Three weeks won't disperse our fog of complacency: Kenneth Roy in Edinburgh, or maybe Edgbaston

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EVERY Edinburgh Festival needs a row, but none has ever equalled the Caledonian stooshie of 1963 when Kenneth Tynan, accompanied by his young mistress, Kathleen, drove furtively to the annex of the George Hotel 'into which you could smuggle a girl, a feat impossible in the main building', and completed his preparations for the Scottish capital's most notorious event since the Union of the Parliaments 256 years earlier.

As a fitting climax to a six-day drama conference, Tynan arranged for a nude woman to be wheeled across the balcony of the McEwan Hall, just above the speaker's platform. The city's Calvinist Godfathers were so scandalised that the woman, nicknamed Lady Chatterley, was arrested by the police and accused of acting in a 'shameless and indecent manner'. How very Edinburgh.

Nude women, men too, are now routinely wheeled across Edinburgh balconies during the second half of August - it would be a strange Festival were they not - and we must look elsewhere for the annual row. I am afraid this year's is fairly pedestrian. The Scottish National Party's arts convener, Paul Scott, has issued a small press release criticising the lack of Scottishness in the programme. Edinburgh, he said, could just as well be Edgbaston.

I am unfamiliar with Edgbaston, but someone at the Edgbaston & Harborne Chronicle described it to me as a 'nice, leafy, well-heeled suburb with a cricket pitch'. Perhaps, then, Mr Scott has got this the wrong way round. The problem is not that Edinburgh is reminiscent of Edgbaston for three weeks, but that it has come to resemble it for the other 49. Simply substitute golf course for cricket pitch.

Long after the Union, Edinburgh remained an important European capital with a vigorous intellectual life. Throughout the 18th and for part of the 19th century, the golden era of the Scottish Enlightenment, the city took its ideas seriously. There is no unanimity of view about what went wrong later, but Dr Johnson probably reached the heart of the matter with his withering reply to John Ogilvie's observation that Scotland had a great many noble prospects. 'But, sir,' said Johnson, 'I believe the noblest prospect that a Scotsman ever sees is the road which leads him to England.'

This was prophetic. Most of the ideas men did subsequently flee south - they are still fleeing - leaving only lawyers and financiers. The distraction of the Festival is swiftly followed by a long, dark winter intermittently relieved by tea-room gossip of some new judicial or municipal impropriety. Yet this was once the city of Hume and Carlyle, an international centre of publishing, a place of high scholarship which was the envy of the civilised world. And now? It might as well be Edgbaston.

It is also, of course, handsome and agreeable. A few days ago I walked the Royal Mile in warm late-summer sunshine, past the law courts and the travelling circuses, to a delightful French restaurant populated by smiling, proper Edinburgh ladies, and nodded as the new editor of the Scotsman said how pleasant it was to work and bring up a young family in such a city rather than in the hell-holes of Canary Wharf and Islington. How true, but alas, how dull.

The new editor of the Scotsman hopes for a Blair victory and the Scottish parliament that he believes would follow, not because he wishes to see a Scottish parliament, though he does, but for pressing commercial reasons. A law-making body, even if it consisted largely of Labour refugees from the doomed Strathclyde Regional Council, would be good for his paper by creating a more vital mood in Edinburgh.

It is tempting to be convinced by this argument, but we have been here before. Until the historic funk of the 1979 devolution referendum, when the Scots, true to form, voted yes to a parliament but not in sufficient numbers to satisfy the Callaghan government's cynical arithmetic, the correspondence columns of the Scotsman were full of the liveliest debate about the country's future; even Neal Ascherson was sufficiently enthused to return home for a while. And then, overnight, Scotland closed down due to lack of public interest. The wee shop has opened only for the odd half-day ever since.

Tony Blair might win, though Canary Wharf and Islington seem to take his victory too much for granted. He might then make Andrew Jaspan of the Scotsman a happy fellow by instructing someone new and interesting - George Robertson, perhaps - to build a Scottish parliament forthwith if not sooner, as Jimmy Young would say. Among the few who remember 1979, however, there are doubts about Labour faith and resolve when the chips are down, which in high-cholesterol Scotland they invariably are.

Should Mr Blair need to be reminded of the urgency of the Scottish case, one or two premature deaths among the anonymous ranks of his North British backbenchers might be helpful. A by- election defeat at the hands of the Nats in some neglected Labour heartland would concentrate minds at what we must now learn to call John Smith House.

Yet even this seems a distant prospect. The most poisonous event of the Scottish year, though one oddly ignored by the metropolitan media, was the recent campaign in the lost leader's constituency, Monklands East, which was advertised as the John Smith memorial by-election but dissolved instead into an ugly squabble about those long-running Scottish side-shows, civic corruption and religious discrimination.

A stronger nationalist candidate in that deeply unhappy place might have won. A poor one nearly did win. But faced with a straight choice between a cliche-ridden apparatchik and the deep blue sea, Monklands East settled half- heartedly for the apparatchik. So we saw a classic Scottish result - a goalless draw lost on penalties - and Mr Blair would not have lost much sleep over it.

The new editor of the Scotsman is correct in his basic assumption that what must be tackled in Edinburgh is the claustrophobic boredom of Scottish society which comes down like some Auld Reekie fog of old, smothering ambition and purpose, humour and spirit, and drives the talented away for ever. But it will require more than the untested will of the former Fettes boy who leads the Labour Party to cure us of our national complacency, our fatal hesitancy. These characteristics may by now be bred in the bone.

Meanwhile, we have two more weeks of Edgbaston before close of play for another year. The people will be here soon for a jolly weekend, drinking themselves silly in the George Hotel where Ken and Kathleen made love all those festivals ago. But there is no need these days to smuggle your girl into the annex. Girls may be marched boldly through the front door of hotels, voluptuous nudes are no longer arrested for acting in a shameless and indecent manner, and the pubs stay open all night. It is freedom of a sort. The only sort we know, anyway.

Alan Watkins is on holiday.