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UK cultural life will be hit by post-Brexit immigration laws

4 min read

The Government must reform the visa system for EU artists or risk damaging  the cultural reputation and economic contribution of our festivals

Every August the biggest arts festival in the world takes place in Edinburgh. It’s just one of the city’s festivals, there are 11 of them and they all share something. They’re international in nature, they’re global in reputation, they’re massive, and they’re under threat.

These events depend on an open and welcoming attitude. They need international artists to come and take part, and they need the international visitors who make up a big chunk of the audiences. Millions of tickets are sold, Edinburgh’s population swells, the streets are filled with accents and languages from far beyond our city.

It’s a massive advert for Edinburgh and, in reflected glory, for Scotland and for the UK. It enhances our international reputation – it’s soft diplomatic power of an extraordinary kind. It fills international hearts with the romance of one of the world’s best cities. It’s a League of Nations for the arts; a collaboration that spans nations and continents.

“The visa system seems to frustrate the interaction between the festivals and their international performers rather than smoothing the process”

Each summer, though, brings new cases where festival performers are being denied visas. The visa system seems, at times, to frustrate the interaction between the festivals and their international performers rather than smoothing the process.

I don’t have direct experience of other festivals in the same way as I do with Edinburgh – I served some time on Edinburgh Council before I was ever in the Commons – but I’ve heard a few things and I’m going to guess that they face the same problems.

For a festival organiser those considerations kick in early – they have to be factored into the planning of the events. Organisers have to consider how difficult it will be for their performers to get to the festival and how much time they’ll spend trying to sort visa problems, rather than concentrating on the rest of what’s involved in staging a festival.

It’s something for the performers to consider, too. How much time, effort and expense do they have to spare on getting a visa to travel to the festival before they think about the time they’ll have to spend preparing for their appearance? How much is that deterring them from agreeing to take part at all?

That has a knock-on effect as well, of course, because if Polly the poet hears how much difficulty Tom the trombonist had, then that is bound to colour her opinion and it will impact on her decision about whether to bother at all. Once that chain reaction starts, the reputational damage snowballs.

Erode the international reputation of the festivals, and of the other events that performers come for, and you erode the reputation of the cities that host them and the nations of which those cities are a part. That reputation is lost far more easily than it was gained.

There’s a bit of a fashion to deride the artistic reputation of a nation as being worthless. I disagree and I consider the historical and contemporary cultural contribution just as worthwhile to modern life as anything else.

I’m sure, also, that an arts economist could define the economic contribution of festivals and other events both in terms of immediate contribution to GDP and in helping to ensure that other products sell.

There’s a great deal of work to be done on reforming the visa system for performers, and the hosts here are prepared to put in the spadework – but time isn’t a luxury we have here.

I’m waiting to hear the UK Government’s proposals and I’m sure that the festival organisers are, as well. Let’s protect these precious assets.

Deidre Brock is SNP MP for Edinburgh North and Leith

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