accusing the Centre of being a firetrap and operating an unhygienic cafe. It recommended that the lease not be renewed.

The Centre collective swung into furious action and soon, using official documents, had blasted the damning report to smithereens in a glare of press publicity and a sympathetic piece on STV's news-show 'Reporting Scotland'. Deputations took evidence to the social work committee of the council. But the evidence was ignored, and the vile report adopted.

The lease expired in June 1994 but with a loud and unanimous "Fuck you!" the users decided to occupy, and started on fortifications. The war was heating up.

An article in the first issue of 'Scottish Anarchist' which, like its parent body the Scottish Federation of Anarchists, originated in meetings at the Centre, described the situation after the lease's expiry thus:

"The once-familiar wooden doors are Derried now 'neath steel, sheets of steel shaped and bolted on by blacksmiths who refused all and any payment. 'Our donation to the Centre' said they. Solidarity lives.

"But the doors are open twixt noon and four every day bar Sunday, and the Centre is inhabited around the clock, seven days a week. Within opening hours a busy vegan cafe, famously cheap and substantial, is the hub of Centre activity and behind the chatting diners poster-festooned walls advertise gigs, meetings and actions, while the skirting tables sag beneath the mass of flyers and brochures explaining anti-VAT on Fuel, Criminally Injustice Bill, Stop the Fascists, community arts, homelessness, hunt sabs, gay rights, claimants' issues, women's issues, Poll Tax arrears, AIDS, Parks for the People...

"Above the cafe the pine-beamed mezzanine floor is being transformed into a snug reference library and reading room, while next door the Centre office advises callers, who phone in or drop in, on benefit rights. There's a well-equipped children's playroom and a basement darkroom.

"Upstairs, one end of the large hall is carpeted with defenders' sleeping bags while the other end is a mass of art and craft odds-and-ends with which the Creative Resource Network makes the puppets and props for its street theatre. The door of the small room opposite bears a hand-drawn sign - 'Cheap Claes Shoap'.

"The atmosphere is busy, cheery and sociable. No-one gets paid. Anyone can get involved. But when the doors are locked and blocked and the Centre quietens down, ears are cocked and nerves steeled for the baying of the bailiffs and the grunting of the pigs"


On 1st December, as described, the shit hit the fan. It was, in a sense, a major victory. A collective of mainly unemployed folk had unprecedentedly occupied a building five minutes from the centre of Scotland's capital and had held out for six months, after having exposed the Labour bosses as liars and cheats. (In Scots law, squatting has always been treated as criminal trespass). Eventually the local state, Labour Party controlled, had been forced to send in scores of police and have 21 people, mostly unwaged, arrested and charged. It was a massive loss of face, especially with council elections looming large. Less than a fortnight after the eviction and arrests, hundreds demonstrated outside the shut-down Centre, which was by then well-graffiti'd: 'Viva la Centre!', 'Vote Labour-Vote Tory'.


What now? The Centre collective has regrouped in temporary premises and is still conducting a range of activities - including how to get the Centre back. A spokesman says: "We are asking community groups not to accept any offer of the premises. If they do they would be co-operating with the Region in closing the Centre down. We'll take peaceful action against any group who try to use the building. What's at issue here is the right of ordinary people to take charge of their lives".

Resistance to the harassment of claimants is being organised, with regular leafleting of benefit offices. A new initiative from the centre is involvement in the direct action against the building of the M77 in Glasgow, weekly minibuses travelling through to join the inhabitants of Pollock Free State and the nearby council schemes in defiance of the tree cutters and JCBs.

Of those arrested on 1st December, two women and a man are soon to be tried, one woman on two charges of police assault, breach and resisting arrest.

Centre users demonstrated outside the year's first meeting of the Regional Council on 1st February. After the meeting, Cllr Brian Cavenagh, who had been instrumental in shutting down the Centre, boasted to the press and TV cameras that the council had just given£2,000 towards the publication of a booklet called 'Surviving on the Streets of Edinburgh' which is being distributed to homeless people.

Some of them used to sleep in the Centre, which now lies locked and empty, guarded around the clock by security firm heavies. When asked by journalists about the Centre's future, Cavenagh replied: "It's a secret".

Death to all politicians! La lutta continua!