Joyce McMillan: Edinburgh Festival is infected by the age of rage

Misdirected anger in Edinburgh is a microcosm of the wider debate over injustice in our world, writes Joyce McMillan.

We don’t have to look very far, around the landscape of contemporary politics, to understand that we live in an age of rage. From Donald Trump’s twitter account to the #metoo movement, anger both righteous and unrighteous is the common coin of current political debate; and although much of this anger thunders on at global and national level - between Donald Trump and the mainstream media, between the supporters and detractors of Jeremy Corbyn, or between the advocates and opponents of Brexit - we should be in no doubt that it also affects the quality of debate much closer to home, creating a culture where it’s easy enough to articulate problems and abuses, but increasingly difficult even to begin to find reasonable solutions.

Last weekend, for example, a huge and by no means unreasonable online row blew up over a strip of ugly 6ft solid black fencing that had been erected along the south pavement of Princes Street to screen off a series of commercial concerts being staged in West Princes Street Gardens. Within hours – in a classic example of the positive power of social media – photographs had been posted, and dozens of people had pointed out how wholly unacceptable it was to have the traditional glorious public view of Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street blocked in this way, either during the Edinburgh Festival or at any other time.

The leader of Edinburgh City Council tweeted his agreement, and within 48 hours the black barriers were gone, with more temporary arrangements in place to prevent the formation of big pavement crowds during the concerts. By that time, though, the whole incident had been weaponised, both by those with genuine questions to ask about the impact on Edinburgh’s people of its current status as one of the world’s most desirable destinations for tourism, education and the arts, and by those who simply fancied venting their rage at the whole business. The online magazine Bella Caledonia tweeted that the Festival is “an anarcho-capitalist spectacle masquerading as art, and destroying the city it inhabits”, a click-bait sentence so breathtakingly hyperbolic that it commands a certain wry respect.

Edinburgh's city centre is under increasing pressure from the wealthy, as well as the Festival. Picture: Ian Rutherford

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Princes Street Gardens barriers blocking views to be removed

One tweeter roundly declared that the Edinburgh Festival “had ceased to be of any use to the people of Edinburgh decades ago”, a remark that would come as news to the tens of thousands of Edinburgh citizens currently buying Festival tickets, and the thousands actually involved in presenting shows; as well as the far greater number working in hotels, catering and other service industries whom the festivals – with their annual £300 million boost to the local economy - help to keep in business.

Another seemed to imply that the world’s biggest arts festival should be cancelled, because he had found, on a brief work visit, that it took him too long to walk along Princes Street among the festival crowds. And many, of course, showed a complete failure of imagination about what exactly Edinburgh and Scotland might look like today, if back in 1947, a group of arts activists and visionaries had not made common cause with the City Council to restore our dour postwar capital to its rightful place as a world city, and an instantly-recognisable centre of international excellence in education and the arts.

Edinburgh’s current ill-tempered discussion about tourism, development and the Festivals, in other words, has become a microcosm of the much wider, rage-driven debate about the systems that rule our world, and who is responsible for the abuses they produce. There is no question that Edinburgh – while far from “destroyed” – is currently suffering huge pressures, as the pound plummets, tourists crowd into its streets, and the city centre becomes, all year round, one of the places into which the wealthy of the earth want to pour their resources, whether they are buying up property, staying in five-star hotels, or renting luxury Airbnbs and student accommodation.

Residents rightly feel rage at the takeover of the city centre by developers like Richard Branson, whose new high-rise hotel in the Cowgate is set to block 80 per cent of the natural light from the reading rooms of Edinburgh’s Central Library; or Drum Properties, currently demolishing a much-loved parade of shops and community venues in Leith Walk to create yet more student accommodation. They observe their City Council’s often craven behaviour in the face of developers’ demands, and they feel that both their practical interests, and the heart and soul of the city they love, are not being protected by those elected to defend them; so that when – in August – the city centre is invaded yet further by what often seems like an army of posh kids using the place as a playground, something snaps, and the Festivals become the object of immense online venom.

If there is one thing that is clear amid all the sound and fury, though, it is that abolishing the Edinburgh Festivals, and slamming up the shutters to international arts and tourism, would help no-one, either economically or spiritually. Our problems are those of cities the world over which want to retain their own character, and serve their own people, while remaining connected to an international scene increasingly dominated by brutal wealth inequalities, and a form of capitalism based on unregulated exploitation of physical and cultural resources; and they are compounded, in our case, by a 40-year history of disempowerment of local government, begun across the UK by Margaret Thatcher, and sadly continued by Scotland’s current SNP government.

As it happens, many shows on these year’s Festival and Fringe, created by great artists from Scotland and far beyond, have plenty to say on these issues; it is also true, though that in low-wage Britain,many Edinburgh citizens cannot afford to see a single one of them. And so long as our society remains based on such a profound pattern of economic injustice, made more frightening by the increasing weakness of all our elected authorities in the face of overweening wealth, the age of rage is likely to continue; and, in its often misdirected fury, to risk destroying the good, the inspired and life-transforming, while leaving unscathed those masters of the current economic universe who perhaps most richly deserve our wrath.