In November, Festival UK 22 – widely dubbed “The Festival of Brexit” – was back in the news, following the announcement it would be receiving £29 million in government funding. This was the subject of a fairly intense backlash, with critics arguing that the event is not only a waste of money, but an actively damaging exercise in nationalistic propaganda.
The cash had already been earmarked for the project, forming part of its overall £120 million budget, so the announcement wasn’t exactly a fresh revelation. However, considering the government recently refused to spend the £20 million it would have cost to provide children with free school meals over half term, as well as planning a pay freeze for public sector workers, it’s not all that surprising that lots of people were pissed off.
So: what actually is “the Festival of Brexit”? Can we expect a Farage-curated real ale tent, or Laurence Fox doing an acoustic set of Vera Lynn covers? Will this just be Danny Boyle’s Olympics opening ceremony, but for people who stand up for the Queen’s Speech? The Millennium Dome for people who think Titania McGrath is funny?
In fact, the festival’s organisers are keen to distance themselves from Brexit altogether – while recognising that “it's completely understandable how the ‘Festival of Brexit’ nickname came about”.
The 2022 event was announced by Theresa May in 2017, at a particularly rancorous period in the EU negotiations. “There’s no getting away from the fact that the government announced the project because they were looking at a very divided nation and looking at potential tools that could help bring it back together,” said Martin Green, the festival’s director. “Or, at the very least, projects that would help us become more understanding and sympathetic to alternative points of view.”
The festival promises “a series of show-stopping events to showcase the best of British art, culture and tech”. We can look forward to ten large-scale public commissions, showcasing five sectors of the UK’s economy: science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
As yet, the details of these ten commissions are yet to be disclosed. There is a fairly wide-ranging and prestigious range of institutions involved, though, including Tate, the Welsh National Opera, the New Vic Theatre and the BFI, along with a bunch of other lesser known creatives and organisations. Despite the festival’s inauspicious beginnings as a Brexit-related PR stunt, it could still end up proving its detractors wrong. “In the end, the work will speak for itself,” said Martin.
However, a number of people feel the festival is already so tainted by ideology that it shouldn’t go ahead. Migrants in Culture – a group of migrant workers fighting the British government's Hostile Environment policies within the culture sector – has launched an open letter opposing the festival, which has been signed by over 600 cultural workers. I spoke with Xavier de Sousa, a performance maker and member of the collective, to find out why they oppose it so strongly.
“The Brexit festival was born out of the fractional nationalism of Theresa May's premiership, to celebrate Brexit and a nationalist identity of the UK, something the Tories are still trying to enforce across all sectors,” said Xavier.
“It is an attempt at capitalising on the horrific Hostile Environment policies that May implemented, and establishing a clear divide between those deemed 'British enough' and everyone else who isn't. Public celebrations of national identity commissioned, branded and supervised by the state itself are the methods of authoritarian regimes across the world, and the British public and press quite rightly call it out when it happens elsewhere. So why should we allow this to happen here?”
When I asked Martin about Migrants in Culture’s campaign, he said, “I'd say, whatever project they’re talking about, it is not this one. And I think that is absolutely clear from its brief and the people involved – there isn't a single one of them, including myself, who would not be incredibly sympathetic to all of those issues. But the fact of the matter is that nobody involved is seeking to make a project that in any way is aligned with [the Hostile Environment].”
While the festival may have been forged in the heat of Brexit, Martin argues it is completely distinct ideologically: there is no top-down directive – the government isn’t telling them to promote a specific agenda or serve a particular cause.
“Nobody – no individual, no institution – is dictating the content of this project,” he said. “It is being completely dictated by the creatives involved. Even I, sitting here today, do not know the content of the festival. What I do know is that it involves 500 creatives from different walks of life. It’s immeasurably diverse.”
Even if the festival won’t be a deliberate Trojan horse of right-wing ideology, campaigners like Xavier would suggest that, however well-executed, it could still be perceived as laundering the reputation of a right-wing Conservative government. When I put this to Martin, he disagreed.
“If the argument is ‘being funded through public money makes you somehow complicit in the government’s actions’, then actually everybody who receives funding from the Arts Council or any other form of public money could be accused of doing that,” he said, pointing to the “City of Culture” project and the Olympic Games’ cultural programme as examples. “This is not the case. I believe that, with the right vision, and indeed the right ideology, publicly-funded creative programmes can speak incredibly richly about who we are and what binds us together.”
Xavier had his own rebuttal: “The Arts Council of England is an independent body administrating funding for the arts. It is not a government-actioned propaganda machine. The Festival of Brexit is exactly that.”
One could argue that any kind of investment in the arts should be encouraged, particularly when the cultural sector is in such crisis, having been largely failed by the government. The post-COVID “Cultural Recovery Fund” did help some institutions (billion pound property companies did pretty well out of it), but it also allowed large swathes of the sector – and those who work within it – to fall through the cracks. Mind you, one could also argue that there are better ways to spend the money than Festival 22.
Martin pointed out that over 100 freelancers are currently being paid for their work as a result of the festival, as evidence of its wider benefits to the cultural sector. But according to Migrants in Culture, you can’t fix a crisis of this nature by sticking a plaster over it.
“We need structural change in the sector,” said "Xavier, “as thousands upon thousands continue to lose jobs, including migrants and freelancers, who have no recourse to financial support.”
Migrants in Culture have drawn up a detailed alternative proposal, suggesting the budget be redistributed to the arts councils of all four nations within the UK, in order to establish a truly egalitarian Cultural Recovery Fund. This could be based on a “Universal Basic Income”-style model, ensuring that there would be far fewer funding gaps than in the current version. They believe this would provide a lifeline to freelancers and zero-hours culture workers, as well as helping the sector at large to recover.
“The continuous investment in a vacuous celebration of national identity,” said Xavier, “is nothing but a slap in the face.”