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Who will headline the Festival of Brexit? With a bit of 'hope and happiness', surely the widely-pilloried Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could bring a divided nation together

Play Morrissey on a loop, suggests Fiona Sturges. Credit: Karl Walter/Getty

Play Morrissey on a loop, suggests Fiona Sturges. Credit: Karl Walter/Getty

January 14, 2020   12 mins

At the end of last year, the Government confirmed it was going ahead with Theresa May’s much mocked plans for a £120m Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland — aka the Festival of Brexit — in 2022. Apparently, it will showcase the best of the UK’s talent in business, technology, arts and sport.

So far, more than £700,000 has been spent on the festival team’s staff costs, and there’s not even an agenda for the project. The festival’s boss, however, says the event will prove cynics wrong and bring the nation together with “a bit of joy and hope and happiness”. What exhibits could achieve that worthy aim? Our writers have a few suggestions…


Customs officials
Polly Mackenzie, Director of Demos

Our little islands have had customs officials for more than 1,000 years. Yes, we were pioneers in free trade, but we were pioneers in tariffs, taxes and tick-boxes long before. And now, thanks to Brexit, we are going to be hiring a new generation of customs officers — not least those needed to man a flotilla of boats in the Irish Sea to police our new internal trade border.

Customs officers are precisely the kind of people we should be celebrating in our Festival of Brexit, and not just because this vast make-work scheme could eradicate unemployment completely. Working at a customs post appears to be so catastrophically dull that it catalyses creative genius. An astonishing number of our greatest poets and writers worked in customs — more than enough to fill an exhibition hall: Robert Burns, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Congreve, Daniel Defoe, John Dryden, Thomas Paine, Adam Smith.

We will need to celebrate these people if we’re to have a hope of recruiting all the customs officers we need. We’ll call them national heroes, perhaps even name a new tariff after each one of them.

And let’s hope history will repeat itself. The bright young minds will rebel against the tedium of trade; I mean, can you imagine training your brain to differentiate between frozen and super-chilled garlic? Working up the energy to care about the percentage of non-domestic sugar permitted in an export under Rules of Origin restrictions?

In search of intellectual stimulation they will start to write. And thus, from the ranks of HM Revenue & Customs will emerge another explosion of literary talent and insight. Brexit Britain will be a nation of poets.


Ordinary people
Gareth Roberts, screenwriter

My exhibit for the Brexit Festival of Britain will be in honour of the British people that just get on with it without making an exhibition of themselves.

This was — well, within living memory — one of this country’s proudest characteristics, though of course if anybody actually said they were proud of it (or anything else) they were quickly frowned or mocked back into silence, with a healthy dose of “And who does he think he is?”

It sometimes feels today that everybody, everywhere, every day is more in the business of telling you what it is they’re going to do and why they’re going to do it, rather than actually doing it. Mission statements, company ‘values’, businesses and cultural ventures that come on like trailers — still to come, coming up, coming soon, watch out for … Brexit is the archetypal example. Endless talking, no doing. A DVD that’s all special features, but no film.

Almost everything now comes with a showboating personal angle and a story, more often than not of the sob genre. From TV quiz shows to silly songs, heralded as if they were the living end. It’s rare to pick up so much as a bloody yoghurt without reading the inspirational story behind it. It strikes me that a core British characteristic was not drawing attention to yourself, and turning in the best you can because that’s what you’re tacitly expected to do. If you don’t, be assured that someone will soon make you aware of it, in true British style.

What must ordinary people think of all this announcing and presenting? Let’s exhibit a harried parent readying their kids to be washed, dressed, packed and breakfasted before half past seven in the morning. They don’t have the urge or the time to proclaim, “I’m passionate about using my unique skill set to empower my children, and to optimise solutions according to this family’s values of equality and inclusivity. A lot done, a lot still to do.” No, they just do it, and nobody thanks them for it. Let’s thank them.


An igloo of Brexit 50p coins
Sam Leith, author of ‘Write to the Point: How to Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page’

The Festival is a perfect opportunity to take stock of all the benefits that our departure from the European Union will have brought us by then. And what better, and more sustainable, way to do this than to make use of all those Brexit 50ps that were minted to commemorate our freedom? A thousand were minted for March 31, and put on ice when it didn’t happen. An unspecified number were produced for October 31, when Brexit also didn’t happen. Rather than melt them down — as is now apparently threatened — we should use them in a historical display.

We should weld them together into an igloo-like structure, across which would be blazoned the slogan on each coin — “Peace, prosperity and friendship with all nations” — and into which visitors would be invited to stroll. Inside, a constantly updated digital graph would indicate the current price to collectors of one of these commemorative coins; alongside the value of an ordinary 50p coin tabulated against the currencies of all those other nations with whom we are friends, tracked right back to the date of our final departure from the Union.

At a glance, you’ll be able to see how many dollars or Euros your 50p will buy you at that moment, and how it has soared from the dog-days of our vassalage. Around this chamber, played on a loop, will be the ringing patriotic words of Harold Wilson’s “the pound in your pocket” speech — showing that Brexit will have represented not a break with the past, but a glorious continuation of Britain’s bulldog spirit.


Simon Evans, comedian and radio presenter

I thought long and hard about the ideal exhibit, but there’s only one real choice. Dogs.

Dogs are of course not merely the best of British, but the best of humanity. And mankind’s domestication of the wolf — and vice versa — is an achievement lost so far back in prehistory that it would be futile for the most chauvinistic of Brits to claim it as our own. We may have our suspicions, but only that.

But still, our relationship with dogs is singular, and characteristic, even to the point of puzzling other nations. The respect in which dogs are held, as well as the affection. No Brit can sleep happily if they can hear the barking of dogs, chained up outside all night on concrete — as common and commonly ignored in other nations as car alarms are in Chelsea.

This love transcends gender, age and class. But it is perhaps most keenly felt for working dogs. Surely the most British TV series ever made — can it possibly have even been broadcast overseas? — was One Man and His Dog. An entire show dedicated to sheep dog trials.

Other nations would perhaps nod at that and assume that certain guilty dogs were to be subjected to justice. But we got it. Nor was this a one off, a novelty. It ran for 25 series. At its peak, presented by Phil Drabble, it attracted audiences of more than eight million viewers. My favourite moment came when Drabble asked a shepherd how he communicated so effectively with his border collie when the howling gale surely defeated his shouts and whistles. “Well,” mused the grizzled old fella, “I suppose I just thinks him across.” Drabble simply nodded. He knew.

I could point out that the nation’s love for the glorious variety of breeds suggests that we don’t really have the problem with diversity that those who would denounce Brexit would have you believe. But really, that reads like a rather snippy and defensive point, and this is after all a celebration. And as every proper family in the country knows, it’s not a celebration without the dogs.


Memorial to the Unknown Remainer
Simon Heffer, writer and historian

A post-Brexit Festival of Britain should emulate the 1951 event — by showcasing British exceptionalism. We are punch drunk from assertions that decline, poverty and misery are the inevitable handmaidens of leaving the European Union. A tonic reminding us of how successful and inventive Britons are is just what is required. After all, the Briton who invented the medium that has recently revolutionised the world — the World Wide Web — is still very much alive, and the rest of us are not dead yet.

So let’s have a display of the fine things we produce and that the world beyond Europe wants, from Rolls-Royces to gin to Tiptree jam. Let’s celebrate our great universities, which are the best in Europe and not only produce the thinkers, entrepreneurs and inventors of the future, but attract students from all over the world. And we can’t demonstrate British exceptionalism without some representation of our financial services industry, which makes, and will continue to make, most of our money — perhaps a barrow-boy boozing champagne.

Despite the current little local difficulties in her family, the Queen remains the ultimate symbol of our exceptionalism: nearly 68 years on the throne, in her 94th year and still doing a full-time job with no thought of ‘stepping back’. She, her family and all that goes with them also earn a fortune for the country through the huge amounts of tourism they help engender.

But the Brexit Festival must also seek to heal the wounds of the past four years. So somewhere in the show there needs to be the Memorial to the Unknown Remainer, if only to remind us of the perils of trying to ignore that other fine British tradition largely unknown in Brussels, democracy. And it should bear a strong resemblance to Jo Swinson.


Morrissey on a loop
Fiona Sturges, writer and columnist

As surely as night follows day, where there is a celebration of all things British, there will be terrible pop music. Remember Brian May swathed in dry ice on the roof of Buckingham Palace during the Queen’s Golden Jubilee shindig? Or Russell Brand honking his way through “I Am the Walrus” in 2012 at the Olympic Closing Ceremony? A Festival of Brexit featuring flatulently self-admiring performers long past their prime is precisely what the country needs — no, deserves! — in 2022, and there could no better headliner than that bastion of isolationism and self-loathing, Morrissey.

Along with a heartfelt cover of “The White Cliffs of Dover”, there will be aptly-titled classics from The Smiths’ canon including “Barbarism Begins at Home”, “Nowhere Fast” and “I Know It’s Over.” Backing vocals will be provided by Ringo Starr and The Who’s Roger Daltrey.  As is customary for outdoor musical events, the sound will be dreadful, the queues for the bar will stretch over the horizon and the toilets will be flooded by teatime.

It will be glorious paean to the Blitz spirit and a fitting tribute to our freshly liberated isle.


Driverless buses
Peter Franklin, associate editor of UnHerd

First of all, think 1851 not 1951 — the Great Exhibition, not the Festival of Britain. Spend and build accordingly, except don’t do it in London. Pick somewhere up North. York, for instance — the tourists will love it.

Before deciding what to put inside the new Crystal Palace we need to work out how to get visitors to and around the exhibition. If we want to provide a vision of the future, without waiting 10 or 20 years to build a tram network or something like that, then there’s an obvious candidate: driverless buses.

For reasons I explain here, this is the technology with the greatest potential to revolutionise public transport. And, yes, such vehicles do actually exist — in fact they’re already being trialled in the UK. An event with millions of visitors is an ideal opportunity to launch a grand effort to get us out of our cars and into faster, cleaner, safer, more accessible modes of transport — not least in the traffic-choked urban North.

If 2022 is too early to pull off a major demonstration project, then let’s wait a few more years — it’ll take that long to construct an exhibition space worth having anyway.

The 21st century Great Exhibition should be where Brexit Britain shows off a new direction to the world — and the show should start from the moment that visitors step off the train.


An exhibition of the Brexit Wars
Ed West, deputy editor of UnHerd

Brexit is a fitting occasion for a national exhibition; the first ever such event in history, the Exposition des produits de l’industrie française, was a product of another great break with the past — the French Revolution. And that all ended well.

Brexit hasn’t led to mass guillotining or civil war, but it has caused a sort of collective mental breakdown. To commemorate this, perhaps we could host a special Interactive Exhibition of the Brexit Wars (2016-20forever) like the Imperial War Museum had the Trench experience. Visitors walk into a cavernous dark room and on the wall are projected giant images of Femi, Mark Francois, Aaron Banks, Gina Miller, Stop Brexit Man, Jolyon Maugham etc. etc. — all those people we might cheerfully have gone through our lives having never heard of if the referendum hadn’t happened.

Visitors might gasp at a mosaic featuring millions of tweets by academics telling us that Britain is literally heading for fascism; by Brits on the continent posting sadface pics of themselves enjoying their last holiday as Europeans; or high-status actors and musicians reminding us what a small, rainy and insignificant island we are; and people — fully grown adults often in positions of authority — telling us how they’re never going to talk to a relative because they voted Leave.

They could also project a selection of those charts Carole Cadwalladr is fond of, showing the web of secret and shadowy interest groups behind the Brexit vote, and New York Times articles reporting how English people want their empire back because that’s all everyone talks about here!

This part of the festival will be paid for by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.


Continental food
Marie Le Conte, author of ‘Haven’t you Heard: Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works’

The mere idea of a Festival of Brexit, intended to showcase what the United Kingdom does best, will feel a bit silly to anyone who has had to endure the past few years of Brexit hell. It doesn’t really matter where you stand on the issue; if there is one thing we can all agree on, it is that Brexit has shown that we cannot agree on anything.

But let’s embrace it. If there is anything I hope to see there in 2022, it is a strong European presence. No, really.

I would like to see a stall selling fresh Polish pierogi, with onions and sour cream, and another one selling Portuguese pasteis de nata. In fact, a whole corner of it should be dedicated to produce from the European Union.

After all, we can only hope that by 2022, our own Brexit psychodrama will have subsided, and we should by then be attempting to mend our relationship with the continent. As Boris Johnson himself mentioned in his speech to conference last year — to awkward silence from the audience — Britain will not be turning its back on Europe entirely.

In fact, it intends to remain a friendly neighbour, and is there any better way to show friendship than by sharing food? The stalls could also be manned by European citizens still living here. They have made their life in this country and deserve to be a part of it.

In years to come, Britain will have to figure out where it wants to stand in the world, but whatever happens, it cannot stand alone; a bit of camembert won’t provide all the answers,  but it would be a start.


The ghosts of local newspapers
Jenny McCartney, journalist and novelist

One stall at the 2022 Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland should be a largely commemorative one, adorned with yellowing pictures and reports of smiling couples celebrating their 50th wedding anniversaries, schoolchildren excelling in various academic and sporting endeavours, local fetes, dance competitions, and outrage at the closure of public services. It would be in memory of all the local newspapers that have closed in the 21st century (according to Press Gazette, there was a net loss of 245 local UK newspapers in the years between 2005 and the end of 2018).

Many larger regional papers still exist, of course — and in recent years have yet again proved their worth with some brilliant reporting and investigations — but in general the local newspaper is in sharp decline, and as a result much of the connective tissue of our body politic has withered away. Smaller local newspapers were in the main a civilising, uniting influence which gradually made different elements of any community — including recent arrivals — knowable to one another around a shared sense of place.

Unlike memes and rumours on social media, they were also highly accountable to their readers. Their disappearance has often left the workings of local government unexamined, important local events unpublicised, and the successes of businesses, individuals and schoolchildren uncelebrated. Is it any coincidence that, as so many have closed down, we have seen the rapid rise of ‘fake news’ and the growing estrangement — particularly outside London — of ordinary people from decisions of government?

There have been some efforts to plug the information gap — in particular the BBC’s funding for 150 reporters under the Local Democracy Reporting Service — but it will be difficult to revive the newspapers we have lost in print form.

Digital local news is another matter, and perhaps festival-goers could be encouraged to donate a few pounds to help local websites expand and thrive. Or maybe a chunk of festival funding itself could flow there, to help forge closer, more confident communities in the future. The playwright Arthur Miller once defined a good newspaper as ‘a nation talking to itself’. With the creeping extinction of our local newspapers, our increasingly angry, divided country has been showing just what happens when the talking stops.


Save the money and go to the pub
Giles Fraser, associate editor of UnHerd and Rector at St Mary’s, Newington

The Festival of Brexit is a nauseating idea, a pathetic thumb nose to the 48%, and the very opposite of the sort of Festival of National Togetherness that is precisely what we need after nearly four years of bruising self-laceration.

After the English Civil war, the Church of England reinvented itself as the big tent, a space where people could come together in the pews and put their bloody ideological differences behind them. That’s why the Church of England isn’t big on doctrine — for it was doctrinal differences that split families and set communities at war with each other.

Turning pikestaffs into ploughshares, the Church of England surrendered its theological intensity and transformed itself into the well-meaning community organisers of modern ridicule. The limp handshake and homoeopathic levels of conviction were a price worth paying to bring the country back together. OK, many were still excluded from this Big Tent philosophy — but the basic point that divisive convictions can be traded in for peace was to set the tone for generations to come.

Burke put this especially well when he writes about maintaining ideological truth: “Perhaps truth may be far better [than peace]. But as we have scarcely ever the same certainly in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of virtues.”

The parish church was one place where this was supposed to take place. So too the local pub. So Boris — here is a very Boris thing to do: instead of wasting all that money on some ghastly monument to victor’s justice, why not give us all a few quid to take someone from the opposition down to the local boozer. We need to remind ourselves what we have in common. It’s time to make up.

Various Contributors bringing a range of different voices.


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