A festival of Brexit wouldn't just annoy Remainers: Anthony Clavane

A festival of Brexit might appeal to some, but not others.
A festival of Brexit might appeal to some, but not others.
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Shiny happy people with glitter on their faces singing Jerusalem and waving massive Union flags about whilst enjoying a joyous celebration in the sun-kissed park.

This, no doubt, is how the prime minister envisages the “festival of Brexit” currently being planned by the government. He appears to think the £120m project, which he has inherited from Theresa May, will be a vote winner.

This live, staged, state-of-the-nation, celebratory set piece sort of thing seemed to go well for him at the 2012 Olympic Games. Even when he was left dangling on a zip wire for several minutes at an event.

However, if it came to a People’s Vote on whether to remain with this “major new festival to celebrate culture” or leave it to languish in the box marked “The Millennium Dome, Joanna Lumley’s Garden Bridge And Other Terrible Ideas That Predictably Ended Up A Disaster”, I am sure Boris Johnson would find himself, this time, on the losing side.

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This is not just because such a festival would alienate pro-Remain visitors at museums, arts centres and galleries. Although, as a museum sector spokesperson, quoted in The Guardian put it: “Half of the audiences would be completely hostile to Brexit.”

And it’s not because it would be hard to find many artists, writers and musicians who were positive about leaving the European Union – although countless surveys have revealed an overwhelming percentage of people involved in Britain’s creative industries voted to stay in the EU.

Its lack of electoral appeal, I think, is similarly nothing to do with the fact that the great British public are sceptical about such schemes ever getting off the ground. Although the binning of the government’s 50p coins to commemorate our once-again-delayed departure, the reports of the “Get ready for Brexit” campaign being pulled and the ditching of countless other expensive government projects – have not, exactly, inspired a great deal of confidence that the venture has legs.

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When the proposal was originally unveiled at the Conservatives’ annual party conference in Birmingham last September, May compared it to the 1951 Festival of Britain. At that point however, as a historian pointed out, we were “a nation united by war and hunger for relief from deep austerity…by contrast this is a nation more deeply divided than ever.”

But the main reason it would fall flat is that we are increasingly becoming a festival-sceptic nation.

When I think of festivals I don’t think of shiny happy people with glitter on their faces singing Jerusalem and waving massive Union flags about whilst enjoying a joyous celebration in the sun-kissed park. I think, instead, of disorientated, miserable people eating overpriced junk food in a giant, overcrowded, rain-sodden field watching a tiny dot on a stage as scary men in high-viz jackets patrol the perimeter.

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Maybe it’s just me. I’m not, you may have guessed, a festival kind of guy. When I think of the dreaded f-word my glass, or rather my flat beer in a very wobbly cup, is always half empty.

Festivals are not cool. They are not idyllic gatherings in the gardens of large country houses with bunting, balloons and beautiful, scenic views. They are not civilised barbecues in glorious weather with easy access to clean flushable toilets. They are not one-world, peace-and-love, Buddhist-inspired utopias.

They are tiring, expensive and stressful. They are thousands of unshowered people in pink wellies, knee-deep in mud, trying to find the chemical toilets whilst pretending to be happy.

May billed the Brexit festival a showcase for “the UK’s unique strengths in creativity and innovation”. It will, more likely, be a showcase for terrible food, corporate sponsorship and sweaty tents.

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran calls it “a complete waste of money at a time when funding cuts to our schools, hospitals and local services continue” and claims that “the Conservatives are trying to distract us with bread and circuses.”

I agree with her first point but I’m not sure the prospect of soggy fries, Portaloos and trying to work out which popular beat combo has just arrived on the Jacob Rees Mogg Stage to the strains of The Great Escape will act as a palliative to the nation’s grief.