Brexit could spell disaster for Edinburgh Festival, warns chief exec

Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan. Pic: Ian Rutherford.
Edinburgh International Festival Director Fergus Linehan. Pic: Ian Rutherford.
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The director of the Edinburgh International Festival has spoken of his fears that a no-deal Brexit will have a “disastrous” and “horrible” impact next year.

Fergus Linehan said he could not see how a “terrible mess” could be avoided next year as he revealed he is having to prepare for a scaled-back event.

Speaking ahead of the launch of this year’s festival on Friday, Mr Linehan admitted he was draw up contingency plans to pull the plug on some projects due to huge uncertainty over the economic impact of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

He said the “horrors” of Brexit had become more and more apparent, with the EIF already struggling to find staff to work at its headquarters on the Royal Mile and facing the prospect of mounting red tape and soaring costs to bring in artists and performers.

The Irishman, who recently signed a new contract tying him to the event until 2022, the festival’s 75th anniversary, admitted he was having to make plans on the basis of a “catastrophic” Brexit unfolding within the next few months.

Mr Linehan said he thought the Fringe would be more seriously affected than his own event because small companies who normally attend the event would not have the resources to deal with the extra demands of the post-Brexit landscape.

Earlier this week Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy admitted she was concerned that international artists would go to festivals elsewhere due to the cost and complexity of coming to Edinburgh in future.

Mr Linehan said he had some “really big” international projects lined up for the 2019 event, but was also having to ensure that the event was not left at risk of financial failure in the event of a massive downturn in income.

He said: “We will have to be really careful about next year, just like everyone else. The question will be more about scale.

“If we’re talking about a catastrophic scenario or some absolute dog’s dinner next spring we can’t leave ourselves financially exposed too much. We will want to maintain the absolute quality of the event but we will have to have a fallback position. Our priority will be to make sure the festival is safe and secure.

“It is already causing a certain amount of caution. What you do is layer up the programme in one way and layer up the rest of the programme in a way that you could back out of it if needed.”

When he unveiled the 2018 programme in March, Mr Linehan warned that the prospect of Brexit had created a “wave of uncertainty” for the event which was hampering advance planning.

Mr Linehan added: “It might be really, really hard economically next year if people don’t come to their senses in some shape or form.

“The real kicker at the moment is that no-one wants to invest. I think it is going to make people really tentative.

“We are at such a strange place as the horrors become more apparent. People just seem to be becoming more calcified in their positions.

“The one thing I am conscious of is that to sit down in a room with people all of whom think Brexit is a catastrophe doesn’t really get us anywhere.

“But I just think that the idea of intolerance and low-level racism being given fuel is just horrific.

“I just can’t see how it’s not going to be a disaster. It’s not an ideological position, but I just can’t see how it’s not going to be a terrible mess.

“It will make it much less attractive to EU nationals to live here. We work in a European environment. It’s not that we won’t be able to work in that environment again. There will be really good people who can go anywhere in future if it just too hard to come here.

“This city is about finance, tourism, culture and the universities. These are all really international industries, so you can see how it will be particularly problematic.

“If there is suddenly a whole extra lawyer of administration, cost and complexity it will be much more difficult for smaller operators. Anyone who is running a hospitality business is already aware that there is an absolute squeeze on finding people. It has affected us here at The Hub – it is really apparent. That is before this has event got going properly.”

Mr Linehan admitted that it was unlikely that the festival would return to Leith Theatre next year despite preparing to use the historic venue again for the first time in 30 years. But he insisted this was down to the need to carry out a full refurbishment of the building, including new power supplies and toilet facilities, to ensure it can be used outwith the festival.

King Creosote, Django Django, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Karine Polwart, Lau, Mogwai and Anna Meredith are among the acts who will be taking part in a major showcase of Scottish music, which has been inspired by a major exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland.

He added: “There is a big question over when Leith Theatre is going to be putting stuff into the building permanently. Having taking it to where it is now, logic would say next year is the time to do that. It looks fantastic but a promoter wouldn’t be able to take on the cost of doing it the we way are doing it.”