Living in London and travelling abroad for work, I am used to hearing the staple Scots-ribbing stereotypes: Irn Bru-swilling; stingy; a penchant for cacophonous military music. But alongside all the usual clichés, people around the world (from Hong Kong bankers to Saudi taxi drivers, in my experience) have heard of the famous festival: Scotland's evergreen cultural export. As politics north and south of the border descends into farce, it remains one of the few things I'm unequivocally proud to broadcast to the outside world.
Sir Rudolf Bing – who helped found the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) in 1947 – spent only a brief time in the city, but the impression he left could hardly have been more profound. While the Viennese opera impresario served as the EIF's artistic director for only two years before moving to New York to take the Metropolitan Opera to dizzying new heights, his legacy is seen and heard – loudly – throughout the city every August.
The principles that inspired the festival are summarised in its 2017 annual report and accounts, it being 'the belief of the founders… that great art could be used to heal divisions by focusing on our shared sense of humanity. This belief was particularly focused on Europe, which had recently emerged from the horrors of the second world war'. One cannot help but think the world might be a better place if all financial statements embraced such lofty ideals.
In a 2017 interview with Fest, the EIF's current director Fergus Linehan recognised the challenges of reconciling these founding values with a national mood in the UK that seems increasingly gripped by inward-looking isolationism. But Linehan's conclusions are ultimately optimistic: 'We've got to redefine our relationship with Europe… But nobody as far as I can see wants us to pull up the drawbridge. There's an enormous enthusiasm to restate the international networks that currently exist'.
Linehan is, of course, right. The message of the EIF, and its boisterous little brother the Fringe, is today, more than at any other point in the last 70 years, in need of a fresh airing. Events like these announce to the rest of Europe – with the confidence of a megaphone-wielding am-dram society member hawking tickets on the Royal Mile – that, while Brexit may be the will of the people, at least not all the people are philistines.
But there is a small problem in all this: the messenger. Only 38% of Scottish voters were in favour of the UK leaving the EU, compared to the roughly 53% of voters in England. It is England, not Scotland, that now needs to deliver a message of international solidarity abroad and to engender these values at home.
One reason I take pride in Edinburgh's season of festivals is that it is unique – there is nothing else like it. Perhaps it is time for some stiff competition from south of the border? Indeed, there is a risk that, if a comparable voice is not raised in England, Edinburgh's festivals will be co-opted by those who would peddle the narrative of Scottish exceptionalism for their own reasons.
The original choice of Edinburgh as a venue was not guided by any particular desire to celebrate Scotland, or Scottishness, per se (with Oxford also having been a candidate under consideration). The city, as a survivor of the worst depredations of the war, was simply the best-suited vessel through which to deliver Bing's dual visions of high culture and pan-European unity. To an extent, Edinburgh's festivals have always been in
Scotland, but not solely of
If a city-defining cultural event can, to all intents and purposes, be parachuted into post-war Scotland, is it such a leap of the imagination to think something similar could now enliven one of our neglected Northern Powerhouses? Such endeavours require serious political commitment. We can only hope that when Jeremy Wright, the culture secretary, told an audience at the Edinburgh International Culture Summit that 'these iconic [Edinburgh] festivals are a living, breathing example of the incredible power of culture in transforming our lives and our cities', he was not speaking merely in platitudes.
And of course, such endeavours need money. The Edinburgh International Festival continues to be the single biggest beneficiary of Creative Scotland's Grant in Aid funding, receiving £2.3m, or 6.8%, of the total £34.1m budget for the April 2018 to March 2019 period. The recipient of the next largest grant was the Dundee Repertory Theatre, which received nearly £2m.
While some may gripe at a single event – focused on a single location – receiving such a large portion of government largesse, the benefits are tangible. A frequently cited study produced by Festivals Scotland and consultancy BOP claimed that Edinburgh's various festivals generated an economic impact of £280m in Edinburgh and £313m in Scotland in 2015.
It is perhaps worth remembering too, that the sums involved in funding the EIF, in absolute terms, are dwarfed by those granted by England's equivalent funding body, Arts Council England (ACE), to its biggest recipients. In 2018/19, the Royal Opera House received the single largest portfolio grant of £24m, or 5.9%, of the total £407.4m budget for the period.
Looking through the list of organisations to receive the most funding from ACE, one springs from the page. The Manchester International Festival, a biennial event focusing on new work by contemporary artists, is set to be the eighth largest recipient of ACE funding between 2018 and 2022, receiving £38.2m over the period – a dramatic increase on the £2.2m granted in the 2015 to 2018 period.
England seems to be in need of a 'platform for the flowering of the human spirit' and it could well be that, in the Northern Powerhouse of Manchester, we have already found the perfect venue.
David Graves is a journalist from Edinburgh, living in London. His reporting is mainly focused on finance in emerging markets