Brian Ferguson: Independence won’t get EIF listing

IT IS amazing who you find yourself agreeing with. I could be wrong, but I suspect Brian Monteith and Kevin Williamson have little in common, other than a much-tested devotion for Hibernian Football Club.

Alex Salmond and William McIlvanney at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow
Alex Salmond and William McIlvanney at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. Picture: Jane Barlow

But the contributions of the former Tory MSP-turned-commentator and the writer and publisher to the debate about Sir Jonathan Mills and the Edinburgh International Festival’s approach to next year’s independence debate have struck home more than most.

Monteith appears to be relishing the prospect of next year’s EIF as a “referendum-free zone, where great works and productions can be savoured without recourse to a debate that is already showing signs of becoming shrill and nasty”.

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His words returned to me during William McIlvanney’s appearance at the book festival, when the biggest cheer of the day came not when the iconic writer walked on stage, not when Alex Salmond popped up for a surprise appearance, but when chair Ruth Wishart called a halt to questions about the independence debate.

As the next questioner observed: “I actually paid my money to hear William McIlvanney speak.”

I can’t be alone in hoping that next year’s Edinburgh festivals will actually offer an antidote to the deep divisions that are appearing on either side of the debate. It’s certainly hard to imagine the kind of crowds that have been packing out venues, the streets and bars across the city over the last weeks staying at home next year to watch TV debates on independence.

As for Williamson, despite saying Mills had left himself open to accusations of double standards, he expressed sympathy for his decision to rule out anything directly tackling the debate.

He said: “Programming events dealing with Scottish independence just a few weeks before the country votes could be problematic, especially if either side is seen to be favoured.”

Monteith is pretty much in a minority of one in praising Mills for a “courageous act” that both he and the festival will, I’m pretty sure, have known would cause controversy.

A week on from the row, Mills is unapologetic, insisting his event is not a “political apparatus” and that many of his critics have simply misunderstood the nature of the event.

I believe that the root of this row is that he has his eyes on a much bigger picture and one not restricted to the febrile political landscape in Scotland.

I suspect he never has seen the Edinburgh International Festival as a purely Scottish event – despite having to answer questions about its “Scottishness” at every programme launch during his tenure and regularly featuring all of the main performing companies.

When asked about the festival’s approach to the independence debate, his initial explanation – about the timing of the vote being uncertain when he was planning the 2014 event – was unconvincing. But his much-debated solution to the dilemma of how to tackle the issue – by deploying the wider themes of the Commonwealth Games and the First World War – has left him a bit of room for manoeuvre.

In the meantime, his insistence on the festival remaining politically neutral has merely inflamed a potentially tricky situation, at a time when debate is raging about how the festivals are tackling the independence issue.

One problem is that Mills is most certainly not a diplomat – nor anyone who shirks away from difficult decisions. He has spoken his mind from day one, often to the dismay of his spin doctors and funders. But the event has won critical acclaim year after year and is in much ruder financial health than when he took over.

Nor is he in thrall to the political chattering classes. Only yesterday, cultural commentator Lesley Riddoch claimed Scotland has rarely enjoyed a “starring role” in the EIF throughout its 70 years – and complained of a wider problem which has seen Scottish culture sidelined over the years in favour of “Britishness”.

But has Mills really presided over an event which has felt more British than Scottish over the period of his stewardship?

Has he genuinely failed to offer an “international showcase for Scottish culture”, one of the event’s key mission statements, which has been waved in his direction this past week?

This despite Scottish Opera, Scottish Dance Theatre, the RSNO, Scottish Chamber Ochestra and Edinburgh’s Grid Iron Theatre Company’s all having starring roles in the current programme alone.

I’d argue he most certainly has not.

And I suspect next year’s festival – his swansong after eight colourful years – will remain true to another of its key aims: “Presenting arts of the highest possible international standard to the widest possible audience.”