Festival Leprosy

Vile diseases and avaricious banks - AL Kennedy finds that Edinburgh's festival season isn't all lol

One of the many interesting chance elements which always enters into the Edinburgh Festival mix, is disease. Not to be too graphic, you spend your semi-waking days watching, or working in various warm, moist venues full of strangers who breathe, cough, giggle, guffaw, sigh, yawn and generally spread the usually very private and intimate contents of their lungs all over the shop, you utilise extremely well-used conveniences (with much less-used hand washing facilities) and handle microphones that have probably not been boiled in bleach since they were bought in the late 1970’s – you are eventually going to get Festival Flu, Festival Tummy, Festival Leprosy, or something else genuinely unpleasant. The fact that many venues smell like oldmantrousers, or deadnun is also unnerving. And a good deal of unhygienic hugging, patting and touching takes place. This year I’ve been enjoying a range of aches, snuffles, rasping strangulations and eye throbbings – as has pretty much everyone else I’ve been meeting from a distance with gloves and mask in place.

Given that I occupy a slightly peculiar cross-media position I have been bouncing between club comedy gigs, my show, the Westport Book Festival and the Edinburgh International Book Festival and deargodknowswhat else in a nether world of high-fat and previously-fingered free food and what I can only really describe as chatting. This can seem simply pleasant, if not puerile at one level, but it’s a joy to spend a month being reminded that British people and people in general are brighter, faster, more civilised and more pleasant to be around than any of our media or politicians might suggest. There are, of course, insistently insane and peculiar exceptions (and I have no idea what bowel of hell my audience came from on the 13th) but it is truly exhilarating to get down to telling stories and being told stories with no monkeying about, or muffling/critical/literary/buzz killing interventions.

This year there have already been some genuinely grand moments – the invention of lime tea as a refreshing alternative to lemon, seeing the Tiger Lillies do their twisted and wonderful stuff, the lady who took her socks off in my gig, the chap who was “good at being submissive” and the splendid couple who came all the way from Orkney to say hello. This year I have been proud to go on after a stripper – not necessarily a good thing, then again everyone is going to be pleased if I promise not to take off my clothes, so it all balances out – and have been given a lollipop and a balloon by two different kind gentlemen – not exactly the brand affection one might hope for in the heady world of notreallyshowbiz, but it has to be said that I do love a balloon.

Meanwhile, a pal of mine has managed to run up a £30 overdraft in the midst of the festival chaos. His bank is attempting to charge him £120 for the money he didn’t arrange for them to advance him in the first place… he should have gone to a loan shark, or just sold one of his legs for sandwich meat. We set aside a little time each day to meditate on the fact that greedy and utterly mindless banks have been entirely happy to bring our economy to the brink of meltdown by shifting fake money faster and faster round the globe and taking on impossible risks for the joy of short term blood-letting and with no thought for the implications of the word impossible – and no one in government is going to do anything other than bail them out. With our money. Until it’s too late. This does not improve our combined symptoms.

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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).