MP for Edinburgh North and Leith
The hostile environment policy
Edinburgh during the month of August usually means every space, from the Meadows to the smallest basement bar, is packed with visitors and performers; but in 2020 the city lay eerily quiet, as the effects of Covid-19 continued to take their toll.
What a joy it is then to see signs of the Edinburgh Festivals popping up again all over the city, as we prepare to host every kind of artist once more.
That’s not to say that events of this magnitude don’t have their problems, even before taking into account the requirements of the pandemic. Corporations know very well how much money there is to be made, and the impact of activity on residents trying to make their way through their daily lives cannot be underestimated.
However, after the difficult 18 months our businesses have had, some boost to Edinburgh is welcome.
For all the brilliant cultural offerings of our Edinburgh Festivals there are, sadly, seemingly inevitable barriers for those wishing to bring their talents to our world-renowned events.
Every year I hear multiple stories of festival guests being refused permission to enter the UK. Famously, children’s book illustrator Ehsan Abdollahi was refused a visa in 2017 until a hard-fought and extremely public campaign forced the UK Government to rethink their stance.
Four more writers had the same issue in 2019; perhaps we could have a special event at festival time for artists who specialise in hoop jumping.
Many performers who come to our festivals are at the peak of their craft and world-renowned in their field. They are invited to events all over the world and, despite what UK Government ministers believe, are not planning on making their lives extremely difficult by attempting to remain here illegally. Who could blame them if they decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to come at all when they receive much warmer welcomes elsewhere?
We’ve already seen the effects of the UK Government’s hostile environment policy on Edinburgh International Festival: between 2015 and 2019, the number of international performers attending dropped from one third to one quarter.
Thanks to Brexit, we’ve since lost freedom of movement, so European artists who made up 28% of performers in 2019 will now need to apply for visas.
Given the backlog of Settled Status applications the UK Visas team is currently handling I won’t hold my breath in the hope that this process will be smooth.
This isn’t a one-way street either. The UK Government refused the EU’s proposal of a ‘musician’s passport’ allowing touring artists easier transition between countries while on tour.
After a high-profile campaign attracted the support of Elton John and Ed Sheeran, the UK Government was forced into another U-turn after months of denial. Recent news reports suggest that visa-free touring for artists will be permitted in 19 of the 27 EU countries but, as always, I’ll wait to see the exact details of this deal. The UK Government continues to be single-minded in its bizarre determination to be an isolated nation.
On top of Brexit, the creative sector is expected to be hit twice as hard as the wider UK economy, with up to 400,000 job losses. Massive gaps in the UK Government’s Covid-19 support meant self-employed creatives (who make up 80% of the industry) often fell through the cracks and received little or no support.
Since the UK creative industries were worth £101.5bn in 2019, you might assume the Tories, who proclaim themselves pro-business, would be racing to help them recover.
After all, they were very generous with their cash when it came to government contracts for their mates. Instead, they’re attacking the creative sectors further by slashing arts education funding in England by 50%.
Barriers to easy travel and cuts to funding are result in the same goal: reduced access to creative jobs. The cynic in me might observe that cutting off assistance we know will benefit working class youngsters in particular is coming at a time when the UK will be crying out for low-paid workers as European sources have been curtailed.
Lack of diversity at the Edinburgh Festivals and in Scotland leaves us culturally and financially worse-off: our rich tradition of sharing stories with and learning from others from around the world, must be nurtured and protected.