Artists for Brexit: how it started and where we are going

Artists for Brexit: how it started and where we are going

The Big Brexit Party is this Sunday 8th July from 6pm at the Troubadour London and includes performances from Will Franken, Willie Drennan and Band, Meg Lee Chin, Lucy Harris, Michael Lightfoot, Chloe Westley, Tim Dawson, and DJ Rebop, and special guests Andrea Jenkyns and Gisela Stuart. Tickets are available here.

I got Artists for Brexit going at the beginning of this year after it became increasingly clear to me by the end of last year that the Brexit process was surely again much in need of some support from the grassroots; from the ordinary people who had voted for it, rather than only from pundits and politicians.

It was very clear to me too that people were getting worn down, and it also seemed obvious that there were a lot of people out there that were deliberately trying to wear down we ordinary Brexiteers, as well as the general population as a whole. I’ve long been convinced that this is the key tactic of appallingly named ‘Best for Britain’ and all the rest of those who are being bankrolled (and hence their opinions pre-determined and predictable) to try to stop Brexit: simply keep on and on with the negativity, and to just wear everyone down.

It was frustrating to see this happening among friends who had voted both ways. But it’s precisely what’s been done elsewhere in the EU when the vote on various treaties has not gone their way, and it’s been effective in many of those cases. However the EU had never experienced a loss anything like this before, and so those in power who were looking to lose out on our leaving the EU- even whilst the majority of the British population had so much to gain (not least the restitution of their democracy and independence) – were clearly intent on to turbo-charging their efforts this time around.

Meanwhile, even though I was just a bloke on minimum wage and working in a convenience shop at the start of this year, I desperately wanted to try and help do something useful in support of Brexit; in support of us reclaiming our democracy and independence as a nation. And although I lacked any obvious power, agency, or money, it was after all people like me – just normal working people, many on low incomes like myself and that therefore didn’t have much power or money – that were essential in helping to swing the vote to Brexit, despite all the threats.

So in January of this year I proposed a meeting to some artists and arts workers who supported Brexit, who I either knew from when I could still afford to live in London, or who I was connected to in a Facebook group to discuss what we could do to help. I thought that it was time that we at least tried to do something by the only means by which ordinary people in this country have been able to effect significant positive change: organising in such a way as to perform collective action.

So in the end about 20 of us ended up meeting in a Wetherspoons pub in Camden. So at the meeting, once we had all settled in and had a pint or two, I proposed the founding of a new association, Artists for Brexit, and everyone seemed to agree that it was a good idea. Unlike myself, some people that were at the meeting were known ‘somebodies,’ such as arts administrator Manick Govinda, artist Miriam Elia, composer Phil Pickett and former deputy mayor for education and culture to Boris Johnson, Munira Mirza. I think they all probably wondered who the hell I was, and yet the truth is that I’m just a normal person, or a nobody, if you like, who has had certain experiences in life that have led me to feel passionately about Brexit. And to be honest, I would rather stay a nobody, thanks.

Yet it also certainly gave me some satisfaction that a bloke who worked in a convenience shop in Devon, who had got into London on a Megabus as he couldn’t afford to take the train, and who had happily subsisted on cheese sandwiches the previous couple of days in order to keep costs down, had nevertheless managed to bring together a group like that. In fact Munira had actually been on Question Time a few days previous to the meeting, which everyone knew about but me I think, as I didn’t have either a television or a TV licence at home, and so I had not seen it and didn’t have a clue who she was until I Googled her the next day! But of course I didn’t know where on earth it would all lead to, if anywhere at all.

A few days after the meeting, when I was back in the small town I was living in in Devon, as I’d not heard from anyone, I decided that the least I could do would be to set up an Artists for Brexit Twitter account. Then, when I realised with much frustration that there were no photographs taken at the meeting, I thought I’d try and draw my memory of the event myself, so as to at least make a record of it. I then photographed my drawing on my phone to use as the banner of the account, and then I got out some ink and typing paper and splashed out a logo that I thought would do for the time being. I followed lots and lots of people on Twitter that I thought may conceivably be interested, and even though the vast majority didn’t follow back straight away, one or two people I really respected did engage, such as David Goodheart and Claire Fox. Also, Chloe Westley got in touch and asked if I was interested in poetry. I recall replying that not only was I interested, but that I thought that it was absolutely essential!

And then for the next few days I was busy working in the shop and thought nothing much more about it.

Yet about a week after launching the Twitter account after I was contacted by a journalist from The Times, and then myself and Manick Govinda – who was invaluable in helping to get Artists For Brexit going – were interviewed. We didn’t expect much to come of it, but then the next day we found a story on AFB filling up most of page three!

A very intense period followed as I struggled to hold down my day job, received masses of enquiries from artists and from the media, and also tried to fast track constituting and generally organising the association itself.

In fact I had given a month’s notice in at work just prior to starting AFB without much thought of what job I would get next, so I was soon simply spending my own savings, which I’d spent years to get together, to support myself whilst I worked almost non-stop on something that suddenly seemed to be far more important than painting pictures. I knew that had to pursue it as long as I could, in the hope that it could become something really useful in our society, as much as I desperately missed having enough time for painting in my spare time too.

But now, six months on from when it was started (and even though I’m now skint), AFB is an ever broadening network with the necessary internal structures in place to be able to make such events as the Big Brexit Party and The Civil Times exhibition happen, and however you feel about what we are doing, our association – which is still operated entirely by volunteers – is surely at the very least a great demonstration of the fundamental vigour of British democracy. I would hope that some people who are still agitating for a rerun of the referendum would acknowledge this about us at least, for unlike many on their side, we in AFB are not being paid to do what we are doing, and I’d also suggest to them that it would probably be impossible for any of us to make our voices heard at an EU level.

Most of all, I cherish that we are first and foremost an example of grassroots British politics in action, demonstrating to all that you don’t need money and power to have a voice and participate in British democracy. For simply by getting organised, we have had our voices heard in the media, utilised the internet to grow our movement, been represented at the Creative Arts Federation’s Brexit symposium and invited to a reception at Downing Street, to name just a small number of our accomplishments to date. And we have done all of this on a budget of… simply the money in our own pockets!

Yet my motivation since getting AFB going has become more than just simply a desire to try and enable artists to express their support for Brexit. The increasing incivility in our society is a growing worry for people from all political backgrounds. Having run our Twitter and Instagram accounts this past six months, it’s become very clear to me that there is an uncivil minority who do tend endlessly chunter on Twitter, even though they are actually only really a miniscule minority of the population.

So I ask you all to consider this; would it not be best if the vast majority of us who favour a civil society simply disregarded those who will not be civil now? I’d also suggest this: the only way forward for any of us – whether we favour Brexit or Remain – is by loving our enemies. For hatred shall never dissolve hatred; only loving kindness will ever destroy hatred.

Now that Brexit is happening, whether you voted for it or not, the only way forward is that we all just get on with it now, with civility and love towards all in our society, and then together we can shape an independent and fully democratic country of which we shall, I have no doubt, be increasingly proud of.

And surely it’s also time for us to come together and celebrate moving forward together too? Therefore I’d also like to invite you all – whichever way you voted – to the Big Brexit Party and the opening of The Civil Times exhibition at the Troubador in London this Sunday, although please don’t heckle if you voted Remain!