Festival UK 2022 – or the ‘Festival of Brexit’ as it is often called – was an idea first floated around in 2018. Just recently, arts organisations who are agreeing to participate in the ceremonies are being offered large amounts of funding as an incentive. In total, £120 million of public funds is being diverted towards the event. The festival’s chief creative officer, Martin Green, has expressed his hopes that such an event can start to heal the political and social divisions that have deepened in the time since Brexit was announced. Such is his gleeful optimism, his steadfast faith in the unifying image of Brittania’s unfaltering greatness, that he fails to recognise that not only is the festival a waste of money, but it is also a bribe.
It is important to have some context. The £120 million is a drop in the water compared to the £1.57 billion put aside for the Cultural Recovery Fund. That being said, a number of grassroots organisations in the running to hold events for the festival are crying out for any form of support. The COVID-19 pandemic has left many arts organisations and venues on their knees, suffering financial hardship like they never have before. Rather than recognising the intrinsic value of the cultural sector, Boris Johnson’s government is only interested in culture insofar as it makes them look good and buys the loyalty of those who might otherwise oppose them. Just as shocking is how wholeheartedly the Scottish Government – who are strongly opposed to Brexit – have welcomed the opportunity with open arms.
A poll among members of the Creative Industries Federation (CIF) found that 96% voted Remain in the 2016 referendum. Arts Council England have made it very clear what a negative impact Brexit will have on the UK’s cultural sector. The creative industries are overwhelmingly against Brexit, a process that has stoked racial and cultural divisions in the United Kingdom and which when all is said and done promises to benefit only the privileged members of our society. Were these normal times, many arts organisations would have likely told the government to take their money elsewhere. But these are not normal times. With the arts sector on the ropes, they need financial support badly.
The consequences of such a celebration could be profound, and at worst violent. The Migrants in Culture Theatre Group are calling for the whole event to be cancelled. On their website, the group state that “we reject the use of culture as nationalistic branding. Cultural workers are compelled to act as ambassadors for UK soft power in order to access this funding,” making clear that they see the festival as nothing more than a self-serving pat on the back that needlessly nationalises the arts. Also recently, the comedian Josie Long pulled out of the festival after realising that it is a celebration of Brexit. This festival is not a unifying event. It will give divisive rhetoric already galvanised by Vote Leave a gateway into the UK’s cultural sector.
The Conservatives have a history of enforcing support amongst artists. Even the Cultural Recovery Fund comes with caveats. Organisations who receive any support from the funding pot need to publicly declare this and thank the UK Government on their website. With empty words, the paint over the fact that state support for the arts is callously low. It historically has been compared to other European countries, and it is only getting worse. Public funding for the arts per head of population has fallen by 35% since 2008. The arts should be given all the funding needed to stay independent, profitable and a powerhouse for the most talented artists in the world to make themselves known. The Conservatives tear these dreams apart, only prepared to fund arts organisations insofar as it buys their loyalty. The Festival of Brexit, celebrating one of the worst policy decisions in recent political history, is a lifeline that may cost some arts venues their integrity. Involvement in the Festival of Brexit will hang over them like a shadow for years afterwards.
Although the finger should not be pointed at them. Most venues are lucky if they run at a profit. It is the UK Government who should be shamed for not facilitating the conditions in which theatre, live events and art can not only thrive, but remain free of enforced political alignment. In refusing to do this, they are employing the cultural sector as a weapon in the fight to somehow make Brexit seem even remotely reasonable.
Words by James Hanton.
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