There was a time when you had to go looking for politics at the Edinburgh Fringe. You had actively to seek out what these days we call political content, but which back then was referred to by the S-word: stuff. Political stuff. Stand-ups who told jokes about trade unions. Or Tony Blair. Or why the doctrine of Dialectical Materialism fails to explain the popularity of Celebrity Big Brother. That kind of thing.

Helpfully, someone even organised a Festival of Politics, for those who couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It’s still going and will celebrate its 20th edition next year. Someone else realised that books contain ideas, and ideas (bad ones if your surname is Gove or Johnson) are the bedrock of politics, so a book festival is also a good place to look for political chat. There’s a month yet before the Edinburgh International Book Festival unveils its full programme, but if the upcoming Borders Book Festival is anything to go by – it’s stuffed with politicians, political commentators and political memoirists – expect a similarly heavy dose of politics. Or p*****s, if you’re already sick of the sight of the word.

But here’s the thing. Today – or, more, specifically, this coming August – you won’t need to go seeking the political in a book festival or in the set of an avowedly political stand-up comedian because politics will be everywhere. In the ether (if you think of social media as something floating around you). In the flyer you’re handed by the kid with pink hair (because, you know, you have the right to be offended by anything these days). In what Person A thinks Person B might have implied when they described Person C (especially if B is JK Rowling). In anything and everything, really.

Things that were always political still are, of course (see trade unions etc.). But now we have things that perhaps weren’t overtly political before being dragged into the political dimension.

Word up, people – the culture wars are coming to town. There is every possibility this coming Edinburgh Fringe will be the most politically charged and divisive in decades.

If you weren’t too distracted by yesterday’s Coronation you may have noticed the early skirmishing is already underway. In the red corner (better still the purple, white and green corner) is Joanna Cherry KC, SNP MP for Edinburgh South West.

“It should not be possible for venues or their staff to no-platform #lesbians & feminists like me who believe that sex is an immutable biological fact,” she tweeted last weekend after a Fringe show she was due to take part in was cancelled. “Such discrimination is unlawful as well as unacceptable. This needs widely called out.”

So call it out she did.

The event, to be held at The Stand Comedy Club, was one of a series titled In Conversation With. Other guests set to feature include left-wing film director Ken Loach, Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, and one Jeremy Corbyn, who knows much about Dialectical Materialism but little (I suspect) about Celebrity Big Brother.

And the reason for the cancellation? Ms Cherry’s widely publicised views on transgender issues and in particular her criticism of Scotland’s proposed Gender Recognition Reform legislation.The Herald: SNP MP Joanna Cherry, whose Fringe event was cancelled causing her to complain about de-platformingSNP MP Joanna Cherry, whose Fringe event was cancelled causing her to complain about de-platforming (Image: free)

The day after her tweet, the club issued a statement. “Following extensive discussions with our staff it has become clear that a number of the Stand’s key operational staff, including venue management and box office personnel, are unwilling to work on this event. As we have previously stated, we will ensure that their views are respected … We will not compel our staff to work on this event and so have concluded that the event is unable to proceed.”

Ms Cherry fired back on BBC Radio Scotland’s Drivetime show. “I’m being cancelled and no-platformed because I’m a lesbian who holds gender-critical views that somebody’s sex is immutable,” she said. “I’ve made those views clear over a number of years. I have never said that trans people should not have equal rights.”

When even box office staff are turning activist and wielding the power to cancel, protest and de-platform, you know you’re in for a major rammy.


The phenomenon of Drag Queen Story Hours (DQSH) is another aspect of the gender identity culture wars which may flare up in August. These are events where drag queens read stories to children, the idea being to promote literacy and diversity. The movement was founded in San Francisco in 2015 by queer author (and mum) Michelle Tea. Unsurprisingly it soon found itself in the crosshairs of the American far right and of ultra-conservatives.

There have since been innumerable protests at DQSH events – US organisers noted a marked increase following the attack on the Capitol Building in January 2021 – and last month Tennessee Governor Bill Lee introduced a law banning them, punishable by nearly a year in jail and a fine of up to $2500 (£1985). A photograph later emerged from a high school yearbook showing him wearing drag, but that’s another story.

Come August, Edinburgh will host DQSH performances by acts such as Aida H Dee. In 2020 Aida was hit with homophobic comments and claims their act was “inappropriate for children” after an online event which was livestreamed on the Edinburgh Libraries Facebook page. Such protests are only going to increase in frequency.

There will be drag acts aplenty elsewhere in Edinburgh in August. Prime among them is veteran US quartet (dragtet?) The Kinsey Sicks. They recently debuted a new show in which they tackle the right-wing trolls and the anti-trans legislators head on. It’s called Drag Queen Storytime Gone Wild! And yes, it’s that show they’re bringing to the capital. “America's most potty-mouthed and politically outspoken drag a cappella quartet escaped the morality police in the US only to inflict their outrageous parodies on the UK!” runs the publicity blurb. “What can possibly go right?”

If that same morality police have a Scottish branch, expect to see them picketing outside the venue (Gilded Balloon at the Museum if you’re interested – or have a placard you want to wave in the face of audience members). Like they say, what can possibly go right?

Away from gender politics – or as far as we can get these days – there are myriad other outside issues with the potential to bring disputation to the streets and stages of Edinburgh. Everything from the threat of China to the extent to which Low Traffic Neighbourhoods are a leftie plot.

The war in Ukraine and strained relations with Russia form a particularly tricky backdrop to this year’s event. No matter that the closing concert of the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) stars Ukrainian soprano Olga Kulchynska – it also features Moscow-born Russian bass Alexander Vinogradov and will be sung partly in Russian. Should we protest about that? No. But somebody might. And will you criticise them for their actions if they do? Trickier question.

The Herald: Festival Director Nicola Benedetti launches the 2023 Edinburgh International Festival. Pic Mihaela BodlovicFestival Director Nicola Benedetti launches the 2023 Edinburgh International Festival. Pic Mihaela Bodlovic (Image: Mihaela Bodlovic)

Sportswashing, the practice of brandishing tarnished reputations through the hosting of sports events, is a phenomenon we’re familiar with (hello FIFA, hello Qatar). But what about artwashing? It’s a thing too.

As you read this, climate activists will be poring over festival programmes for details of sponsorship deals, looking for even a whiff of money from oil companies. Others whose cause is Tibet or Palestine will be looking for different things. They may find them, they may not. But last January the Sydney Festival faced a mass boycott from artists and audiences over a sponsorship deal with the Israeli Embassy. In September, the Sydney Festival chairperson David Kirk announced a moratorium on all funding from foreign governments and, pointedly, from their cultural agencies.

Others still will be on the hunt for evidence of Big Pharma. Witness the trouble caused to four high-profile London institutions – the National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, British Museum and Victoria & Albert Museum – because of their association with (i.e. acceptance of funding from) members of the Sackler family. The Sacklers’ former company, Purdue Pharma, has been vilified for its role in contributing to America’s opioid crisis. One by one, those galleries have dropped their links.

In her introduction to this year’s EIF programme, incoming Festival Director Nicola Benedetti namechecks Martin Luther King Jr and cites as guiding principles for her tenure his compassion, his commitment to a philosophy of non-violence and (as she puts it) his “uncompromising internationalism in the face of brutality, irrational hatred, and closed-minded certitude.” She also talks about wanting to “deepen our culture of listening”.

Listening is great, of course. But as loud verbal scuffles break out across an array of issues in August, there may be too many people shouting for anyone or anything to be heard.