Jonathan Mills’ Declaration of Dependence


1776 programming committee

In fact, one might categorise Mills predilection for being what he calls “politically neutral” and avoiding the biggest decision affecting Scotland for 400 years as actually being a commercial decision: one that presses the buttons for a government’s public funding (whether it be Westminister and the WW1 Commemoration or Holyrood and The Commonwealth Games) whilst also avoiding upsetting the long list of individual private sponsors with money to spare, or those who the EIF website describes as “Corporate Friends”, such as BP, Shell and Royal Bank of Scotland.  In fact the decision would seem to be more about the benign interests of patronage.  Whose interests are being best represented within this public arena for debate and discussion?


A recent interview with Edinburgh International Director, Sir Jonathan Mills, has caused, once again, a hornet’s next of debate and discussion (which, lets face it, is good) within the online Scottish cultural circles. The febrile world of Twitter, with all it’s misunderstandings, accusations, stout defences and digging in of heels is not exactly the best barometer of public opinion, but Mills’ decision merits further public scrutiny.

The discussion surrounds the declared intention of Edinburgh International Festival Director, Jonathan Mills to avoid the subject of independence in his ultimate year of programming for the Festival in Summer 2014, just one month before the Independence Referendum. The Scotsman sub editors sought to stoke the invective by using the word ‘ban’ in the headline above it’s Scotland on Sunday article: “Scottish Independence productions ban at EIF 2014“.

Reporter Brian Ferguson wrote in his opening paragraph: “INDEPENDENCE-themed productions will be excluded from next year’s Edinburgh International Festival after its director declared the prestigious arts event will remain politically neutral.” Mills position has since been clarified in pieces in both the Herald and The Guardian  that it is not a ban – that he will not censor EIF artists should they choose to explore independence, but instead he will look for frame the Festival’s programming on either the theme of the Commonwealth or The Commemoration of the start of the First World War.

I don’t think we should really be too surprised by the culturally conservative comments of Sir Jonathan. This from the man, who during the recent stushie at Creative Scotland was quoted in The Stage warning of a “superficial reformer’s narrative”:

If that agency [Creative Scotland] is not given the space to define itself in a sensible and mature way, it certainly will impact on this festival and on the whole of the arts scene in Scotland.

I think it is very important to make sure that the domestic small-scale little incremental steps that are so important to any agency do not get overshadowed by a broader – and perhaps in some ways superficially more attractive – reformers’ narrative.

This from someone who presides over the EIF, who’s £10m budget includes circa £5m of public money via from Creative Scotland and City of Edinburgh Council.

As artist, Alex Hetherington pithily commented via Twitter, the EIF Director’s interview perhaps could be encapsulated as “Jonathan Mills’ Declaration of Dependence”.

In terms of his programming, Mills is quoted as saying, “I approach the festival with the starting point – what is the journey worth taking?… But how does it inform, in an entertaining and informative and revealing way, how I live my life? That is what I ask.”

Peculiar, given that Mills is planning on staying in Edinburgh, that he sees the rather abstract notion of an alliance of countries from British imperial conquests from over 100 years ago, or indeed the start of a war 100 years ago, as having more relevance to how he leads his life than the forthcoming decision on which country/state he (and others) will be living in in the near future?

Referring to the referendum, Mills is quoted as saying “There are always a thousand reasons not to do something – I am interested in why one should. How fantastic to be alive in a place where these conversations are happening.”

How peculiar given the position of influence of being in charge of what aims to be “the most exciting, innovative and accessible Festival of the performing arts in the world” and yet not consider it fantastic to give these conversations a platform. So is this a political decision?

Remaining ‘politically neutral’ does not, of course mean turning a blind eye to debate, but instead means representing both (or indeed all) sides of a debate. In fact, the decision not to commission or feature work on the theme of independence is perhaps not an omission but instead a missed opportunity.

There are 34 new countries which have been created since 1991 – from Armenia to Uzbekistan, Eritrea to South Sudan. I would of imagined the experiences of Slovenia, of Croatia, of Latvia, Georgia, etc would all have direct relevance to the Scottish and visiting international public in the summer of 2014. Not to mention those of the Azerbaijan, Micronesia or Yemen. Of course ‘the conversation’ would not just be about newly independent countries, but also those who have rejected independence, such as Quebec (in 1995). There might even be space for companies and artists from the rest of Britain – England, Northern Ireland and Wales – who may wish to be engaged in a conversation that will ultimately, whichever way the decision goes, significantly change their own population’s relationship with the state.

Instead Mills is looking at The Commonwealth or the Commemoration of the start of the First World War as potential themes. Whilst this is obviously a small ‘p’ political decision, what is actually more telling is that this is where the large majority of government cultural funding is next summer.

In fact, one might categorise Mills predilection for being what he calls “politically neutral” and avoiding the biggest decision affecting Scotland for 400 years as actually being a commercial decision: one that presses the buttons for a government’s public funding (whether it be Westminister and the WW1 Commemoration or Holyrood and The Commonwealth Games) whilst also avoiding upsetting the long list of individual private sponsors with money to spare, or those who the EIF website describes as “Corporate Friends”, such as BP, Shell and Royal Bank of Scotland.  In fact the decision would seem to be more about the benign interests of patronage.  Whose interests are being best represented within this public arena for debate and discussion?

It is of course Mills’ call, as he is the artistic director. But why concentrate so much influence and power over the use of public funding, in the hands of one man – why not have a programming committee, which could lead to the representation of diverse and pluralistic interests and opinions?

I’d suggest a useful tool for thinking about individuals’ interests is set out by community organizer, Saul Alinsky’s spot on ‘trinity of distinction’, set out in his 1971 book Rules for Radicals:

“The setting for the drama of change has never varied. Mankind has been and is divided into three parts: the Haves, the Have-Nots and the Have-a-little, Want Mores.”

On top are the Haves, those who have done well out of the existing set up and therefore least likely to want change, most happy to want to keep the staus quo. On the bottom are the Have-Nots. Numerically there are the greatest in numbers, ‘a mass of cold ashes of resignation and fatalism, but inside there are glowing embers of hope which can be fanned… The Haves want to keep, the Have-Nots want to get.” Between the Haves and the Have-Nots are the Have-a-Little, Want Mores… “torn between upholding the status quo to protect the little they have, yet wanting change so they can get more.”

Such an analysis might help typify the recent debates in the Scottish arts scene – from the Director in receipt of £5m worth of public funding, to the so-called flexibly funded arts organizations transferred by Creative Scotland last year to the more insecure one year Lottery funding, right down to the artists scrabbling over each other to get a share of the £1.4m allocated to Artists’ Busaries funding scheme (approx 1% of the Creative Scotland budget).

Whether the discussion is about the independence referendum, land reform or the Scottish arts scene, it might not be best to hauld off casting stones, but instead note whose interest is really being represented.

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  1. Michael says:

    Good article but please note, Northern Ireland is not part of the ‘rest of Britain’. It’s part of Ireland and in the United Kingdom.

  2. Jim Monaghan says:

    “sober reflections on the legacy and impact of WW1 reflecting on issues of nationality patriotism and commonwealth” that is the theme of EIF 2014, plenty of room to explore issues, but because the curator said he hadnt commissioned anything specifically related to the Scottish referendum it is being called a “ban” and “censorship” – really? The other 9 festivals that make up the “edinburgh festival” will all cover the scottish question directly. But we now have nationalists petitioning the Festival Director to dictate specific subjects for commission? Wouldnt it be better if the Festival Director was INDEPENDENT of political lobbying?

    1. Juteman says:

      So there was no lobbying here?
      It was just a coincidence that the WW1 theme was chosen?
      And just a coincidence that a knighthood was awarded?
      On various blogs, your Britnat Slab underpants are showing, Jim.

    2. bellacaledonia says:

      Are knighthoods an expression of a meritocracy Jim? What do you think the primary purpose of reflecting on the ‘legacy of WW1’ is?

  3. George Gunn says:

    The Edinburgh Festival has always been the mouthpiece of the British Establishment so that even noticing that such a trivial thing as a referendum on independence is happening in Scotland is, wow, shocking for such a lofty creature as the Artistic Director. Creative Scotland have just admitted to over £100k of credit card fraud. In the Highlands Hi-Arts managed to suck money out of the arts production budget for 20 years and have now gone bust. We need to re-activate arts funding politically so that those who produce it can do so and the people, who pay for it, can benefit. If we do not Scotland has a major problem with its own creativity and that will impact on all aspects of our society. We have the chance to create a new country. The Festival, as it is currently constituted, is a shadow on the lung of our future.

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    This story has been updated to acknowledge that the timeline of publication was (we believe) the SoS interview first, then the Herald on Monday. We don’t think this really matters – and certainly had no intent on distorting this for any reason – and we think it reflects poorly on the parochialism of Scottish journalism that people thought it did. Nor do we think it is a ‘ban’ as the Scotsman headline suggested. We do however think its important that publicly funded arts are reflective of and accountable to the people who fund them: us. We also think that the concept of ‘politically neutral’ art is laughable. We also think that the expression these themes is highly political and to argue otherwise is either naive in the extreme or willfully ignorant.

    We are quite open to admitting mistakes and making corrections where appropriate.

  5. James Coleman says:

    I have been looking all over Bella site for a place where I can send you an email of complaint. But cannot find one anywhere. So I am writing my ’email’ here.

    It was VERY disappointing to find that you have not published a piece commenting on the crowd funded poll on Independence commissioned by the Wings over Scotland blog. This to me is shameful behaviour for a site which claims to support Independence and places you in the same shoddy camp as the bulk of the Scottish Media and BBC which has applied censorship which can only be found in non-democratic dictatorships. The results from the poll are very significant and should be read by all Scots so for Bella readers please go here.

  6. Robert Louis says:

    The entire world, looking in on the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, may well wonder why the largest arts festival, based in Edinburgh, chooses to adopt a theme of celebrating the START of a war of empires which took place a very long time ago, whilst simultaneously pretending the referendum isn’t happening. The notion of celebrating or even ‘commemorating’ the START of a war such as world war 1, is beyond credulity, a concept created in the darkest crevices of Tory British nationalism of the very worst kind. The first world war as is the case with the second, is commemorated properly at the Cenotaph in London, and around the world, each year.

    World war 1 always was political, and it still is. Despite its name, there really was nothing great about it.

    The EIF ‘creative’ director should consider his position, with immediate effect.

  7. variant says:

    thanks Johnny

    Responsibility for cultural governance in Scotland is fully devolved – though the Lottery remains an anomaly. So the government funding in question is Holyrood’s. That’s likely why I can’t find Westminster cash listed among the global corporations and international embassies on the 2013 EIF supporters’ page.

    So is the rest of your argument that corporate capital which has supported EIF *is* hostile to an independent Scotland? As I’m not so convinced it is. Or that it doesn’t want to have to pre-empt taking a public stance on independence at that point in time? Or, given so much global public unrest, do you think it’s Mills who’s wary of those many previously supportive embassies not wanting to associate with something which reflects on their own sovereign integrity?

    Whether it’s slavish or opportunistic to attach the EIF theme to the Commonwealth Games (an urban development mega-event) or the commencement of WWI (contemporary militarism’s inferred cohesion and deference), I take your point that any alleged political neutrality is nonsense. Is this primarily a question of institutional aggregation around festivalisation? Not so much an example of the post-colonial condition as the post-industrial ‘creative economy’?

    Mills’ stance certainly exposes some entrenched contradictions. Such as why some charities should require special dispensation to organise around the independence referendum, when it’s something not asked of e.g. royal pageants reinforcing the no-less political system of hereditary monarchy. Both *are* understood to be political. Only the former is framed as potentially ‘inappropriate political activity’ requiring exceptional (temporary!) dispensation.

    Mike in his Guardian piece only gets to hint that Mills is doing the opposite of supposedly separating art and politics – if such a thing were ever possible or desirable. I’m not convinced that portraying Mills as trying to “sanitise the arts” is the best way of conveying it. Either prong of what Mills proposes would align EIF’s ‘artistic vision’ with what the Coalition’s history tsar Simon Schama claims to be “a cheer-up panacea for our tough times, an emblem of Britishness, optimism and the community coming together”. As Emma L Briant quotes: it’s an attempt to promote dreamlike constructions of earlier golden ages by recourse to an invented past of imperial greatness when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’. (As the Olympics proved.) The danger is that emphasising Mills’ stance as an act of expulsion both awards it a position of ordinariness (from that which is being expelled) and leaves it unchallenged and intact.

    Barr’s National Collective piece does make this point, before collapsing under its own equally alienating weight of a fully totalised, pre-formed cultural Scottishness. Naïve of me to think claims to alterity might seek to disrupt rather than conserve that coloniser-colonised binarism.

    As the overused Freire quote goes: “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral”. But as Scotland is not so stateless a nation, then the power differential is not what Freire outlines, nor can the political class can’t be bisected in just such a way, but you get the point.

    As for Creative Scotland, I think Mills is right in warning about a “superficial reformer’s narrative”, just wrong in siding with what he’s chosen to oppose it with.

    1. Juteman says:

      Sorry variant, but Scotland is a stateless nation.
      Hopefully the referendum will correct that.

      1. variant says:

        Juteman, if you can get access to the articles, I found these useful for questioning just how state-less the so-called stateless nation is (the articles themselves aren’t as densely written as the abstracts):

        Competitive nationalism: state, class, and the forms of capital in devolved Scotland
        Alex Law, Gerry Mooney
        Abstract. Devolved government in Scotland actively reconstitutes the unequal conditions of social class reproduction. Recognition of state-led class reconstitution draws upon the social theory of Bourdieu. Our analysis of social class in devolved Scotland revisits theories that examine the state as a ‘power container’. A range of state-enabling powers regulate the legal, economic, social, and cultural containers of class relations as specific forms of what Bourdieu called economic, social, and cultural ‘capital’. The preconditions of class reproduction are structured in direct ways by the Scottish state as a wealth container but also, more indirectly, as a cultural container and a social container. Competitive nationalism in the devolved Scottish state enacts neoliberal policies as a class-specific worldview but, at the same time, discursively frames society as a panclass national fraternity in terms of distinctive Scottish values of welfare nationalism. Nationalism is able to express this ambiguity in symbolic ways in which the partisan language of social class cannot.

        Devolution in a ‘Stateless Nation’: Nation-building and Social Policy in Scotland
        Alex Law, Gerry Mooney
        Abstract. The implications of the 2011 Scottish election and the proposed referendum on Scottish independence for the future of social policy across the devolved UK are profound but far from certain. It is crucial to understand not only the historical nature of this conjuncture but to develop an adequate conceptual understanding of the place of social policy in the dialectic between state and nation in Scotland. To this end, we critically examine theories that depict Scotland as an essentially ‘stateless nation’ in the light of recent developments. In so doing, we examine the implications for social policy of the changing character of statehood in Scotland, the nature of civil nationalism, and the problem of legitimacy in Scotland for the UK as a multinational state. As the architecture of statehood is re-negotiated, strong centrifugal pressures are being created for a more distinct divergence of social policy in Scotland from the rest of the UK regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum. Policy-making is ensnared in a series of tensions, not just between Westminster and Holyrood but also, more broadly, tensions between competing principles of social justice and territorial justice, and competing demands between welfare nationalism and competitive nationalism.

        1. bellacaledonia says:

          I can’t access any of that. I’m really baffled by proprietorial academia. What’s the point? It’s such a closed world.

          1. variant says:

            I’d agree that academic work should be freely available to the public in Scotland. I have to email around asking if anyone can access it for me.

            As to what’s the point; it’d be a bit ironic to chastise Mills for self-censorship and evading likely uncomfortable entanglements only to follow suit.

            For me, the stateless nation narrative doesn’t meet my experiences of political institutions in Scotland. I’m interested in seeing how others have explored this. It may be a cliche, but a view to describing the world in order to change it, something Rory Scothorne puts well enough in his comment to his article here:

          2. bellacaledonia says:

            Really? The Red Paper Collective or Leninism? Really? I think the dismissal of the Commonweal project is harsh and thin, maybe I should ask Rory to develop a fuller bit of analysis.

            As to the issue of a stateless nation there is a tension between those seeking to create a replica Mini Me Britain, and those seeking to create something entirely different. But you seem unwilling to engage in process or movement-building and rather stuck in utopia/demolition.

            I’m not sure what you mean by ‘to chastise Mills for self-censorship and evading likely uncomfortable entanglements only to follow suit.’

          3. Variant says:

            @bellacaledonia I don’t know if you’re being deliberately contrary?

            For me obviously neither The Red Paper Collective nor Leninism.

            I agree, you should ask Rory about it, something he discusses on Nordic Horizons too: And there’s also his follow up:

            My reference was in the context of the comment on *academic closure*, and that it’s not enough to describe the world, and certainly not enough to assume it behaves the way we think it ought to. That I suspect I share with Rory; taking criticality to be an integral part of an iterative political process. Something Gordy and I previously went to lengths to explain as what we meant by ‘praxis’. So clearly I don’t believe in a suspended future utopia either, arguing here for the very opposite.

            To iterate a bit of what Gordy & I said then: “Praxis is diametrically opposed to an “intellectual exercise” – it involves theoretically informed action and reflection in an iterative process. Similarly, it is action in the *getting along to*, not a place but a movement, not an exercise (which we feel a ‘rubber stamping’ in keeping quiet is) and not a suspension of action now for some blueprint future, but about *how* through a discourse of critique and possibility we create the future through how we get there – one that recognises that without an informed citizenry, collective struggle, and dynamic social movements, hope for a viable democratic future will slip out of reach.”

            It was odd how @bellacaledonia misconstrued this.

            Re Mills – my feeling is it would be hypocritical for us to chastise him for self-censorship and evading likely uncomfortable entanglements if we’re to reject ‘proprietorial academia’ in the context of its theoretical unpicking of the ‘stateless nation’ narrative, however uncomfortable its analysis might be for how we wish to understand the world.

            More widely, right now I’m interested in how a (mostly male) anti-intellectualism circulates as a disciplinary tool within constructs of authenticity and resilience. I accept that’s more than a bit clunky, not very thought through, and there’s all sorts of claims in there, but it’s what currently concerns me.

    2. Johnny says:

      Thanks variant for your response…

      Whilst Scottish Government does have a five year programme around WW1 I believe a lot of the monies (especially in heritage circles) is coming from Lottery sources, and therefore presumably taking a lead from Westminister and the DCMS.

      For me, it seems like the Director’s decision to focus on either WW1 or Commonwealth is of course political, and could easily result in the sort of bunting fest your quotes refer to. That said the reaction in some circles has been rather predictable and identikit – drawing on notions of identity and grievance – the usual binarism you refer to as “coloniser-colonised”.

      In my piece I wanted to move away from these discussion of identity and look more at how culture is shaped and presented accorrding to interests and the increasing tendency of celebration and packaging at the expense of critical investigation – “festivalisation”. My piece was originally called “Don’t Rock My Boat”.

      Of course the irony in this is that The Commonwealth was originally set up to deal with countries decoupling themselves from the British Empire, set up in 1949 and recognising countries as “equal and free”. So by all means, lets take the Commonwealth as starting point, but lets power down on the games and celebration and “flowering of human spirits” and instead offer the platform for artists to critically explore the international legacy of British Empire.

  8. Countess fi Hong Kong says:

    Another point though is that we do need the eif to be conservative, corrupt, boring and awful.
    The narrative of the fringe rising up against it is what draws the crowds to the royal mile – so we still need it for it’s Pastor Jack Glass like ability to get the crowds coming in – Mill’s clearly doesn’t move in circles where Scottish empowerment is even mentioned and I for one salute his cloistered new town sensibility, which lends immediate authenticity to any opposing endeavour – the other cracker was that he said he was embracing the fringe by attending a show in Valvona and Crolla

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