Ian Swanson: Festival row brews over referendum

The Festival features many things but politics is out in 2014. Picture: Getty
The Festival features many things but politics is out in 2014. Picture: Getty
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With next year’s event avoiding any talk of independence, Ian Swanson examines the pros and cons of airing the big debate.

It’s an intriguing question: how would Robert Burns have voted in next year’s referendum? Would the bard have boldly backed independence or decided it was wiser to stick with the Union?

Broadcaster Mark Stephen and singer Gill Bowman raise the issue in their Fringe show, Robert Burns Votes for Scotland, though Stephen quickly pointed out the matter is pretty academic.

He said: “I know the Scottish Government has given the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, but I think they might draw the line at enfranchising the dead.”

He also goes on to argue that Burns wrote so much during his lifetime that it is possible to find something in his works to back up almost any point of view in the debate. Not much help there, then, for the undecided voter.

But at least the topic is being aired. Sir Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, has made it clear he is not planning to make independence or the referendum central to his programme for next year, even though the Festival will be happening just a few weeks before the big day.

Instead, he plans to focus the 2014 Festival on the twin themes of the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games.

Sir Jonathan insists the Festival is not a “political apparatus” and does not propose “a particular manifesto”, though no-one was suggesting it was or should do.

He also argues his chosen themes allow plenty of scope to explore ideas such as nationalism and nationhood.

But as the world’s eyes turn to Scotland ahead of the historic decision, it will seem strange to many that the international event which Capital is most famous for has chosen to avoid the subject.

And playwright David Greig fairly pointed out that the very decision not to feature the referendum could itself be seen as a reinforcement of the status quo.

Critics have suggested the experience of staging the National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia play at the 2010 Festival might have persuaded Sir Jonathan he is better to avoid political hot potatoes. Many Nationalists disliked the play – about the disastrous Darien scheme in the 17th century when Scotland tried to establish a colony in Panama – but others saw it as a timely reminder of the dangers of naive optimism and ill-thought-out adventures.

One pro-independence campaigner eager to see the referendum addressed in next year’s Festival programme nevertheless admits it would be difficult for those trying to do so, saying: “By that time it will be getting a bit tense and unfriendly.”

But theatre and the arts are no strangers to controversy and no doubt there are plenty writers, actors and producers keen to help tackle the question of Scotland’s future.

In contrast to Sir Jonathan, Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, has said he believes his event has an “absolutely crucial” role to play in the debate.

“We will go there emphatically,” he declared. “Our job is to discuss things that matter, and for me to ignore the referendum would be the wrong thing to do.”

Away from the Festival, the National Theatre of Scotland is already planning two new plays that focus on the identity of Scotland and its future.

Whatever anyone’s views on independence, the referendum is a momentous decision and it is only right it should be explored to the full.