Why We Need an Alternative Festival of Politics!
Bella Caledonia, August 23rd 2010
Scotland has many wonderful qualities and attributes which make me proud to live and work here, and feel passionate and hopeful about this nation. This includes lots of people that I feel honoured to know who push for and lead change, aid others, and challenge the closed minded nature of much of institutional Scotland.
Yet at the same time there is an increasing problem with how we do politics, public engagement and public conversation. And that brings me to the Festival of Politics (1) – run in and by the Scottish Parliament – now in its seventh year.
Seven years is long enough to take a measured, considered judgement of what it is, how it goes about it, and what it misses.
A good place to start is with the positive. The Festival of Politics is a good idea, bringing politics and ideas and political conversation in the Parliament – during the recess and in the middle of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe.
Sadly it doesn’t live up to its potential. Year in year out the programme is frankly limp, obvious and unimaginative. The format now seems stuck on each year getting one major celebrity – Annie Lennox this year and last. One year they made headlines with Sean Connery coming and then not coming – due to public comments about his 1960s misogynist remarks about violence towards women.
The whole feel is one of officious, institutional Scotland – feeling a bit anxious and controlling – while at the same time engaging in a bit of self-congratulation – because we are in 2010 – speaking to ‘the public’, letting them listen and ask the occasional question in ‘their’ Parliament.
There is a dearth of imagination, risk-taking and answering the question, ‘what is the point?’ – trying to create something vivid, daring, unusual and with a bit of uniqueness in it. This year’s notional theme was ‘Changing Politics’, and while someone had gone down a list ticking young people, climate change and the issue of ‘engagement’, the whole ethos and design, point in the other direction: to a lack of thought, consideration or real understanding of the huge challenges politics faces.
Instead, the Festival of Politics has sadly become part of the problem: part of the crisis of mainstream politics and the mainstream in Scotland. Token, unimaginative sessions which never really address some of the core issues. The design and layout of the Festival programme and materials underline this. The programme is laid out with protest badges showing the various session titles, and it gives the impression of an out of touch swinger trying to ‘get down’ with the kids. The website is even worse, badly designed and not surprisingly with no place for ‘the public’ and discussion. There are Facebook (2) and Twitter (3) sites, but no imagination has gone into either.
In the last week I spoke to a number of people who were speaking and participating at Festival events. They were a good cross-section of people and amounted to an informal focus group. The overall response was not a good one about the Festival. The words that came back time and time again were: ‘uninspiring’, ‘institutional’, ‘cautious’, ‘conservative’, ‘going through the motions’ and ‘unoriginal’.
One speaker called the whole feel of the Festival ‘odd’, saying there was something unhealthy at the heart of the Festival which he couldn’t quite put his finger on. One chair of a session told me that they had been issued notes not just on how to procedurally chair a session, but also what their views should be on the subject. There is running through all this the anxious, controlling mentality – of participants, public and everything – which is the opposite of engagement.
Then there was my experience of coming to a session with Anthony Barnett of Open Democracy in the Festival last week. Running a bit late, two Festival personnel tried to stop us seeing the session. Anthony exaggerated for affect – saying to the last line of Festival defence – that he had ‘come up from London just for this event’.
Here he met the archetypal Scottish small-minded officious mentality. The Festival official commented that ‘the event had already started, and we could watch it in its entirety on the web later’. Anthony looked at the person with an element of incredulity, and then, magically, two people came out and we could take seats near the back where there were lots of empty seats. The official had claimed ‘the event was full’, and that letting us enter would be ‘disruptive’. After the event Anthony spoke to the official about their disingenuousness and of course they cited ‘health and safety’. This sort of attitude permeates the whole Festival.
The discussion, ‘The Politics of Devolution’ saw Mike Russell and Susan Deacon debate with Robin Wilson from Northern Ireland and John Osmond from Wales, chaired by Brian Taylor of BBC Scotland. Now all of these people have qualities: yet overall this is ‘official Scotland’ having its day out – in the most narrow, predictable sense – and talking to official Northern Ireland and Wales.
Mike Russell made quite a few good points about the Westminster mindset, yet the over-arching tone was all-wrong. And as we all know – and Labour are learning to their cost post-election – tone really matters and can define politics at points. What that tone was ‘official Scotland’ feeling good, smug and self-congratulatory, aided by Brian Taylor’s, ‘we all ken each other here’ chairing. In other words, it was an incestuous, inward-looking conversation of the political classes.
What is the problem and where does it exist? First, the overall tone of the Festival is the responsibility of the Presiding Officer – the other Alex Fergusson. The attitude of caution, control and lack of imagination permeates from the top down – but can also be seen in Parliament officials – who see this as the property of the institution. This is not a people’s festival in any sense. Second, there are pluses and minuses of using the Parliament. Clearly it reinforces not taking risks, aids fixed, closed mindsets, lack of imagination, while at the same time it is ‘our’ Parliament.
The solution? The Festival of Politics needs to radically change and adapt or stop. There are several ways to change. One would be to give the Festival an association with an external partner or group of people who had responsibility for some of the content. A model which works in art and culture – would be for the Festival of Politics – to appoint each year or biennially – an external curator or producer.
Second, events should take place both inside and outside the Parliament.
I write all of the above not with a sense of great enjoyment or self-satisfaction. I have taken seven years of slowing coming to this view of the Festival to put my views in print. I wish it were otherwise. The only thing allowing the Festival to be seen positively by some of the public is the general goodwill which exists towards ‘our’ Parliament, which it is frankly trading on, and exhausting! The Carnegie UK Trust and Carnegie Dunfermline Trust – with their long and illustrious support of public engagement – can’t be very happy with sponsorship of such an ineffective programme.
Finally, what Scotland needs as well as a real Festival of Politics is an Alternative Festival of Politics. Not just a fringe programme, but an alternative: one imaginatively programmed, embracing difficult subjects, using speakers beyond ‘the usual suspects’ and institutional life, and utilising participation, engagement and dialogue. And maybe even having a proper website in which the public can have a say!