Lewis Macdonald
Edinburgh Festivals 70th. Anniversary Year


Speech in the Scottish Parliament debate
15 June 2017




Seventy years on, there is, indeed, much to celebrate.

The Edinburgh festivals have achieved truly global status.

Hundreds of venues provide a stage for thousands of artists, who perform to a combined audience of hundreds of thousands and generate millions of pounds in benefits to the Scottish economy.

Great numbers of visitors from around the United Kingdom, Europe and around the world all contribute to Edinburgh as a world city and put Scotland firmly on the map for the whole range of performing arts—and also film, as the cabinet secretary mentioned.

Any anniversary celebration should, of course, start with where things stood when it all began.

The Edinburgh festivals were created as an act of policy following one of the most traumatic episodes in human history. Like the first world war, the second world war was hugely destructive of people and places.

There was also an all-out assault on the shared values of human civilisation and systematic genocide and vast impoverishment. It was a time of darkness, austerity and division.

The post-war Labour Government recognised the need to light beacons of hope in such a time.

The creation of Edinburgh as an international festival city was one of the fruits of that policy, which was shared by all in public life in Scotland at the time.

The truth that the festivals symbolised then is that the best answer to barbarism is to strengthen and celebrate civilisation, to meet destruction with creativity, and to promote hope, compassion and unity against those who would spread hatred, division and fear.

That is what makes the festivals truly world events. It is not just about where people come from; it is about what the festivals represent.

We know only too well that hatred, division and fear stalk the world again.

The same terrorists who sponsored murder in London and Manchester have committed outrages around the world, not least in destroying the physical evidence of human civilisations in the middle east.

Just as the Edinburgh festivals lit a beacon of hope after the second world war, the great get together this weekend will be a direct answer to the forces of hatred that killed Jo Cox a year ago. It will mark the anniversary of her death and make it an occasion to celebrate our shared civilisation and values.

The spirit of ’47 is as important now as it was 70 years ago. I look forward to the 10-day festival within a festival under that title later this year, which the cabinet secretary mentioned.

It will feature music, theatre, dance and debate on that internationalist and multicultural theme.

Joining all those art forms with debate and discussion goes to the heart of what Edinburgh’s festivals are about.

I am certain that the experience will be entertaining, inspiring and enlightening.

The festivals have, of course, gone from success to success and they have perhaps exceeded even their founders’ wildest dreams.

The number of festivals has multiplied, the size of the audiences has grown, and the impact has extended well beyond the city to benefit every area in Scotland.

As the cabinet secretary said, the scale of the festivals each and every year puts them in the same league as the Olympic games and the FIFA world cup.

Success always brings its own challenges, of course. In this case, success means that the festivals now matter for more than simply their cultural excellence; they are also vital to the tourism sector and the Scottish economy as a whole.

That is why public funding is not just right in principle; it is in the public interest in a material sense, too.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s expo fund and the initiatives that it supports, and I look forward to hearing more about the pop-up family festival, for example. I know that it will visit parts of Scotland later this year.

It is important to acknowledge that continuing public funding remains part of the recipe for the success of the Edinburgh international festivals and that it must never be taken for granted.

This week, I looked again at “Edinburgh Festivals: Thundering Hooves 2.0. A Ten Year Strategy to Sustain the Success of Edinburgh’s Festivals”, which was published in May 2015.

That strategy was supported by all the main local and national stakeholders in the festivals, including the Scottish Government, and its main findings still hold good today.

It highlighted the risk to the festivals of cuts in local authority funding in particular and concluded that

“Large scale, radical solutions are now needed to replace eroding public funding and these must include potential alternative funding models, even if they present their own constraints.”

The festivals do not seek in any way to live off public subsidies.

The international festival, for example, grew its earned income from fundraising and ticket sales by 46 per cent between 2009 and 2016, at the same time as grant income went down by 4 per cent.

The festivals are more than ready to help themselves.

However, public funding enables the festivals to plan ahead and to invest for future productions with a degree of certainty and without depending entirely on current cash flows for investment to grow their future audiences.

I know that the cabinet secretary understands that point and I hope that she will continue to engage with all the festivals and the City of Edinburgh Council to explore potential funding solutions for the future.

If that is done creatively and constructively, the next 70 years can be as productive and as exciting as the last.

I move amendment S5M-06073.2, to insert at end:

“; believes that the ideals behind the origin of the festivals in the wake of the Second World War, namely that culture can break down borders and bring people from all nationalities together, are still pertinent today, and recognises the need to find solutions to the future funding challenge that the festivals face.”

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