A Scottish license to kill culture

Bureaucrats north of the border seem to be on a mission to bleed all the spontaneity out of Scotland's thriving cultural scene.

Tiffany Jenkins

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Topics Culture

In 1947, eight theatre groups turned up to perform at the newly formed Edinburgh International Festival, an annual event established to celebrate and enrich postwar European cultural life. The theatre groups had not been invited, and were not part of the official programme. So instead they created a spontaneous festival on the side. Growing year on year, with the theatre groups encouraging others to participate, this alternative to the Edinburgh International Festival eventually established itself, in 1959, as the Festival Fringe Society.

Today, Scotland is home to some of the top cultural events in the world. Many take place in Edinburgh during the August months, attracting high-profile authors, artists, comics and theatre companies from all over the globe. At the heart of this cultural firmament is the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, an event now funded and supported by government and local councils. Yet, in a nasty twist, those very same central and local authorities, currently enjoying the prestige of being associated with a world-renowned festival of culture, are seemingly intent on stifling the spontaneous, do-it-yourself impulse that originally gave birth to the Fringe.

It should be an obvious point that culture is not just a top-down initiative. Indeed, cultural credibility and artistic integrity require grassroots interest. And this is not just the case with the beginnings of the Fringe. In recent times, Glaswegian bands such as Franz Ferdinand began small and locally, as did artists which include the two Turner Prize winners, Richard Wright and Martin Boyce. In Edinburgh, both the jangly pop of the band Django Django and the novelist Irvine Welsh were part of small scenes that grew gradually. What began with a few local people went on to become music, art and literature appreciated by many.

We, the punters, don’t always want the big official shindig, or to pay a fortune to sit in a dark hall somewhere with hundreds of others. Some people just want to do a little performing between themselves, which will amount to nothing more than a good night out. This should be uncontroversial and obvious – but apparently not. For it would seem even the idea of a few folk getting together to read a book, or play music, could be outlawed – even in the festival capital – unless they have official permission and are willing to pay for it.

From 1 April 2012, it will become necessary to have a ‘Public Entertainment License’ to undertake any kind of public art in Scotland. Previously a licence was only required for events charging admission. Starting next month, even the smallest local events being run for free – say in a café or a bookshop – will require one, which must be applied for six weeks beforehand. This will include exhibitions in temporary places, gigs in record shops, free film screenings, music in pubs. You know, even really dodgy stuff – like poetry readings to 10 men and a dog.

Apart from the form-filling and curtailment of spontaneity – you cannot just ring around a few friends and suggest a performance at the weekend – this will cost money too. In the past, fees for a ‘public entertainment licence’ have ranged from £120 to £7,500, requiring several months’ notice to be given to the council and three weeks public notice. Nothing will happen without long-term planning. Small venues, like cafes, which support artists and performers by hosting free events, won’t be able to cover the costs. And they shouldn’t have to. Art doesn’t need a licence, and nor do we to enjoy it.

What we are seeing is the hyper-regulation of everyday life where anything we choose to do spontaneously and between ourselves is seen as dangerous or threatening. The authorities want to monitor, codify and regulate the most normal, everyday interactions and behaviour.

The SNP government has acknowledged that there are problems with the way these changes are being interpreted, but said that the idea behind them was to help local authorities to crack down on activities such as illegal raves and firework displays. It’s a bizarre problem to identify, years after the rave scene – which was never big in Scotland – calmed down and when most ravers are now tucked up in bed early with a cup of Horlicks.

Certainly the local councils have gotten carried away with themselves and their desire to apply red tape to every informal social occasion. Yes, there is a public-service role in making sure large events are safe, but insisting that forms are filled out to permit ordinary interactions between people is strange and unnecessary.

Thankfully, and unsurprisingly, there has been a glorious uproar from the grassroots arts world, which has firmly and loudly protested, challenging this development. But it should also be noted that the official festivals have been pretty silent – on the record – which is a bit safe and does them and us no favours. The protests have had some consequence, though not enough yet. So far Glasgow has scrapped the introduction of the license for free events. Dumfries and Galloway has limited it to events that include bungee jumping, circuses and sunbeds. Edinburgh is deferring the fee for six months (but not the form filling), and has launched a consultation, which I urge readers to respond to.

It’s a nod in the right direction, but the council will not convene on the issue again until 20 April 2012, where any changes to the report will have to undergo a 28-day consultation period. And technically any event held between 1 April and the end of the consultation period will legally require a licence. It’s not enough.

There is also the question of the rest of Scotland and the other remaining 32 local authorities. Most have still to repeal this provision. Even then, why did anyone think that collections of people performing for free need a licence at all? Indeed, even if participants pay a small fee, to cover the costs, say, why is this being regulated? Yes, very large firework displays and bungee jumping require certain health-and-safety checks, as do tanning salons. But ukulele players? To continue the protest and highlight just what a joke it is to make us apply for a licence to paint or sing between ourselves, on the 1 April, many will participate in ‘A Little April Foolery’, where multiple free events, without a licence, will be held – including music, dancing and poetry readings. It should be fun and it will certainly be free.

The Scottish government needs to ensure small events that are free or not-for-profit (some may charge to cover basic costs) can operate without regulation. Rather than ministers throwing their hands up in the air, and saying they didn’t realise the councils would interpret these changes in such a mean-spirited way, they should clarify and repeal parts of the legislation.

Even if this story has a happy ending, and I hope it does, it is a salutatory reminder of how important our everyday freedoms are. These freedoms are constantly under threat from authorities who ride the coat tails of successful creative work, but cannot trust people enough to let it flourish without official permission.

Tiffany Jenkins is a cultural sociologist and author of Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections: The Crisis of Cultural Authority, published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK)). Visit Tiffany’s website here.

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