Joyce McMillan: Don’t blame the festivals for Edinburgh’s problems

From Plymouth to the beaches of Normandy, this has been a week of remembrance, marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

And the atmosphere of profound respect for the Second World War generation, and for the legacy they left us, adds an added twist of irony to the fact that here in Edinburgh, the annual festival season – built around the city’s historic decision, back in 1947, to become the host of a great international festival that would help heal the wounds of a divided Europe and a divided world – is approaching not in a mood of joyful and grateful celebration, but amid the usual roars of complaint and begrudgery.

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This week saw the launch of the 2019 Festival Fringe programme, accompanied by a routine chorus of groans about the sheer size of the event, and demands that someone, somewhere, should “cut it down to size”.

Once again, the Fringe is bigger than ever, this year featuring 3,841 shows, and twice as many performers as a decade ago; and it’s undeniable that the sheer scale of the Fringe, and its growing concentration around the Edinburgh University area and the Old Town, creates some temporary problems for local residents during the August weeks, in the shape of fiercely overcrowded streets, and painfully slow traffic.

There is also the constant low rumble of complaint that the festivals are elite events that mean nothing to most citizens of the city, although both statistics and anecdotal evidence suggest that this is not the case; indeed at the last count, 72 per cent of Edinburgh residents said that they felt the festivals made the city a better place to live, with those in younger age groups registering much higher scores.

So why the gloom? For two pressing reasons.

First, the Edinburgh Fringe’s unique selling point is its status as an open festival, in which anyone who can find a venue and pay the fee for inclusion in the Fringe programme is welcome to take part. In a free society, there is nothing to stop people coming to Edinburgh and hiring a venue if they want to; and as the Fringe has snowballed over the years, and cost pressures have increased, the event has acquired some of the negative characteristics of any unregulated free market, notably the dominance of those who are already wealthy.

In response, all kinds of mechanisms have developed around the Fringe to try to offset the inbuilt advantage enjoyed by the well off; but problems such as the ballooning cost of accommodation continue to grow, and the Fringe sometimes struggles to counter its image as an event for the privileged, despite its record of genuine subversive openness in offering a platform to those previously silenced.

Beyond those specific problems, though, it is difficult not to feel – as Fringe director Shona McCarthy argued this week – that much of hostility directed against the August festivals is not really about the festivals at all, but about underlying issues, in Scotland’s capital and beyond, which remain painfully unresolved, and which tend to explode to the surface during the summer festival period.

The brute fact about Britain in 2019 is that it is a country in which local authorities are chronically underfunded, and therefore largely at the mercy of commercial developers and their allies in government, even when the activities of those developers are clearly damaging to the city’s people, and vocally rejected by them.

In recent years, Edinburgh has endured project after project inflicted on its people without their approval, from the grotesque and still undefeated proposal to turn the Royal High School into a luxury hotel, to the huge and apparently endless building project at the St James Centre, designed to create yet another high-end shopping mall that could be anywhere, from Dallas to Dubai.

It has experienced a massive tourist boom, and endured the soul-destroying experience of becoming one of the Airbnb capitals of the planet, with city centre tenements increasingly festooned with the key boxes that signal the driving out of permanent residents and communities. It has endured the abuse of much-loved public spaces to stage events for private profit.

And worse, it has seen almost every attempt by citizens, councillors or MSPs to counter these developments either bought off, or blocked, or lobbied into uselessness, by vested interests which the authorities seem almost powerless to resist.

Edinburgh, in other words, like many other cities across the western world, has become a site of struggle between the crass and under-regulated form of capitalism to which the world has been subjected since the 1980s – and the destructive cult of public-sector austerity that comes with it – and the actual needs of its citizens; and the festivals now find themselves, willy-nilly, caught up in that struggle.

If we lived in a society which properly enforced its own labour laws, and insisted on a living wage for all, there would never have been large Fringe venues with an operating model which depended entirely on people working long hours for nothing; if we lived in a city that had the capacity to enforce its own change-of-use laws, and protect its own residents from the abuse of Airbnb, there would not be the growing resentment of visitors that tends to reach a dangerous peak during the festival period.

At the moment, though, the people of Edinburgh are being asked to act as good hosts to one of the world’s greatest concentrations of tourists and visitors, while also in many cases living with serious uncertainty about whether they themselves will be able to continue to live in the city they love.

In that, they mirror the experience of millions if not billions of people across the planet, trying to live gracefully with change, while experiencing ever-feebler protection from the weakened political authorities that are supposed to act in their interests, and guarantee their basic security.

And until that basic, destructive political trend is halted and reversed, any high-profile global event like the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe is bound to attract an increasing share of hostility and bitterness; even as it also continues to provide the kind of forum we desperately need, for debating and dreaming of new solutions, and better worlds.