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James Doeser: Brexit is just the start of the war on culture

Vote to Leave won the EU referendum but will this precipitate the demolition of the arts? . Photo: Flickr: David Holt
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Back in 2010, the Ukip manifesto pledged to encourage a “return to proper dress” in theatres. It claimed that “smarter dress is part of Britishness”. That same year a close friend of mine was talking about the English Defence League, which had chosen to assemble in front of the Tate Gallery for a march to Parliament. My friend, a museum curator, remarked: “It’s obvious they hate Muslims and foreigners, but you know who they hate more? Us. They hate us.”

That angry voice of the dispossessed, elderly, white working class has never found a comfortable home in our parliamentary democracy. It never got a chance to stick it to the liberal metropolitan elite. (I’m counting a good number of you in that elite.) Last month, they found allies here and there to come out in huge numbers for Brexit.

There have been gallons of ink spilled on what this all means. Right now it’s hard to say what withdrawing from this or that treaty will do to our cultural exports, what workers’ rights in our precarious sector will stay, what bits of the Culture White Paper will remain on track. The secretary of state’s non-statement last week proved as much. Instead, I want to reflect upon what this means for our culture, and the arts sector as we know it.

The arts were pretty much united in their support for Remain: 96% of members of the Creative Industries Federation indicated they wanted to stay in the EU. The two debates I attended, one arranged by the CIF at the British Library and the other at the National Theatre, were pretty awful, but heavily in favour of Remain.

I began this campaign genuinely ambivalent: I thought the referendum was a choice between one imperfect system or another. But as I did my research and listened carefully I could not find any good reason to vote Leave. It astounds me that anyone with an arty bone in their body could do so. It was clear from both debates that the Leave advocates were either ignorant of the facts or prone to wild abuses of logic. It was quite something to hear Munira Mirza, the then (appointed) deputy mayor for education and culture of London, complain about the influence of unelected bureaucrats on our lives.

As a researcher, I’m interested in facts, in evidence, in insight. I modestly call myself an expert. The currency I trade in has dropped in value more precipitously than the pound. Michael Gove proclaimed that people in this country have “had enough” of people like me. I’ve long suspected he’s right. More personally, I am a Londoner. I work in the arts. I am an intellectual. I’ve an American partner and a heavily used passport. Brexit was a slap in the face for me and my type. An irony given that Gove himself sports the archetypal Backpfeifengesicht.

Those of us in the arts who are repelled by the ugly sentiments that this referendum has unleashed should be concerned for the future of our sector: not only the culture itself, but the fate of the mechanisms that sustain it. When Farage proudly proclaimed that Brexit was a victory for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people”, he didn’t mean you and me. He wasn’t speaking about the audiences at the Arcola, the Liverpool Everyman, the Nottingham Playhouse. He meant an angry, frightened Britain: tho se who want to hear more English in the streets and say goodbye to the halal option at Subway.

The tone and content of the successful Leave campaign, the result itself and countless vox pops since Friday, have all confirmed for me that this was a grand expression of a long-standing yet previously muted philistinism. A sleeping giant was awoken. It was the worst of Britain, and it came from a Britain I fled from 15 years ago.

I came to London as a teenager to escape what I perceived to be the philistinism and narrow horizons of the town I grew up in. It wasn’t the ghetto, it was just a bit shit. I left in pursuit of arts and culture, as much as I could find, and what I thought was the very best. It’s what countless friends and colleagues have done: escaping their own crappy Brexitvilles for big cities, self-expression, acceptance, and to participate in the weirdest and the most wonderful experiences that life has to offer. That world has caught up with us. There is no escape. Maybe there never was.

All public policy produces winners and losers. Cultural policy is no different. I love the art that it sustains, but (as it operates) public arts subsidy is regressive. Everybody pays and the well-off benefit most. The rhetoric is that art benefits everyone. Culture is good. Therefore public subsidy is good. But the numbers tell a different story. The Warwick Commission managed to identify a blessed 8% (those wealthiest, best educated and least ethnically diverse of us that make up nearly half of live music audiences and a third of theatregoers and gallery visitors). The Rebalancing Reports have shown how London still gets a lion’s share of the country’s cash. It ain’t fair, it ain’t right, and it’s been this way for decades. I fear the momentum behind the Brexit mob won’t accommodate an alternative, more equitable settlement. They’ve been promised one for ages. I believe instead they want to burn it all to the ground. Who can blame them?

The press and social media have been overflowing with reaction from friends and colleagues in the arts. Much of it despairing, wounded, angry and resentful. A significant proportion of people in the arts are demanding that we ask some serious questions of ourselves about the role we play (or don’t play) in the lives of people in the UK. There have been calls for a concerted re-engagement with a part of the country that has emphatically told us to get stuffed.

Some of the most interesting data on the difference between Leavers and Remainers comes from Lord Ashcroft’s polling. Stepping aside from divisions along lines of age, class, geography or political affiliation, there was a stark and alarming cultural divide: “By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.”

This is what a culture war looks like. Whether you like it or not, the arts are a battleground in this conflict. Get ready.

Plenty has already been said on the lack of voter competence on matters concerning the EU, and the ignorance and idiocy on display in the past few weeks. We’ve exposed the lies and the prejudice they feed. Despite it all, this country still voted to inflict serious self-harm.

I have a very bad feeling about all this. My fear is this: once they’re done with the foreigners and Muslims, once the experts have been dismissed, this tidal wave of stupid is coming for the arts. Turkeys have voted for Christmas and we are all the trimmings.

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