WHEN I was first appointed to the role of Director of the Edinburgh International Festival, one consideration on the distant horizon was the 70th anniversary festival, which would fall in 2017. If I'm honest, anniversaries can be something of a pest, important perhaps to the organisations in question, but largely irrelevant to the public, who simply want a good selection of interesting and engaging performances. In addition, the founding principals of the festival – the strengthening of the bonds between nations – seemed worthy but somewhat archaic.

While other European cities celebrate specific art forms (Cannes – film, Venice – visual art and Bayreuth – opera), Edinburgh’s ambitions have always been wider and more philosophical. The objective of the Edinburgh International Festival – first held in August, 1947 – was not to simply celebrate the arts but to offer an alternative view to the division and hatred that had torn Europe apart during the Second World War. In recent years those ideas have gained currency and the words of the Festival’s founders have rung around foyers and auditoria as a counter to the increasingly alarming daily news cycle.

It is no coincidence that the Festival’s first Director, Rudolph Bing, was an Austrian Jew who had fled Berlin and made his home in Britain. His decision to invite artists and ensembles from countries all across Europe, Germany included, was an act of extraordinary reconciliation that set the tone for the 70 years that have followed.

In his sermon at the opening service in 1947, the minister of St Giles said: “This Festival is a testimony to the harmony which is at the heart of creation. It witnesses to the survival power of beauty amid ugliness, of harmony amid discord, or truth amid insincerity, fake and lies.”

The economic benefits that Scotland enjoys from the Festival season are well documented but, in his introduction to the 1947 Festival, Edinburgh’s Lord Provost Sir John Falconer wrote: “May I assure you that this Festival is not a commercial undertaking in any way. It is an endeavour to provide a stimulus to the establishing of a new way of life centred round the arts.”

In 2017, during this, the 70th Edinburgh International Festival, those lofty ambitions have felt more urgent than ever. As the Lyceum Theatre performed a new version of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, portraying a town whose population has become brutalised by extremism, the brutality of Charlottesville was unfolding. As we celebrated the courage of the Festival founders, who in the immediate aftermath of the war, invited the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra to perform during that first festival, a group of musicians who now live in Vienna but were originally from Syria had their visas refused.

And as we recalled the words of Bruno Walter, the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra’s conductor who in 1947 spoke of the importance that “all the ties, which had been torn, should be re-united”, we in the UK continued our march towards Brexit.

If one subject has seemed ubiquitous throughout August, is it that of identity. This seems appropriate in a country that has been through two referendums, which have asked questions of what it means to be Scottish, British, European and a citizen of the world. As an Irishman, married to an Australian bringing up a family in Scotland, this feels very personal. For the first time, I am conscious of an inevitable process of characterisation of EU nationals. It is one thing to be allowed to remain in a place; it is another to feel welcome. I realise that this is a very privileged perspective but as I look around our office I wonder how much the process of registration and our “new status” is weighing on those in our team from countries such as Spain, Poland and Germany.

Practicalities aside, do they feel the bonds that tie them to our city loosening? I hope not but, as we’ve seen in so many shows this month, our idea of home can be fragile and ever-shifting. This has been particularly true of playwright Zinnie Harris’s unique contribution of three works to the Festival. In each, characters struggle with fear, anger and grief as the worlds they thought they knew begin to fracture and dissolve.

Beyond questions of citizenship and nationhood there have been stories that speak of gender, generational division and religion. For the most part these have been deeply personal – artists rarely give simple answers to complicated questions. Alan Ayckbourn’s The Divide imagined a world where a poisonous concoction of religious fervour and state control had created a dystopian nightmare. On the Fringe, Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby used the conceit of a stand-up show to deliver a devastatingly personal account of prejudice and abuse. As the tub-thumping rhetoric gets ever shriller, Edinburgh has responded, as it always does, by expressing the human dimension of these issues – by telling stories and sharing music.

This shouldn’t, however, be viewed as a “soft” response. There is certainly anxiety in much of the work but very little lecturing or playing to the gallery. More often we’ve seen honest attempts to understand the forces at work in today’s world and how people from all walks of life are trying to make sense of them amid their already difficult lives. In his address at the King’s Theatre last week, Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel said: “The only crowds I am not wary of are those in concert hall and theatres.” I suspect this was an appeal to those of us running organisations such as the International Festival to ensure that our performances encourage thought and consideration but avoid telling the audience what to think.

Although plays, readings, stand-up comedy, dance and concerts are front and centre, I believe Edinburgh in August is best understood as a gathering of people and a celebration of international accord rather than a collection of performances. Edinburgh in August is, after all, the best party in the world. When, in 2016, we emblazoned the city with banners proclaiming “Welcome, World”, we did not expect such a strong response. Perhaps the idea of “welcome” is particularly important to countries with a large diaspora who have made their lives in other countries and continents. Indeed the Irish and Scots not only share the word “Failte” but regard it with a particular reverence.

In his summary of the 1947 Festival, Picture Post writer Lionel Birch wrote: “At least for the duration of the Festival, the tetchiness and ungenerosity which have disfigured post-war Britain were wiped away. In their place was the fresh spirit – the Festival spirit, or the Christian spirit, or the divine spirit, or the human spirit, or whatever you like to call it. People treating all other people with consideration, and indeed (I have to say it) with love.”

I hope that as we celebrate the Festivals’ achievements we have also given voice to some of our shortcomings. In 1947 our country was also perceived to be in crisis and the solution to that crisis was seen to lie in alliances and networks, to reach outward and find areas of consensus to realise a new vision of the world or perhaps re-establish the links that existed before the war. We have to accept that many of our fellow citizens believe that our mechanisms and institutions of international co-operation have not served everyone equally. Although remarkable work is done by the entire Festival family there are still far too many who feel excluded from the Festival and the arts more broadly.

The original purpose of the Festival was to try to put aside the idea of “us” and “them” and focus on that which we share. The sight of the musicians of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra and those of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra playing in perfect harmony in the Usher Hall last week brought to mind how this could be achieved. However, the challenge in the coming years will be to look at how we can bridge a divide not just between nations, but within our own communities.

The idea that the arts are part of a liberal elite needs to be challenged – not on social media but with concrete actions. Cultural institutions that are international in their outlook need to reach into the communities they serve like never before. It is simply not enough to present visiting work for a cosmopolitan audience. Those of us working in festivals and international arts organisations need to focus our energies on the interconnectivity between our community and their counterparts in other countries.

As the curtain falls on the 70th anniversary Festival, our attention turns to the future and to 2018, appropriately, the Year of Young People in Scotland. Over 70 years, the Edinburgh International Festival has seen political and social upheaval and has come out the other side. However grave the circumstances we currently face, they are nothing compared to what Europe's citizens had been through in the run up to 1947. A spark of inspiration, a collective willingness to work together and a generosity of spirit have created a legacy that has served Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK for generations. It is now up to us to imagine a festival that inspires and unites in equal measure – a generous and inclusive flowering of the human spirit.

The Edinburgh International Festival ends tomorrow (Monday, August 28) www.eif.co.uk