15 January 2020

The so-called ‘Festival of Brexit’ is nothing of the sort

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“There is obviously a big narrative going on around healing and coming together”, Martin Green noted in his first public interviews as the director of Festival 2022, conceived of as a new ‘Festival of Britain’ for this generation.

Green hopes that “the great creativity and  ingenuity of the UK can help re-find that common ground” and so bring some “joy and happiness” to the nation.

Joy and happiness were not the universal spirit of the responses to his remark, with plenty of snark on Twitter about the “festival of Brexit” showing that not everybody is in a mood to immediately find that common ground.

The framing of the event as the ‘Festival of Brexit’ is one of the big hurdles that Green faces. That shorthand nickname, coined by media outlets, has stuck and is being eagerly seized upon by critics.

So there is a widespread perception – not just on social media, but also among media commentators and politicians – that the event has already become highly polarising; that the idea it could bridge divides is misguided and naïve, since the whole idea is already fuelling the polarisation between the post-referendum tribes of Leave and Remain.

Yet that perception is skewed and inaccurate. It isn’t how most people, across those political divides, see it at all. In fact, the concept of the Festival is broadly popular with the public.

British Future researched this question, in deliberative groups and nationwide polling, as part of a broader project about the role of arts and culture in crossing divides, looking at the lessons from the cultural programme for the First World War centenary.

The concept of the Festival is broadly popular – by a margin of about six to one, with the public approving of the idea by 62% to 10%. That support is fairly evenly spread among those who voted both Remain (62%) and Leave (67%), with only 8% of Leavers and 11% of Remainers disapproving of it. There was broad approval from respondents in both Scotland (by 57% to 18%) and especially in London, by 69% to 7%, reflecting that support around the UK may depend on the Festival’s presence outside the capital.

The research also explored what happened, by splitting the sample and telling half of the respondents that newspapers have referred to this as the ‘Festival of Brexit’: this did dampen support, albeit somewhat more mildly than might have been anticipated, reducing support overall to 58% in favour to 10% against. Support among Remain voters dropped to 56% with 13% against and Scottish support fell to 43% with 18% against.

The Festival of Britain remains a largely blank piece of paper. Just one of the 40 people we spoke to in focus groups in Folkestone and Sunderland, Glasgow and Leicester had heard anything about the idea.  The Sunderland group immediately identified the danger that it would be divisive locally if linked to Brexit. In principle, our public groups were supportive of a festival to bring the country together, while having questions about the costs and especially whether this would be located in London and the big cities, or take place around the UK. The local presence of the First World War centenary cultural programme was strongly felt to have been its great strength.

Speaking to artists and culture-makers in each of the four national capitals, scepticism about the motives of the Government in proposing the festival was trumped by a pragmatic interest in the possibility of resources to put on new work, and to engage local communities with it, as long as the funding did not co-opt artists into a political narrative while doing so.

The Festival could unlock public goodwill for something that can bring us together. Its reach and impact will depend especially on its local engagement. It needs to be culturally-led, not politically-framed; and to move away from framing of Brexit.

There was no mention at all of Brexit in the official DCMS announcement of the Government’s plans – which instead noted that it coincides with the Commonwealth Games, the centenary of the BBC and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. But “Festival of Brexit” was how the idea was first introduced to the world, in a Sunday Times news headline reporting an interview with the then Prime Minister Theresa May on the weekend of the 2018 Conservative party conference.  As Green has emphasised, looking beyond Brexit is a big reason why the Government has put over £100 million on the table for this cultural event.

It is easy to identify the challenges ahead.  A national festival does need buy-in across political and social tribes, and across the nations and regions of a fractious and somewhat fragile United Kingdom. An idea first announced in the Sunday newspapers during a party conference will have to work harder to build that consensus.  The Millennium Dome was both an artistic and a public failure, because it never escaped being a politically conceived and controlled project. Having promised to tell a ‘once in a thousand years’ story about this country to the world, it found little substantive or coherent to say. Nor, ultimately, were we, in Britain, ever really its audience. It was a conscious top-down act of ‘rebranding’ to project a new story to the world.

Today’s needs are very different and the Festival should learn the lessons of those mistakes.  Yet there is a much broader appetite for it to succeed than our snark-dominated public conversation about this so-called “Festival of Brexit” recognises.

If we have realised that we are more divided than we thought we were, there is also concern about a self-fulfilling prophecy of ever-increasing polarisation, where we tell ourselves that our divisions must define us.

That isn’t about leaving our divisions behind – disagreement about big issues is a part of living in a democracy that we should value – but our political views need not be the only lens through which we see our relationships with our friends, neighbours and fellow citizens. Technology brings new opportunities and freedoms for us as individuals, but also a worry that there are too few moments and things that bring us together, so there remains an appetite to use those we can find.

Could the 2022 Festival help us to reconnect? The jury is very much out – but there is an appetite of goodwill that it could unlock. Whether it does succeed depends on ensuring the invitation to everybody to come to the party feels like a real one – and how it shapes the cultural content that can inspire us to think not only about what divides us, but what we share, and want to do together too.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future