A festival for the people, with a dash of politics too

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WHEN Rudolf Bing's vision of an Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) became a glittering reality in 1947, it quickly put Scotland's rather small, parochial capital city on the world map.

But the festival's annual programme of high art – classical music recitals, opera and theatre – was not a hit with everyone in the post-war era. It was soon branded elitist by the predominantly working-class locals, who felt disconnected from the events taking over the centre of their own city every August. Out of Season, an oft-quoted, anonymous four-line poem, perhaps neatly sums up how many Edinburgh people came to think of the festival:

"Ye may talk of Bach and Mozart

Ye may talk of Harold Pinter

Ye may think this town is culture's crown –

Have ye been here in the winter?"

In 1951 an alternative celebration of culture was born that has since been widely credited with laying the foundations for the future growth of the city's Festival Fringe. The Edinburgh People's Festival (EPF) was an altogether different – and highly political – animal compared to the commercially successful Fringe of today.The EPF was founded by the Scottish poet and songwriter Hamish Henderson, with the backing of the Edinburgh Trades Union Council, the Miners' Union, and the Labour and Communist parties.

Unlike the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who had argued that the International Festival was "the latest English cosmopolitan plot to subvert native Scottish culture", and who had suggested a boycott, Henderson broadly welcomed the principle of the arts festival.

But the committed socialist, who was influenced by the works of Sardinian communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, passionately believed in bringing the arts to ordinary people, and not just the city's middle-classes, who he dubbed the "Edinbourgeoisie".

The event launched with the stated aim "to initiate action designed to bring the Edinburgh Festival closer to the people, to serve the cause of international understanding and goodwill."The 1951 programme included Ewan MacColl's anti-war play Uranium 235, Joe Corrie's In Place of Strife and culminated with a People's Ceilidh – an event now regarded as the catalyst for a full-scale folk music revival in Scotland.

The EPF was a success and the following year the events were spread over three weeks, including another MacColl play, The Travellers, a series of poetry recitals, including readings from rising stars Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig and Sorley MacLean, and a "People's Art Exhibition".

Political debate was also on the agenda, with the former Communist MP Willie Gallacher speaking on the American threat to British culture.

Ironically, however, it would be the influence of the anti-communist McCarthyist movement, then sweeping the US, that would kill off the event. According to Scottish Socialist Party leader Colin Fox MSP, who has researched the history of the EPF, the festival was seen as front for the Communist Party:

"The Scottish Trades Union Congress, one of the most important players in the organisation, was in the grip of McCarthyism. Despite widespread protest, it proscribed the Edinburgh Labour People's Festival as a 'Communist Front'. The Labour Party followed suit.

"This was a kick in the teeth to the many people both inside and outside the Communist Party involved in its success."

The EPF managed to struggle on for another two years, but after 1954, it could not continue amid a lack of funding and support from the union lobby. Its influence continued to be felt. Henderson, who kept promoting the culture of ordinary Scottish people, is now widely regarded as the founder of the Fringe – which sprang up in 1947, when eight theatre companies turned up at the EIF uninvited.

In 1958, when the Festival Fringe Society was established, its constitution enshrined the distinctly egalitarian principle of ensuring that "no artistic vetting" would take place. Now the world's biggest arts festival, the Fringe sells more than a million tickets each year.Ironically, however, the early charges of elitism levelled at the EIF have not faded and are now also targeted at the Fringe too. In response, the Edinburgh People's Festival was revived in 2002 – once again funded by the Edinburgh trade union movement – amid claims that the working-classes were being excluded from the festivities. The festival is still going, and this year's events programme ran from 5–12 August.

"Today's Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the daughter of the people's event and owes much to those pioneers of the early 1950s," organiser Fox said at the time of the EPF's revival.

"There are many who believe that the 'world's biggest arts festival' still has much to learn about taking art, drama, literature, music and dance out to the people of Edinburgh."

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