When, at the 2018 Tory party conference, Theresa May announced a “nationwide festival in celebration of the creativity and innovation of the United Kingdom” to take place in 2022, it was immediately dubbed a “festival of Brexit” and written off by the UK’s overwhelmingly Europhile arts world. This week, as the first open call for creative teams has been announced, the hostility to the £120m event – which as yet lacks a name – has again intensified. What is the point of a festival whose very conception seems designed to antagonise half the population? Shouldn’t the money be used now, to try to help an arts world that is staggering under the appalling pressures inflicted by Covid-19? Why would any self-respecting artist agree to put their name to such a vainglorious event – one that was certainly conceived to showcase the supposed virtues of “Global Britain” and an increasingly ragged union?
It is a tempting impulse to obliterate the very thought of such a festival. But there are also good reasons not to. Martin Green is in charge: he is the man who oversaw Danny Boyle’s memorable, uplifting 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, and was the mastermind behind Hull’s successful year as the UK city of culture for 2016. He has a track record of converting ideas riven with difficult politics into events that transcend divisions of opinion to become meaningful and joyous. He appears determined to run the festival at face value, as an event showcasing the UK’s creativity, rather than one celebrating some hollow, bogus “independence” from the European Union.
The chair of the festival (which is being run as an independent company) is the experienced and tough-minded Vikki Heywood, a former executive director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and board member of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Ms Heywood was also the chair of the first world war commemoration 14-18 NOW, another event that encountered initial scepticism, before the quality of the artworks produced – including Jeremy Deller’s unforgettable Somme commemoration, We’re Here Because We’re Here – banished fears that memorialising the conflict might end up mawkish and jingoistic. Mr Green and Ms Heywood are figures who have shown that they can defend their integrity and independence from political interference. Admittedly, they may find that banishing Olympics-scepticism is child’s play compared with negotiating the divisive role that Brexit has played in the UK. But they are big enough figures to hold the line – or to walk away should circumstances demand.
On a pragmatic level, the money for the festival is ringfenced. It will not be diverted into Covid-19 rescue operations. Boris Johnson has confirmed that the event will go ahead. Since the funding has been set aside for commissioning artists, it may as well be harnessed – and if it is not harnessed by good creative teams, it will certainly be harnessed by someone. This is the festival that no one in the arts asked for, but it is what they are getting. It may as well be turned to good use.