Have you heard about “The Festival of Brexit”?
To be fair, neither had we. At least not until the publication this morning in The House magazine of an investigative piece by Stuart McGurk which told the whole bizarre story. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the project has ended up a mess.
The government spent £120m on the project, which runs between March and November this year. Its official title is Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, though it was nicknamed “The Festival of Brexit” soon after Theresa May announced plans for it in 2018. Back then, she told the Tory conference that the festival would celebrate “the best of British creativity and innovation, culture and heritage”.
But Martin Green, the festival’s creative director, identified the tension at the heart of the project: how could a festival aimed, like most festivals, at uniting people in a spirit of togetherness simultaneously retain its associations with Brexit, arguably the most divisive issue the country has faced in recent history?
Green was clear from the start in 2018 that he wasn’t interested in putting on a “jingoistic jamboree”. Indeed, he was keen to avoid any sense of pro-Brexit bias in the events. (Green had previously worked on the deliberately apolitical 2012 Olympics opening ceremony.)
A number of Tories were unhappy about this. Brexiteer Craig Mackinlay, MP for South Thanet, called the festival a “great opportunity missed”. To add insult to injury, some of the groups involved in the festival decided they were keen to actually push a pro-European through their performances.
A range of artistic events have taken place so far under the Unboxed banner, a number of them strange and esoteric; there was the avant-garde theatre project Tour de Moon, an oil rig repurposed as an art installation, and local history on VR-headsets.
But, aside from the festival lacking a clear vision, a succession of historic world events have unravelled since the idea for the festival was first mooted – the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – which have meant that, quite frankly, the media, and public, have had more important things to focus on.
Hence, “The Festival of Brexit” has passed without most of the public even knowing the first thing about it.