I’m on the Royal Mile, speaking to Amnesty International about the censoring of political art under foreign regimes. I listen to the stories of places in which artistic expression is treated with suspicion. Make your art and make it well, so long as you can avoid controversy, so long as you can avoid politics, so long as you can avoid certain topics which the establishment would not desire you to discuss. The events described by Amnesty seem a million miles away from the loud, colourful, open glow of Edinburgh in August. The idea of any social or political topic being taboo here is entirely unthinkable.
The following morning I awake to the headline: Scottish independence productions ban at EIF 2014. In August 2014, a month before Scotland goes to the polls, the Edinburgh International Festival will present no content whatsoever relating to Scotland’s referendum. It is worth pointing out the term ‘ban’ may have been misreported by the press, and that it may simply be a case of no referendum content being commissioned for the Festival. Either way, the subject is being avoided, nobody was invited, and it neglects the Scottish public of the debate they both need and deserve.
The decision to snub the referendum was not made by committee, or as a result of pressure from performers and artists themselves. The decision was made by one man, EIF director Sir Jonathan Mills, who wants the festival to remain ‘politically neutral’ whilst instead opting for a First World War theme, as prompted by the British Government. Of course, there is no such thing as an apolitical war. As the well-worn saying goes: With great power comes great responsibility. Sir Jonathan Mills appears to have exercised great power without taking into account the EIF’s responsibility to showcase Scottish culture, as promised in their own list of aims and objectives.
As Robert McNeil wrote in the Herald this week:
‘I shall be celebrating the Great War next year as much as I would be celebrating the Great Plague.
‘No-one put pressure on the British Government to hold this blood-themed party. It’s another wheeze from its own clotted brain. Celebrate Britain. Put out more Union flags.’
The idea that art exploring the Great War should be celebrated, but art exploring an imminent vote on independence should be shunned, is bizarre, and it reeks of the worst kind of British nationalism. No topic should be censored from art, especially not one of this historical, political and cultural significance. Some commentators have suggested an absence of independence themed artworks would be appropriate considering it’s an ‘international’ festival as opposed to a ‘Scottish’ one. For some reason Scotland is not regarded as being part of the international community. We are only the host. It is best for us to sit at home in silence because our wee tartan brains cannae understand the worldliness on our doorsteps.
There is an alarming narrative unfolding before us. Only a few days ago an article was written in the Huffington Post calling for Scottish culture to be kept out of the independence debate entirely. It was praised and promoted by leaders of the No campaign, including director Blair McDougall and Shadow Secretary of State for Defence Jim Murphy.
Their contention is that independence supporters should not utilise Scottish culture, but that Union supporters should utilise British culture. We’ve seen it already with Team GB, Jubilee celebrations, the birth of a prince, and we’ll see it again next year when the British Government’s patriotic Great War celebrations are begun quite deliberately in Glasgow, not London.
On the surface a referendum content vacuum at next year’s Edinburgh International Festival would appear to impact both campaigns in equal measure. But it is the Yes movement which has attracted the nation’s top artists, writers, comedians, poets and musicians. The No campaign thus far has nothing artistic to offer and therefore remains untouched by the decision.
A persistent and historic mismanagement of Scottish culture has convinced us of our inability, our ineptitude. We have unimagined ourselves, we have become bystanders in the human experience. But there is a glimmer of hope in the public response to the EIF’s decision. People are finally beginning to demand better of their cultural establishments. And it’s about time, too.