So, there will be no independence-themed work in next year’s programme for the Edinburgh International Festival,Scotland’s biggest and one of the world’s biggest arts festivals. The Festival’s Director wishes it to remain politically neutral: “we would not wish our festival to be anything other than it always has been, which is a politically neutral space for artists. It is important that it remains that.”
Indeed. Though to take that to its logical conclusion, you probably wouldn’t have Kafka on the programme or allow the state-sponsored artistic companies of China on the bill either. Of course, the irony that making a decree of political neutrality actually constitutes a non-neutral political act appears to be lost on the director.
Some might think this a curious self-imposition of censorship by Sir Jonathan Mills – no politics intended nor to be divined from the acceptance of a knighthood, mind. Censorship is after all a two way mirror. Mills may be at pains to protect us all from the potential tedium of agit-prop, but imagine if the Festival’s main funders had decreed otherwise. Imagine the squeals of outrage there would have been had these public bodies, including the Scottish Government, required the Festival programme to address this once-in-a-generation debate next year.
So why such little angst when the Festival’s director has decided – seemingly all by his own good self – that our national conversation on our constitutional future is not worthy of inclusion in the 2014 programme? After all, as Mills points out, this is “our” festival. It belongs to Scotland. God forbid, then, that it actually commissioned work that in some way speaks of and to Scotland and her people. Or perhaps that “we” is royal?
Instead, the Festival’s programme will hook up with two other dominant themes of 2014 – the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the commemoration of the start of World War I. Or as Mills has it “when Britain entered the war”, which is quite another thing altogether. And here Mills displays a touching innocence, an alarmingly two-dimensional view of the arts and a complete absence of historical knowledge. Where does he think the Commonwealth came from exactly? And how does he think the Great War started?
The complex geo-politics of the early 20th Century, fuelled by the imperialist ambitions of European rulers, came to a head in 1914 when one wrong-minded supporter of independence for his state decided to up the ante by assassinating one of the ruling elite. This was a war which signalled the start of an arms race which we’ve never really stopped running. It was a war which marked the emergence of the USA as a super-power, created the right conditions for revolution in Russia and marked a shift from East to West. It was a war whose outcome condemned much of Europe to abject poverty, misery, economic and social inequality and political instability. This then sowed the seeds for the rise of Nazism in Germany and fascism in Spain and Italy. But also hastened the pace of social and political change in the UK, with women getting the vote in 1918 and a first Labour government being elected in 1924. And of course, it killed hundreds of thousands of men. From all parts of the UK but also the Empire and in particular, Australia and New Zealand.
And Sir Jonathan Mills will fashion some politically neutral content for his Festival programme out of that little lot, how?
The Commonwealth Games of course aims to celebrate sport among a family of nations, their sole point in common being a relationship with the British monarchy. No matter, it is usually a joyous occasion, giving small states a grander stage on which to celebrate their nationhood. Which of course all has a symmetry and relevance to the debate on Scotland’s future. Except in Sir Jonathan Mills’s world.
With this ban, Mills is actually missing a trick. A more thoughtful approach could have seen the themes of nationhood, self-determination, independence and inter-dependence offered up which would actually put our seemingly parochial discourse within a broader, global artistic context. Something which is currently painfully missing from the debate and much needed.
Our debate on our future matters. It matters to Scotland, to the rest of the UK and indeed, judging by the interest of the international media, is at least of interest to the rest of the world as well. The only person who sees it as an irrelevance, an irritant which might get in the way of the creation of great art, is Mills himself.
Which says something about his own political motivation, or lack thereof. Internationally feted artistic directors operate in a parallel universe it would seem, where the only politics which matter relate to the level of state subsidy of whichever government is effectively paying his wages.
And perhaps therein lies the rub. Could it be that independence or not and what a yes or a no decision might mean for Scotland doesn’t matter to Mills? Because not only will he not be here to see and participate in its outcome, he might not even bother to hang around long enough to vote.