Writing in Scotland on Sunday today, Sir Jonathan Mills claims that those calling for an explicit debate about the referendum – held the month after the festival – misunderstood the role of the world-famous event. Although the festival did not shy away from political issues, it was not a “political apparatus”, he adds.
“It [the festival] does not propose a particular manifesto or seek a specific mandate,” he says. “The autonomy and impartiality of the Festival is essential; that includes the ability to determine its own agenda, and choices.”
Mills comments follow last week’s article in Scotland on Sunday in which he stated that the festival would not tackle the subject of the referendum in next year’s event. He said that his “planning hasn’t coincided or been influenced by that event”, adding: “I’m not anticipating anything [about the referendum] in the programme at all”.
In today’s piece he writes that artistic responses to both the First World War and the Commonwealth “are the very ideas of nationalism and nationhood, political allegiances and treaties.”
He adds: “[They] are entirely relevant to the debates surrounding the question of Scottish independence.”
But cultural commentator Pat Kane said that Mills was being “a bit naive in thinking that either the Commonwealth, or the anniversary of the beginning of World War One are ‘non-political’ contexts within which issues about nationhood or independence can be considered.”
He added: “I think it could have been possible for the EIF to programme the most eclectically global festival possible around core concepts like sovereignty and nationality, the distinction between region and nation-state and the very power of a vote itself without implying a clear position on either side of Yes or No in the coming referendum.
“I think it’s a shame that Jonathan felt he had to make any kind of defensive comment about staying clear of independence as an issue. If he had been bolder, he would have better been able to help brighten, trouble and complexify all dimensions of the coming vote, by means of the world-class quality and diversity that we expect from the EIF. I hope he reconsiders.”
Andy Field, who runs Forest Fringe, which runs a series of arts events, said: “I think it’s great that Jonathan has responded so openly and thoughtfully to the debate that he has generated… But I still question exactly what he might mean by being politically neutral, and if there isn’t a danger that striving to be so can actually render you political neutered.”