Edinburgh fringe performers feel ‘jilted’ as Covid closes venues again – The Guardian

Audiences and performers from around the world will once again have no anarchic festival home in the Scottish capital to head for this August. The vast Edinburgh festival fringe – the largest annual concentration of live comedy, drama, cabaret, music and dance – is to be restricted to just a few events and an array of online offerings in 2021.

“I feel a little like a jilted lover: many of us do,” Guy Masterson – a fringe stalwart and producer and director of some of its most successful plays for more than two decades – told the Observer. “There has been so much dithering from the city council and the Scottish government and no real recognition of what the fringe means to the Edinburgh economy.”

Masterson, who has had a run of hits including his acclaimed 2003 revival of Reginald Rose’s Twelve Angry Men, in which he cast well-known comedians, was due to bring a major new show starring Marcus Brigstocke and others to the fringe.

“There seems to be no respect for the people who make the fringe happen each year. Instead there is disdain,” said Masterson. “I do understand why some residents may resent everyone flooding in each year, but it creates enormous income. For some reason there has been a focus from the authorities on supporting the international arts festival, and that’s fine, but you only have to look at the bottom line to see the difference compared to the fringe.”

Last year, all the city’s summer festivals were cancelled. This year, although the prestigious international festival will go ahead with a reduced programme chiefly in large open-air auditoriums, the official festival fringe, with its myriad of amateur and independent professional performers, has had to fend for itself in an environment where small pop-up venues are understandably considered a potential health hazard.

“It has been an awful for me as a producer. You work on your wits anyway, but now the whole marketplace has been removed,” said Masterson, who is instead staging Scaramouche Jones at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall. “2020 would have been my 27th year at Edinburgh and although the fringe may resurrect next year, will the artists and crew have survived, or just taken on other jobs and commitments?”

The Festival Fringe Society, which coordinates the thousands of events that surround the international, commissioned, festival, has been open for registration since early last month and will not reveal how many shows have yet signed up, despite a 25% cut in fees. Tickets will go on sale from 1 July, when the situation may have become clearer.

Some live performances, said Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the fringe society, would take place from 6 August. A “fringe player” has been created to allow remote audiences to watch productions.

“Our primary concern is this assumption we can all trade our way to recovery, when we haven’t been able to trade since August 2019 and the current 2-metre distancing means there is no financially viable way to deliver shows this year,” she said. “This is precisely the time to help this vital community of creatives get back on their feet.”

McCarthy added that fringe producers and venues were “in active conversations with Edinburgh council and the Scottish government, and are working relentlessly to realise the extent of what’s both safe and possible.”

Only two years ago there were 3,841 shows on the fringe at 323 venues, with 3,012,490 tickets sold to customers from 63 countries.

Mel Brown, who runs the Impressive publicity agency and the Funny Women comedy awards, has worked at the fringe every year since 1999. “Most promoters and agents are not sending their acts up as they simply would not get the worth out of it,” she said this weekend. “Performing in Edinburgh is very expensive, and with half-capacity venues and therefore half the ticket sales, and no real media to support it and no awards, there is simply no point.”

The absence of the fringe had “made a massive dent” in the comedy community, Brown said: “Newcomers who wanted to debut have had to wait – putting their live careers on hold, unable to even develop their material in clubs.”

While Salmond tanked, pro-unionist tactical voting made its mark in Scotland – The Guardian

With Friday’s constituency results turning the map canary yellow, it was never in doubt that the SNP had secured a comfortable victory and a historic fourth term at Holyrood. And while it remained on a knife-edge into the late afternoon whether Nicola Sturgeon’s nationalists could reach the 65 seats required for an outright Holyrood majority, senior party figures were eager to manage expectation, concentrating on the party’s sweep of constituencies and increased vote share. It was an extraordinary result by any standards after 14 years in power. Indeed, due to the proportional nature of the Holyrood voting system, a majority has been achieved only once since the Scottish parliament was established, in 2011 by the SNP under the leadership of former first minister Alex Salmond.

Much analysis during the campaign was given over to how pro-independence voters might respond to Salmond’s argument that hundreds of thousands of ballots cast for the SNP’s list candidates in 2016 were “the ultimate wasted vote” as they led to only a handful of MSPs being elected. A vote for Alba, the party he launched only six weeks ago, would help secure a “pro-independence super-majority” at Holyrood, Salmond said, and make it far harder for Boris Johnson to refuse a second referendum.

Last week, SNP candidates reported that, while voters were asking more questions about the two-part voting system this campaign, their growing awareness was not benefiting Alba, but the Scottish Greens instead. But as Salmond’s tactical pro-independence plan tanked, with Alba not expected to return any MSPs, there was significant evidence of pro-union voters acting strategically.

Anti-independence campaigners spent tens of thousands of pounds in the run-up to Thursday’s vote calling for tactical voting to prevent an SNP majority, while the Scottish Conservatives rammed home their core message of stopping a second referendum, especially by voting Conservative on the regional list.

Pro-unionist tactical voting had a significant effect in some key marginal constituencies, with Scottish Labour’s deputy leader Jackie Baillie increasing what had been the smallest majority in Scotland, thanks to Liberal Democrat supporters, but failed to secure significant Tory gains on the list, fuelling some internal criticism that Ross focused on stopping a referendum at the expense of a more positive case for the union emphasising the UK’s pandemic achievements like furlough and vaccine rollout.

Turnout also soared as a consequence, exceeding 70% in some constituencies, well above the national average of 55% in 2016, upturning fears that Covid might keep voters at home. SNP insiders had raised their own concerns that complacency about their party’s success – or conversely a “scunner factor”, as unionist attacks on their 14-year record in government cut through – might discourage their base on the day. However, this appears to have been balanced by the impact of Sturgeon’s increased popularity as a result of her pandemic leadership which boosted SNP support.

Travelling around the country, the esteem and trust “Nicola” is held in has been evident, with many saying they would support the SNP to continue her steady leadership despite ambivalence about another referendum.

Sturgeon’s own language around the timing of a second referendum – “when the crisis has passed” – is usefully vague, but her interpretation of what constitutes a mandate for one has always been clear. As it states in the SNP manifesto: “If the SNP is returned to government and there is a simple majority in the Scottish Parliament for [the referendum] bill.” By the latest projections, these conditions have clearly been met with a pro-independence majority of MSPs from the SNP and Scottish Greens. But as this became clear, Scottish Tories immediately set out their counter: that the number of individual votes cast for pro-union parties was greater than those for pro-independence parties.

Boris Johnson’s own formulation on Saturday – “a referendum in the current context is irresponsible and reckless” – likewise allows room for manoeuvre for the man said to be adamant in private that he will not be the prime minister who permits a referendum but is also conscious of not sounding entirely anti-democratic.

With the votes still being counted, Sturgeon herself told Johnson that he would have to go to court to stop her new government introducing legislation for another referendum. Such a fight – with the second-least-popular politician in Scotland – is one she will no doubt relish and use to consolidate support for independence.

Meanwhile, the least popular politician in Scotland, according to recent polling, Alex Salmond, who had styled himself as the man to keep the SNP honest about independence at Holyrood, may have done his former party a favour in drawing away those hardliners who would have agitated for immediate referendum negotiations.

During a fairly intemperate YouTube broadcast on Saturday afternoon, in which he hit out at “weirdos and cranks” in the media and accused Sturgeon of “losing her nerve” over a referendum, Salmond warned that Alba would be “much more vigorous post-election [and] free to criticise the lack of urgency and immediacy on independence”.

How many will be listening is another matter.

The Guardian view on Scottish politics: a battle with no winners – The Guardian, 24/03/21

Scottish politics is a small world. Inevitably so, in a nation of 5.5 million. The Scottish National party is also close-knit, once famous for presenting a unified front to outsiders. That is how it grew to become the dominant force, now in its 14th year in government. It also helps explain why the feud between Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond has been so bitter and all-consuming as a spectacle. In terms of SNP division, it was a volcanic eruption on what had previously been a largely featureless landscape.

The lava has stopped flowing, but the ground is scorched. The origin of the dispute is allegations of sexual harassment and assault made against Mr Salmond, which he denied. A court acquitted him on all charges last year. A parallel controversy ignited around the Scottish civil service’s handling of the allegations; its own botched inquiry (revealed in a different court case to have been “tainted by apparent bias”); and questions of what Ms Sturgeon had known and when, and what action she had or hadn’t taken.

Mr Salmond alleged a malicious plot. The first minister pleaded memory lapses. Whether she had knowingly breached the ministerial code became the crux question. Earlier this week, an independent inquiry decreed that she had not. A separate report by an investigating committee of MSPs was more critical, but the force of its conclusions was blunted by leaks and conspicuous partisanship. A vote of no confidence against Ms Sturgeon at Holyrood flopped.

Nicola Sturgeon faces pivotal week with Alex Salmond reports due – The Guardian, 19/03/21

Nicola Sturgeon is facing a critical week, with the expected publication of two crucial reports into her role in her government’s handling of sexual harassment allegations made against Alex Salmond.

In the balance is not only Sturgeon’s future as Scotland’s leader if she is found to have breached the ministerial code – a resignation matter – but the fate of her party in the forthcoming Holyrood elections and its capacity to push for a second independence referendum should it gain a majority.

The feud between Sturgeon and Salmond – her predecessor, former friend and mentor – reached another crisis point in recent days. Leaks from a special Holyrood committee revealed its inquiry had concluded, by a narrow majority along party lines, that Sturgeon misled it by giving an “inaccurate” account of her meetings with Salmond in 2018, albeit unknowingly.