Edinburgh City Council has thrown its weight behind Sir Jonathan Mills over his controversial decision to exclude works on the independence debate in his farewell programme next year.
Deputy leader Steve Cardownie said it was crucial the director of the event was left alone to decide its main themes, saying “festivals need political meddling like a hole in the head”.
Sir Jonathan sparked anger last week by saying he had decided to avoid tackling the referendum debate directly in a bid to ensure the event remained a “politically neutral space for artists”.
He has instead chosen Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games just before next year’s EIF and the 100th anniversary of the First World War to inspire his programme – which he still insists will allow artists to tackle ideas of “nationalism and nationhood, political allegiances and treaties”.
Mr Cardownie, an SNP councillor, who is also the city’s “festivals and events” champion, admitted it would have been “fraught with difficulty” for the festival to tackle the issue just weeks before voters go to the polls because of the risk of inflaming either side of the debate.
Independent MSP Jean Urquhart, founder of the Ceilidh Place hotel and arts centre in Ullapool, has launched a Holyrood motion demanding the festival rethink Sir Jonathan’s decision, branding it “an act of censorship”.
Leading playwrights David Greig and David Harrower, author Alan Bissett and poet Liz Lochhead have also been among Sir Jonathan’s most prominent critics. But Sir Jonathan, writing in Scotland on Sunday yesterday, defended his move,
He said: “The autonomy and impartiality of the festival is essential; that includes the ability to determine its own agenda, and choices.”
The city council ploughs almost £2.5 million into the EIF, and accounts for about half of its overall public funding.
Mr Cardownie said: “Sir Jonathan Mills is the director of the festival and he is appointed by the board to get on with a job.
“The last thing a festival needs is politicians meddling on any level.
“I respect the decisions he has made about next year, just as I would have respected them if he had decided to do something on the independence debate.
“Festival directors should be free from political interference. It would be almost tantamount to state intervention. Festivals need that like a hole in the head.”
Mr Cardownie said there was potential for risk in the EIF commissioning a major work directly inspired by the independence debate so close to the referendum.
Next year’s festival finishes on 31 August, less than three weeks before the crucial vote.
However Liz Lochhead, the national poet, or Scots makar, said: “It doesn’t surprise me that the Edinburgh International Festival under Jonathan Mills is not interested in commissioning or showing work around the theme of independence.
“He has never been very interested in work that is Scottish, let alone about independence. It is disappointing but predictable to me.”
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