Yvette Huddleston: Why BAE withdrawing its sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North is reason to celebrate

Boff Whalley, founder of the Commonors Choir.
Boff Whalley, founder of the Commonors Choir.
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I’ve long been an admirer of the brilliant Commoners Choir, the Leeds-based singing group established by playwright, musician and composer Boff Whalley, whose sole purpose is to sing about things that matter.

Last year they undertook a tour of libraries in the North of England – many of which were under threat of closure – raising awareness of the value of libraries and championing literacy and the printed word. I went to see them perform at the magnificent Keighley Library, the first Carnegie library in England, and was blown away by the sound of 50 voices belting out unapologetically political songs about social justice and inequality.

The diverse subject matter included homelessness, the refugee crisis, the invention of the printing press and the Kinder Scout trespass. Frequently funny and often very moving, the recurring themes were humanity, solidarity , activism – and hope. What’s not to like, right?

But last week the choir went up even further in my estimation by taking a principled stance when faced with a tricky moral dilemma. In a press release issued last Thursday, they explained why they had pulled out of their latest venture. The project was an exciting one – they were to team up with two other choirs, one in Stockton and one in Manchester – to create three walking, singing trails through Newcastle city centre as part of this summer’s Great Exhibition of the North.

And then when the full programme was announced in Newcastle early last week, they discovered that one of the main partners for the Exhibition is BAE Systems, a British multinational defence, security, and aerospace company.

Commoners Choir decided that they would no longer take part in the planned project and Whalley wrote a blog explaining their decision in more detail. It’s not always easy to stick by your principles and to walk away from a big commission like that when you work in the – notoriously, scandalously underpaid – creative industries takes guts. Other artists involved in the Great Exhibition of the North also began to register their protest and an online petition Art not Arms sent out a clear message, stating there was no place in arts and culture “for those involved in the international arms trade”. Then late on Wednesday this week BAE Systems withdrew its sponsorship.

It just goes to show that sometimes standing up and speaking out really does make a difference. And in these dark, unprincipled times the action taken by Commoners Choir shines out like a beacon of hope.