Brian Ferguson: Festival’s independence dialogue

Last year was 30th anniversary and organisors don't want the 31st being marred by referendum. Picture: JP
Last year was 30th anniversary and organisors don't want the 31st being marred by referendum. Picture: JP
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EDINBURGH’S International Book Festival wants to keep indyref dialogue ‘respectful’, writes Brian Ferguson

The irony of the timing was definitely not lost. JK Rowling is an old friend of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, appearing there as a virtual unknown and returning at the height of her fame.

But I don’t suppose we’ll ever know whether she was aware it was launching its programme at the very moment she chose to light the blue touch paper under the debate on Scotland’s future.

A pre-launch briefing by festival director Nick Barley had its main theme about how the need for respectful dialogue on the nation’s future, rather than “protracted debates” had inspired much of his programming.

But after the events of the last few days, when debate has raged about the way the campaign is being conducted, it is worth revising Barley’s words, including his programme notes, which warn of this year “becoming a period of deep ideological division, as people find themselves on opposite sides of an increasingly entrenched independence debate”.

Rowling is no fool. The reaction to her thoughtful article backing the “Better Together” cause was almost entirely predictable – as was the level of media coverage.

The inescapable fact is that Rowling is one of the few Scottish cultural figures prepared to put their head above the parapet and argue against independence.

There are many hotly contested theories about why so few artists – whether English or Scottish, or based north or south of the Border – are speaking out in favour of the Union.

While many are – in line with opinion polls – doubtless undecided, others will look at the reaction to Rowling’s intervention and decide to keep their heads well down. As John Byrne said, there will be others fearful of losing out on public funding in future for having outspoken political views.

Barley was at pains to point out that this year’s book festival would provide “a strictly neutral forum in which all perspectives can be heard” but said he had ruled out any kind of “quota” system for an event which will be held just weeks before Scotland goes to the polls.

But it was telling that the first question he was asked at the media briefing was why there were so many “pro-nationalist” speakers in his line-up and where the balance would be coming from.

It is not immediately obvious who will provide the political counter-points to artist Alasdair Gray, authors William McIlvanney, Irvine Welsh and Alan Bissett, playwright David Greig and poet Liz Lochhead, all of them leading cultural voices in the independence movement.

Perhaps it is no wonder that debate has been deemed a dirty word around Charlotte Square this August.