Pressure on Mills as backlash against Festival referendum ban grows


  By Lynn Malone
The row over Edinburgh International Festival’s decision to exclude the referendum and ban independence themed productions at next year’s festival has intensified today with a former MEP accusing its director of creating a “hornet’s nest”.

Campaigners are calling for the decision by director, Sir Jonathan Mills, to be revisited at the next board meeting with several members indicating they will raise the issue.

Mills’ announcement has led to a petition, started yesterday, attracting more than 450 signatures as the story has gained momentum in the mainstream press and today a motion was lodged in the Scottish Parliament describing the decision as “an act of censorship”.

The petition, started by Chris Law from Dundee and entitled, Sir Jonathan Mills, Director of Edinburgh Festival: Lift the BAN on any Scots Independence themed shows in next year’s Festival, has become a major issue on Facebook and Twitter.

The shock announcement from Mills was made this weekend and led to articles appearing in the Times, Guardian, Scotsman, Herald, Bella Caledonia and Newsnet Scotland.  

Speaking at the weekend, Mills revealed that next year’s festival will not commission any performances about the 2014 referendum debate.  Instead the central themes will include the First World War commemorations which begin one week before the festival itself starts and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games which will have just ended.

Online publication Bella Caledonia suggest the decision could be connected to money, saying:

“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.”  They imply the decision is to attract public funding to commemorate the war and avoid upsetting corporate sponsors.

Meanwhile Scotland’s leading playwright David Greig spoke to the Guardian, saying: “I am confused and worried that he appears to be withdrawing his festival from the debate and instead commemorating the first world war which seems to have come largely from the Conservatives”

Alan Taylor, writing in today’s Herald said it made his blood boil: “This (Mills’) statement makes one’s blood boil.  It is typical of the modern arts administrator, whose raison d’etre is to ensure that no-one is upset or exercised at any performance,” he said. 

While Mike Small in the Guardian said that Mills attempt to keep politics out is farcical and the first world war with 37 million dead is hardly non political.

Former MEP Hugh Kerr, who was in charge of cultural policy for the European Parliament from 1994 until 1999, said Mr Mills has created a “hornets’ nest”. 

Mr Kerr, who has been going to the Edinburgh Festival for 45 years said: “Sir Jonathan Mills may be already realising that he has created a hornets’ nest by choosing to ignore the independence referendum while commemorating the first world war at next year’s festival.  It is not too late for him to reconsider and if he doesn’t I call on Edinburgh Festival board members to consider the issue at its next meeting on October 23.

“It surely cannot be right that one Australian director, even if recently knighted, can decide to ignore the biggest decision in Scottish history for 300 years.  Why not include the National Theatre of Scotland’s productions on the debate in the festival?  Why not have a festival of ideas with a range of different cultural contributions on the debate.”

Mr Kerr says he would like to remind Mr Mills that part of the Festival’s mission statement is “…to showcase the best of Scottish culture to the world.”

“Why not commission some original Scottish work in music, dance and theatre on the theme – something that Mr Mills has consistently failed to do in his tenure to date.”

The decision has resulted in widespread anger and a motion has been lodged at the Scottish Parliament condemning the move as “an act of censorship”.

Commenting on her website, independent MSP Jean Urquhart says: “I lodged the following motion in Parliament today expressing my regret at the decision taken by the EIF to not commission any productions examining the independence referendum next year.

“It seems such a shame that the opportunity is being passed up by the EIF to use the event to show the role that the arts can play in the big decisions of our time, regardless of their angle or viewpoint.”

“That the Parliament notes with regret the reported decision taken by the director of the Edinburgh International Festival, Sir Jonathan Mills, to exclude any independence-themed productions from the 2014 event; believes that, regardless of voting intentions, the cultural sector has a massive role to play in the referendum; considers that political neutrality can be better obtained through an open, fair, and balanced programme that includes the views of all sides rather than through what it sees as enforced silence in what is universally recognised as one of the most important debates in Scotland’s history; believes this to be an act of censorship that will inadvertently politicise the festival and a wasted opportunity for Scotland’s arts community, and, in order to promote an open, healthy and vigorous debate, encourages the organisers of the Edinburgh International Festival to reconsider the decision.”