Rights Begin in the Small Places Closest to Home: A Story from Constitution Street

Written by Jemma Neville

I live on Constitution Street in the Leith area of Edinburgh, northeast Scotland, United Kingdom. Maybe you know the street, maybe you don’t. That doesn’t particularly matter for the purpose of the story I want to share with you. For certain, you will know another street well. Maybe it’s the street where you live or work in your part of the world. Your street too will likely have a beginning, middle, and an end, like all streets and all stories do. One street among many streets in the city. A wee story within another wee story, as we would say here in Scotland. Hear me to the end of the road.

Where to begin the story? Stories are about hospitality, about the giving and receiving of experience, so I’ll begin with a welcome. Make yourself right at home. We’ve heard a lot on this street and streets up and down Scotland, and the UK, about our differences of late. The Yes and the No. The Leave and the Remain. The them and the us. Binary positions in referendums. Some neighbours displayed posters in their windows. Others closed the curtains. Some sang protest songs or wrote plays. Some felt anxious. Some felt excited. It is time for new conversations and new ways of considering the distribution of power, land and resources.

If it sounds a revolutionary sort of a place that’s because it is. Or it once was, what with a name like Constitution Street, built in the late eighteenth century amidst the radical thinking of the Scottish Enlightenment and the overthrow of monarchies elsewhere in the world. You may know though that the UK doesn’t have a written constitution. Rather, there are constitutional conventions and principles based on case law developed over centuries. There is an ongoing debate amongst legal scholars about whether or not it is time to write a constitution to better safeguard the country against excessive executive power, particularly in light of the UK leaving the European Union and its safeguards regards employment, social security and environmental law. Some consider whether Scotland, as a devolved nation within the UK, or perhaps as an independent country of its own one day, could draft a written constitution based on a human rights framework.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, is the most revolutionary document of the international human rights framework. It is hard to imagine the international community of nations in the present day agreeing to respect, promote and protect social, economic and cultural rights along with civil and political rights. Head of the drafting committee for the Declaration, Eleanor Roosevelt, famously remarked that human rights begin in the small places closest to home. So small and so close that they cannot be seen from any world map. They are the farmyard, the factory, the playground and the community garden. Like the neighbours living side by side as a neighbourhood community on a street, human rights are universal, indivisible, interdependent and must be interpreted for the context of the times in which we are living.

The economic, human and environmental wreckage in the world we live in today has shaped an age of anxiety in this, a liminal land. Liminal times and places are those that are in-between, in transition, on a threshold of change. And the anxiety resulting from liminal times and places can make us sensitive and curious about ourselves, making us want to search out new ways of being and doing in the world. In search of these new ways, I set out on a long walk along my street in the city of Edinburgh. I wanted to find the common ground that overrides division and difference.

I began the long walk by interviewing some of my neighbours and local business owners about their lived experiences of the rights to health, housing, education, culture, food, the environment and so on. My “methodology” began with recorded conversations with those neighbours I know well and then I asked each of them to recommend someone new that I should speak to. In this way, the conversations rippled outward in concentric circles like everyday human contact does, rather than following any linear structure like the chronological addresses of a street. My interview consent forms were approved by an Edinburgh University research ethics committee, but fundamentally the exploration relies on trust and it was really important to me that participants—my neighbours—were kept informed about the Constitution Street learning. I have invited everyone who took part to a communal meal to say thank you.

People were not shy in the conversations and talked to me for hours about local history and neighbourhood gossip. We laughed and cried. There were confessions about how and why people voted in the recent referenda. I then asked my neighbours to imagine that, as residents of one street in one city, we could draft a new written constitution by, for, and with ourselves as rights holders. I asked them to imagine what rights we should include. People said nothing. Their faces were blank. I elaborated with props like a parchment scroll and quotes from other constitutions and human rights declarations around the world. Still nothing. Neighbours complained that it all sounded like legalese. It seemed a bit dry and boring. I needed to reframe the question. I needed to go in close and local and ask about how we want to live together in common, about how we practice the old saying of love thy neighbour. This is love in its true meaning, with acceptance of vulnerability and flaws, and as a verb, a doing-word.

I love my next door neighbour, Flora. She is ten years old. An in-between, liminal sort of an age. Not quite an adult and no longer a young child. She has lived her whole life on Constitution Street. Her mother, a Scotswoman, voted No to Scottish independence. Her father, an Englishman, voted Yes. These are the ambiguities and complexities of our many identities shaped by life experience and the people we meet.

Come with me and Flora to an Autumn day in our community garden next to Constitution Street. The garden is called the Community Croft and is organised by a group of local volunteers. Croft is an interesting old Scots word. It comes from traditional settlements or smallholdings where people kept enough animals and grew a few crops to feed their own family. Crofts have a little bit of everything. Enough and no more. No fences, no walls. Traditional crofting was hard, physical work in a harsh climate and shouldn’t be overly romanticised, but the principle of growing and sharing still holds true.

Right now, it’s a Sunday morning in the first quarter of the twenty-first century in postmodern, post-referendum Scotland. Flora is blowing the seeds from a dandelion flower. These are the wispy stems made up of small circular flowers. The number of puffs it takes to scatter all the petals is a game said to be a way to tell the time. We both have our backs pressed flat onto picnic table benches and we are blinking up at the big, shuffling sky. An upside down kaleidoscope of kinetic colour and shape. The season is only hinting at the changes to follow. The green foliage of chestnut trees shows glimpses of racy yellow and orange at their corners—frayed, delicate edges where leaves will soon disintegrate, fall and land at our feet and in our laps like garments made of antique lace that have shrunk in the wash.

We have been daydreaming for some time when I ask Flora if she has any homework before school the next day. She tells me about a recent school trip to the devolved Scottish Parliament to learn about the separation of powers and about the social contract. She and her classmates have been tasked with preparing a short presentation about power. I ask her what she thinks about the commons.

You mean the House of Commons?

No. The Commons. As in community. Sharing. Common land and participation and food. Establishing a pattern of active participation and assembly. It’s quite a hard thing to articulate, but you know it when you see it. It’s when a group of people share resources or goods for a common purpose, for the benefit of all.

A resource?

A thing. Like, like—the slide over there in this garden that we’re sitting in is a thing. It’s a play thing.

My brother got a climbing frame last Christmas and because it was a much bigger present than the one I got, Mum and Dad say that he has to let me have a go on it sometimes.

Well, good luck with that! Imagine that the climbing frame has a slide and swings and that you share it equally with the other children of the street.

Who gets to go down the slide first?

That’s for you two or more to negotiate and agree upon.

Who else is here playing?

Erm. It’s just a metaphor. Imagine there are all your childhood friends and neighbours, including some that you don’t know well but would like to know. If someone gets tired or is unwell, you can help one another stay safe on the climbing frame. A team game! Home ground. Common ground. Cooperation rather than competition. The city and the world itself are round, a sphere that looks like a circle when drawn, so all the streets eventually join up. There is no gain in always being first on the slide and leaving others behind.

It sounds fancy. Can we sell it to spend the money on other things?

No. You don’t actually own the climbing frame in that sense.

But I thought you said that it was ours?

Yes, it is. Until you want to pass it onto other children when you get bigger or while you’re not using it. It’s a public amenity, not a private wealth.

Ok. Is it a rusty old thing or brand new?

It could be either but you’ll take good care of it so that it lasts a long time. One of you can oil the bolts. Another paint the frame. And so on. Making use of different skill sets and materials. A dynamic mix.

I’m still not sure if my brother and I could share that well together.

You’ll probably fall out. Siblings usually do because of how you know and love one another so much that it can hurt. You must agree between you how to resolve any disputes and if one of you should damage the climbing frame deliberately or steal part of it or something so that other children can’t play on it, there will be graduated sanctions that you’ve agreed to abide by in advance. It’s one of Ostrom’s principles for commoning.

Ostrom?

Nobel Prize Winner for Economics. A smart woman.

Seems common sense.

Exactly.

But will it be safe to play alone in the park and what about when it gets dark?

Ok. Good points. All of you that are playing together, and with the support of the city authorities, will agree safe lighting and maybe restrict car parking nearby. It’s your right to play. And when you’re hungry, maybe you can organise a picnic together. Did you know that the word companionship comes from the Latin to eat bread? Eating is best done in company.

And when you’re out playing on the climbing frame in the park, you will see birds and animals and plants. Everything is involved and interconnected. Without the plants, the trees, the grass, the seeds and so on, there would be no soft ground on which to land from a jump, no water to drink when you get thirsty after playing. No sound of birds singing to make your heart soar and to guide you home! But you know this stuff. It’s empirical naturalism.

What?

Trust me. You already know it. You’re doing it. Here, now, in the garden, having this conversation with me, your neighbour. It’s social ecology. People in nature. Bookchin. Read some Murray Bookchin. I’ve got a book from a conference in Greece. Have I told you all about that? Inspiring people. I’ll pass the book on when you’re a bit older. And then I want you to pass it onto another neighbour. So, you see, commoning, social contracts, power, constitutions. We have lots in common already. And the power to find out more.

End of conversation, back to the street garden and the quiet observation in community. Small children are heard stamping out an angry path behind us in the far edges of the Community Croft. Mini street gods, they test the boundaries by wrestling then embracing one another and quarrelling once more, flinging large handfuls of what Aristotle referred to as organic matter at one another.

There is a fresco hanging in the Vatican by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael. The fresco is called the School of Athens and depicts Plato and Aristotle in conversation at the centre of a semi-circle filled with other ancient Greek philosophers. Plato is concerned with matters spiritual and looks up towards the Heavens while Aristotle casts his gaze down to Earth. Sitting apart from the others and appearing to daydream with his head resting in his hands is Heraclitus. He is best known among contemporary environmentalists for his insistence that no one ever steps into the same river twice and that the path up and the path down are one and the same because of the ever-present flow of nature.

The Raphael fresco also depicts a paradoxical tension: humans are intrinsically part of the natural world—we breathe the same air and eat the same plants and animals as our fellow creatures, but humans have also developed the reasoning and technological skills with which to debate with one another in a semicircle. Humans are both natural and social beings. This is what Murray Bookchin referred to as our second nature.

The Croft here is common ground, hard-fought by the young families of the neighbourhood. Unlike other areas of Edinburgh, few of our flats have communal back gardens; such was the pressure on available land for housing during the overcrowding of the Leith area of Edinburgh in its seafaring heyday when the Port was the busiest in Scotland and Constitution Street was first laid out in 1790. Old maps from the archives of the National Library of Scotland hint at market gardens extending from the back of the original dwellings, but traces of these have long since been replaced by car parks and budget supermarket chains. More on that another time.

Here ends one wee story within another wee story. You are welcome to visit our street anytime, but you probably have your own street in your own city to be getting back to. Our streets and our cities could even link up and become more streetwise! Meanwhile, I will be having more conversations about the lived experience of human rights in practice on Constitution Street. Right here, right now.

I have told this long, sort of circular, conversation to bring to mind my learning from the TRISE conference in Thessaloniki, 2017. I learnt that the commons in the city might provide a way through the wreckage of nationstate politics at a time when national borders and realpolitik is limiting our full potential as human beings to live in peaceful, sustainable communities with full rights to housing, health, the environment, and so on. I learnt that local, active participation is where democracy and the meaningful distribution of power can most flourish. Conversations with activists and researchers from around the world, who are passionate about this and more, felt, to me, like coming home.

Back home in the city of Edinburgh, I will continue to walk up and down Constitution Street every day, paying attention to the extraordinary detail in our ordinary places and encounters so that I might come to know the street, my neighbours, and indeed myself better. To be in conversation like this—constantly negotiating our boundaries and realising our human rights—is a form of living constitution.

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