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Edinburgh festivals chiefs urge Boris Johnson to maintain British Council funding

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Photo: Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society. Photo: Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society
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The heads of Edinburgh’s major festivals have written to foreign secretary Boris Johnson protesting against the planned cuts to the British Council, warning they could cause “long-term damage” to UK culture.

Edinburgh International Festival director Fergus Linehan and Shona McCarthy, director of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, are among 16 figures to have signed an open letter to Johnson, calling on him to reconsider plans to wind up the British Council’s work in developed countries.

The British Council was set up to promote British culture and values around the world, but the £39 million it receives from the Foreign Office to fund cultural activity in countries not entitled to aid will be phased out over the next three years, and the money diverted to poorer countries.

The British Council funds most of the biennial showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe, which promotes emerging talent to international markets, as well as the majority of tours that result from it. It is unclear how this will be affected by the plans.

This decision was made before the EU referendum last year. However, the letter argues that “given the events of the past year, a rethink is urgently required on the part of the UK government”.

It claims the British Council was instrumental in the founding of the Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, and has enabled artists to connect with the world during the festivals’ 70-year history.

The letter asks for a reconsideration of the plans so that the British Council “can continue to play a key role across a wide range of countries, and sustain the momentum of cultural exchange and development at this critical time for the UK on the world stage as soon as possible”.

It continued: “In tandem with the growing difficulty of securing UK visas for artists from developing countries, a move to reduce the worldwide connectivity of UK arts and creative industries at this juncture would cause long-term damage.”

The letter’s signatories also include Pleasance director Anthony Alderson, Karen and Katy Koren – who run fringe venue the Gilded Balloon – and Underbelly directors Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam.

It is written by William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “We are committed to projecting UK influence around the world, including through the valuable work of the British Council. We are aware of the potential impact of providing the British Council with more overseas development assistance as part of its grant. We are currently working with the British Council to deliver the manifesto commitment of putting it on a secure footing, recognising the tight fiscal climate and the importance of delivering Brexit.”

Read the full letter here.

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