Brexit is biggest threat ever to Edinburgh Festival, says Ricky Demarco

Impresario Richard Demarco argues that persuading EU countries to fund cultural links with Edinburgh is going to be increasingly difficult.' Photograph: Neil Hanna
Impresario Richard Demarco argues that persuading EU countries to fund cultural links with Edinburgh is going to be increasingly difficult.' Photograph: Neil Hanna
Have your say

Veteran arts impresario Richard Demarco has warned that the Brexit vote represents the biggest threat to the Edinburgh Festival in its 70-year history.

The co-founder of the Traverse Theatre, who has attended every festival since its inception in 1947, said he feared there would be far-reaching consequences for the event.

He suggested its post-war roots as a unifying force for good would be betrayed by Britain’s forthcoming departure from the EU.

Demarco, who was named European Citizen of the Year in 2013, said 2017 should have been the most important year for the festival since it was conceived to provide “a platform for the flowering of the human spirit”.

Instead, the 86-year-old said it faced the “farcical situation” of new barriers put up to audiences and performers at such a pivotal moment.

Demarco said Edinburgh could lose the right to its long-standing claim as a “world capital of culture” and see a steep decline in the number of international companies and artists coming to the city if funding routes dried up.

His views have emerged after Edinburgh International Festival Fergus Linehan revealed that the Brexit vote had sparked a rethink over the event’s 70th anniversary plans to underline that its links with Europe are “as strong as ever”.

Last week Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy said plans were being drawn up by the festivals to strike up new relationships and “build bridges” to limit the impact of the EU referendum result.

Demarco, who spoke of his “absolute despair and unhappiness” when he realised Britain was going to vote to leave the EU, said: “The Edinburgh Festival provided an international stage for the first time in Britain.

“It wasn’t really about Scotland. It was all about the international language of art being taken very seriously.

“It was decided that Edinburgh would become a world capital of culture. How on earth can you maintain that idea when the Edinburgh Festival is no longer about Europe?

“The Edinburgh Festival needs funding from all these other countries in the European Union. If they now feel that they are not part of the British way of life then it is going to be difficult. We don’t really have the money here in Scotland to bring these people here.”

Demarco, a former professor of cultural studies at Kingston University in London, said he had already noticed a decline in the quality of the Edinburgh Festival due to the domination of a handful of major venues and an “infestation of stand-up comics”.

He added: “The whole event is really pretty unrecognisable to the festival that I loved for the first 40 years or so.

“It costs far too much to put on the simplest production, with no guarantee of an audience. It is far too controlled by the big venues and the idea of getting as many people stuffed into spaces as they can.

“Next year is the most important in the history of the Edinburgh Festival. It is now reaching retirement age.

“It is not a British festival or a Scottish festival. It belongs to that sacred zone where the language of international art can be used, come what may.

“The Brexit vote sends out a message that we are content to ignore the fact that we’re now living in a global village. When the festival started up it was something we could believe in because it represented world civilisation.”