Politics, Edinburgh Festivals and the Toffification of Culture and Public Life

This is Edinburgh Festival time – but with a difference. Across the city you cannot move for politicians and ex-politicians treading the boards and presenting their views for entertainment.

It never used to be like this – Edinburgh at Festival time, or politics – and there are consequences for both. The spaces and platforms being created by and for some politicians, journalists and commentators have an impact beyond Edinburgh and its many Festivals. What they may be doing to politics, and to public conversation, needs wider understanding.

The likes of Iain Dale, Steve Richards, and others such as Graham Spiers, are holding regular events and talking politics this year. In a category of his own is former First Minister Alex Salmond who has taken his travelling road show to Edinburgh with his faithful sidekick Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh. It is you will note very blokey; Times Radio presenter Ayesha Hazarika has done regular shows in Edinburgh but not this year.

Iain Dale has conducted a wide array of interviews across the political spectrum – Nicola Sturgeon, Humza Yousaf, Penny Mordaunt (who proclaimed herself ‘hammer of the Nats’), Jeremy Corbyn – with class and skill. He pushed Sturgeon on what happened in the SNP under her leadership and her responsibility for it, so much so that one member of the audience shouted out ‘move on’.

Steve Richards provides a different approach, drawing upon a vast knowledge of UK politics and history rather than relying on guests. He knows how to draw upon the audience’s interests and views, and works with them to improvise the content, changing tack and material depending on what arises. It is no accident that Dale and Richards are now regular features at the Fringe.

A bigger challenge comes with quality control, and the impact, if any, on politics. Salmond for example has spent recent years in the twilight as a semi-pariah after his imperial reign. He has refused to take any real responsibility or show any insight into his moral descent and the consequences of his actions. SNPers Kate Forbes and Joanna Cherry, Labour’s Henry McLeish, Tory David Davis and former Commons Speaker John Bercow, have all been happy to share an Edinburgh platform with Salmond. In the past week he has ventured forth a range of opinions including calling his successor Nicola Sturgeon a ‘sad, almost reduced figure’ – words which perhaps could also, or alternatively, be employed to describe himself.

A couple of observations flow from this. The first is the unaccountability of comments and observations in entertainment spaces like those currently being offered in Edinburgh. Hence politicians and public figures can say nearly anything they like, with little to no comeback, scrutiny or fact checking. Hence SNP MP Joanna Cherry could in the past few days fume at length about the Scottish Greens (the party that literally keeps the SNP in power in Scotland) calling them ‘totalitarian’, ‘anti-free speech’ and even ‘anti-gay’ – comments that are clearly contentious and open to counter charge. But all these remarks were reported unchecked as news headlines – and mostly without challenge.

The second is what this set of changes say about Edinburgh at Festival time. It is part of the evolution of public discourse which began over 20 years ago with the explosion of Book Festivals as a place of political discussion. Some of this was generational, then aided by widespread middle-class, middle-aged disgust at Tony Blair and New Labour. It led then to comments celebrating ‘the democratisation of Book Festivals’ and that ‘Book Festivals are where politics happens rather than Parliament and street protests’.

But Book Festivals are selective, controlled, commercialised spaces (underlined by the Baillie Gifford-Greta Thunberg controversy and writer protest this week). They are not primarily about civil society or the state of the body politic – or the health or not of the agora. They are about shifting and promoting product, and are supported by an affluent, older constituency unrepresentative of the wider public – disproportionately people with voice, influence and existing access. And in the past couple of years this trend has broken out into the Edinburgh Fringe and become conspicuous with one commentator noting: ‘This degrades the Edinburgh Festival. The Fringe should be about art. Politics is not art.’

Edinburgh and the Elite Capture of Culture, Politics and Public Life

Third, there is a deleterious effect on the public sphere across the UK and particularly in Scotland. The flowering of a set of selective discussions in Edinburgh is related to, and is inevitably, a judgement on the failure of major media broadcasters and other platforms. The rise of the political actor at Edinburgh Festival time is filling a vacuum and meeting unmet need as an audience looks for political discourse and insights that they cannot find elsewhere.

This is presented as a widening of the public debate and politics. What is not to like – it is asked – of politics coming to Edinburgh, when the world comes to the city? One prominent cultural player said to me in defence of the situation: ‘Edinburgh Book Festival shows the breadth and diversity of public life and debate in Scotland.’ The problem with these assumptions are many. For a start there is the setting. The Oxbridge-isation of comedy and and other shows; the exorbitant costs of putting on events and for affordable accommodation for performers, means that deep pockets are now required of a large part of the audience. 

Edinburgh at Festival time is part of the toffification of UK culture, politics and public life, and part of the problem. Those who have the most voice, status, privilege and connection decant to Edinburgh for a month to talk to each other and to reinforce their own assumptions about how liberal and enlightened they are. 

The occasional ‘outsider’ such as Darren McGarvey proves the point, being very much now the insider trading as the professional outsider (or outsider granted the status of an insider). With whatever laudable intentions, everyone can feel that they are inclusive and open. Meanwhile a version of politics and public debate is being promoted which is not only exclusive and exclusionary it is deliberately – structurally and organisationally – contributing to our broken politics that has been captured by wealth, status and connections.

Fourth, these Edinburgh Festival developments raise the issue of why BBC Scotland and STV have not considered championing discussions, conversations and exchanges which have a wider political and civic value? Since the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, a near quarter century ago, both the BBC and STV have viewed politics and how they cover it as focused primarily on specialist programmes with minority interest audiences (the graveyard slot of the now gone BBC Newsnight Scotland being the most obvious example). 

One predictable way that the BBC could address the above, would be to extend their Edinburgh Festival coverage into the political and do a Glastonbury on it – recording and capturing the selective conversations and presenting them as their contribution to public service broadcasting. This would reproduce this narrow bandwidth of political discourse as something universal, without addressing its partialness and missing voices, conversations, and subjects. The Glastonbury-isation of political and public debate would exasperate existing divisions of who has voice and who does not and contribute to our ongoing crisis of democracy. 

Edinburgh is still in Scotland even at Festival Time (despite appearances!)

Fifth, the above has consequences for how Scottish political discourse evolves and is represented. Media presenters as skilled as Iain Dale and Steve Richards understand that Scotland is different and know their Scottish politics. But the rise of Edinburgh as a backdrop for political conversations at a time when the city is filled with visitors from outside Scotland, alongside the significant profile of Westminster-focused commentators, cannot help but diminish the Scottish body politic.

When this is added to the failure of imagination and inability of BBC Scotland and STV over nearly 25 years to widen how they frame the political debate, including their conspicuous failure in 2014 and subsequently, this amounts to a retrenchment of what is politically possible to talk about in public in Scotland. One where Scotland as a communicative and social space has been constrained and curtailed.

Finally, assessing the cumulative effect of all of this has a major impact on what we view as politics, how we do political and public conversations, and consequences for the future evolution of politics in the UK and Scotland. 

Overall, the verdict must be that Edinburgh at Festival time as a place for political conversation is neither healthy, enlightening or democratic. Rather this is about the championing of a politics about and for insiders, talking a comfortable insider language and set of values, and presenting a select menu of subjects which an affluent, older audience find themselves sympathetic to and not threatened by.

All of this is happening against the backdrop of a divided society, with a broken economic and social order, alongside an atrophied democracy and increasingly corrupt politics. This state of affairs is one where mainly the over 65s have driven Brexit and the logic of the Tory Party’s descent into right-wing populism, and the best that can be said of Edinburgh is that it is showcasing the liberal version of the affluent, aged selectorate.

Edinburgh’s newfound status as a city of political conversations occurring outside official parliamentary spaces over the summer reinforces the retreat of public space and platforms; the hollowing out of the public sphere, and retreat of the very idea of the public as an active agency creating and shaping our own collective future as a society. It is about contestment of what constitutes public conversation, voice and legitimacy – from the rules of selection and omission which go on in Festivals, to the claims and counter-claims about cancellation and censorship seen in the controversies over Joanna Cherry at The Stand and Graham Linehan at Leith Arches.

Overall, the evolution of Edinburgh as a Festival City is of the public reduced from any aspiration of being empowered citizens. This is about tightly managed, controlled corporate space masquerading as public space and the agora. Consumers who are invited into a one-hour book event or special discussion, where the views of politicians and public figures are packaged for consumption, with the audience allowed a carefully controlled small amount of time to make observations or a short point.

Where will this end? The rise of politics as entertainment and show business – and for the most at a superficial level – is not a positive trend. It is about the continued middle class, middle aged, affluent capture of UK politics and public conversation with all the resulting disastrous consequences we see around us. This is the personalisation of politics and of self-reverence, where politics is typically presented as about petty feuds and vendettas, with originality and fresh thinking about genuine policy ideas that might improve things being excluded.

This is a politics reduced to retro-culture and nostalgia which haunts every aspect of UK life. If it continues, as politicians’ muscle in on entertainment and boundaries blur we will see the acceleration of the changing nature of what a politician is and not in a good way.

This ranges from the emergence of the performative politician such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, to politicians crossing over into media as presenters on Talk TV and GB News such as Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg respectively, and comedians standing for national office as in Italy, Brazil and Ukraine. Just because Zelenskyy turned out to be a national hero don’t expect such an outturn here. It did after all take a Russian invasion to turn Zelenskyy into a hero! 


Comments (11)

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  1. Dougie Blackwood says:

    There is a great deal of truth in this analysis but does it change anything. Our main stream Media have, and always will, be selective in waht they pump out; a spat within the indy camp is a godsend. A spat within Labour is confined to The National and the echo chamber that is Social Media; corruption and discord within the Tory ranks doesn’t see the light of day.

    The Luvvies and their pals come to Edinburgh at festival time but the majority of Scots ignore it.

    1. Mark Howitt says:

      In a country with a population of 5.5 million, it’s true that the majority of Scots ignore the Edinburgh festivals.

      But it’s wrong to dismiss them as entirely visitor led events. Last year 70% of the total audience of the International Festival came from Scotland. Over 90% of the Book Festival’s audience comes from Scotland, of which 60% from Edinburgh and the Lothians. Even the Fringe – which attracts most visitors – sold 39% of its total tickets in 2022 to Edinburgh residents.

      1. Fluffykintail says:

        @ Mark Howitt;

        > “Last year 70% of the total audience of the International Festival came from Scotland”.

        I see your using the pretendy made up statistics of the proven liar & hate figure, that is the Chief Executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, Shona McCarthy.

        There is a core reason why the majority of Scots dont attend the Edinburgh Colonial August Festivals. The festivals are not aligned with the Scottish school holidays (in July);

        :- Schools go back in August.

        :- Football starts back in August.

        :- Scottish families have spent all their money on holidays & the kids in July. So where is the money to attend any festival even in August?!

        Gerry Hassan is quite correct. The Edinburgh Festivals are a clique for the London Boarding School Set, and the billion dollar princesses from some private island in the Pacific Ocean. The Edinburgh Festivals are an aberration that was never in alignment with Scottish society. There needs to be an open & honest public debate amongst Edinburghers about how they go about dismantling these festivals and making the city their’s again.

        1. Niemand says:

          You have a strong point about a city being almost held to ransom by a beast like the Festivals that seem to have to answer to no-one, not at street level anyway. I get the anger and agree ‘something must be done’ to allow the people a voice and for a radical rethink and probable reduction and re-orientation of what goes on. Part of me thinks the Festivals should simply be suspended for a few years whilst new plans are made to be more inclusive of local people and local acts. Cloud-cuckoo land that though.

          But I reject the ‘boarding school’, ‘colonial’ schtick. I have been to the Fringe and main festival many times and this isn’t what it is like in the main and there is nothing intrinsically wrong about a performer from ‘down south’ or anywhere for that matter. It is an empty caricature that does not help deal with the problem which is mostly about corporate power, BIG money and commercialism, not class and misuse of words like colonialism. The power to make change ultimately comes from those in political power in Edinburgh, and higher. But they have sold their souls, not to any colonial master or to the public school set, but to the serious gravy train of corporate power. It is towards those unaccountable businesses that prioritise profit above all else where the anger needs to be directed.

          It is the commercialisation of everything we see as culture in society that fills me with despair, not a southener who went to boarding school, who actually turns out to be a damn good act.

    2. 230816 says:

      But, Dougie; I’ve been following all the stories you mention (the power-struggle within the SNP, the division and dissension within Labour’s ranks, the corruption and incompetence of the current Conservative government) through the mainstream media. It’s simply not true that these stories are not being reported and discussed in the papers and on the telly. Where did you get your information on the problems that currently beset the three parties you mention if not through the media?

      On Gerry’s thoughts, I share his dismay and the degeneration of political engagement into entertainment, which turns citizens from active participants in a ongoing dialogue with one another into passive audiences of a series of monologues from professional politicians.

      The events at the Festival are hardly unique or even unusual in respect of our disempowerment as citizens: the public performances of politicians are as carefully choreographed and stage-managed as those of any celebrity; even our parliaments are presented as theatre for our passive reception.

      Wouldn’t it have been wonderful had some impresario produced, instead of a series of authoritative talking heads, a series of democratic courtroom dramas, in which an authority’s policy proposals – and, more importantly, the practical plans they have for the implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of those proposals – were tried by advocates both for and against the policy that was on trial, under the moderation of an independent adjudicator, before audiences that, each night, performed the role of a self-selecting citizens’ jury?

      That would have been far more engaging.

  2. Hugh McShane says:

    Curate’s egg piece in spades! Occasional nuggets, in what seemed, ‘big picture’ to contain the kernel of an idea of where we’re going re. Politics+public sphere. Marred by cheap shots @ Cherry+ Salmond’s moral turpitude! Mein arsch! as Jim Royle was wont to say!

    1. Frank Mahann says:

      Cherry and Salmond deserve more than cheap shots, I’d happily buy both of them one-way tickets for a slow boat to China.

  3. John Rendall says:

    Wouldn’t touch politics at fringe except maybe Steve Richards (but haven’t). Whilst I share concern re toffification, this is at least in part due to severe squeeze on public support for culture. There’s thought-provoking content at Book Festival – Karine Polwart, David Farrier and Don Paterson have all made me think deeply this week. Props too to EIF for brave theatre programming eg As Far From Impossible last w/e.

  4. mark leslie edwards says:

    Should ah write tae ma MSP,
    Dick Lockheed ae the SNP,
    how’s the ald middle parting,
    how’s yer big brother Martin?
    Is it true yiv a’ gone green,
    if so how ma seeing this scene:
    Eurofighter jets in the sky,
    a sight that’s sh*te tae these eyes.
    Precisely how dae ye square
    wi the bigwigs sat up stair
    a commitment tae net zero
    wi crab c*nts treated like heroes
    fir needlessly flying aboot,
    filling yung lungs fulla soot.

  5. mark leslie edwards says:

    Ah thought ah’d hookt a big crab
    reeled in a muckle slab,
    on the slab wur written sum wurds:
    Please fk aff back tae the Murd.
    Crab memory only goes
    the distance frae lip tae nose,
    so ah let the line go slack,
    the slab sunk intae the black.
    Ah’d read fit they wrote in vain,
    things stood exactly the same,
    they already fenced aff Kinneddar,
    noo they wanted tae destroy the weather,
    ye wondered fit wid ivir be inuff,
    if it wis porn ye’d hae tae say it’s snuff.

  6. Graeme Purves says:

    Nicola Sturgeon’s shameless evocation of “people power” during her Fringe season is unaccountably omitted from this analysis.

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