Those in the arts and creative industries should have nothing to fear from Brexit

Those in the arts and creative industries should have nothing to fear from Brexit

Wendy Earle is helping promote a series of upcoming of panel discussions on Democracy and the Arts in Europe in East London in March, May and June. Click here for more information and to book tickets.

Within the arts sector and creative industries, anxieties abound about the future of the arts post-Brexit. Such feelings are strong enough in some cases to fuel support for those still trying to find ways of blocking Brexit. The implications of this are serious.

Blocking – or substantially diluting – Brexit means effectively conducting a coup against the people of Britain. The majority of the country voted to leave the EU and the one thing that both sides were clear on was that leaving the EU meant leaving the single market. The public – 17.4 million against 16.1 million – resisted the claims of most of the media and mainstream politicians, many business experts, and vociferous celebrities, to vote to leave the EU and hence the single market.

We might want to ask why so many individuals in the arts and cultural sectors seem at odds with the wider population. The Creative Industries Federation reported, just before the referendum in May 2016, that 96% of arts professionals surveyed supported the Remain side. When the results were announced, the cries of despair seemed loudest from the cultural sector (though to be fair most public figures, representing the ‘metropolitan elites’, whether from politics, the media, arts, sciences or business, seemed most pained after the result was announced on 24th June).

It is perhaps more useful though to consider whether these worries about the future have any basis in reality. Taking some key anxieties:

The collapse of the British pound, and in its wake, of the economy: this is a broad concern, not just affecting artists. Artists and the creative and cultural industries may have a greater sense of insecurity because of the more precarious nature of their work, and perhaps this is a factor in their support for Remain. However, the reality is that the future of British economy is not dependent on the UK’s membership of the EU.

Ongoing, long-term insecurity among artists and creatives is rooted in the shape of the economy. And to the extent artists are dependent on public funding, the wider economic picture makes them potentially subject to funding cuts. As economics writer, Phil Mullan points out, British economic policy has, for decades suffered from ‘complacency, myopia, procrastination and the evasion of responsibility.’ But:

“Brexit offers Britain the opportunity to re-energise its economy. The act of leaving won’t solve any economic problems by itself because EU membership didn’t cause the problems. However, membership has been a frequent scapegoat for politicians failing to address the economic malaise. The referendum vote removes this buck-passing excuse. Moreover, the referendum’s demonstration of democracy in practice can be followed through in a national public debate over how to transform economic policy-making.”

No doubt the creative industries, along with the rest of the economy, face a number of specific challenges in breaking with the EU, but meeting these challenges could transform the creative economy for the better. Certainly, the creative industries are well positioned to benefit from the Government’s strategic economic focus on innovation.

The loss of EU funding: this is a funny one. So few arts organisations or individuals have actually received EU funding that one wonders at the loud protests at its potential loss. As Manick Govinda pointed out last summer in The Stage:

The second biggest argument against leaving the EU is that it funds many European cultural networks, and UK arts organisations benefit from this. This is true, but it needs to be put into perspective. In 2015 the UK government paid £13 billion into the EU budget, and EU spending on the UK was £4.5 billion. So the UK’s net contribution was estimated at about £8.5 billion. Imagine how much stronger our arts and cultural scene in the UK would be with just 1% of that sum?”

Although, according to the Creative Industries Federation, Britain is one of the main beneficiaries of EU funding, it is also one of the main contributors. Overall as a ‘richer’ country Britain gets back a lot less than it pays in. Roughly, the 2015 estimates are gross British payments of £13bn, getting back about £4.5bn so net budget contribution of about £8.5bn.

In reality, EU funding, overall, is a tiny proportion of a national economy. But, importantly, by paying the money to the EU, the UK loses direct control of how it’s spent – while the EU (or its proxy, Creative Europe) gets credit for the high profile projects it chooses, such as Cities of Culture (of which the benefits for most people, or for the arts, are transient at best). European funding is part of a convoluted and obscure system of hurdles for organisations in need of funding to overcome.

A recent Creative Industries Federation report celebrates EU funding in various ‘infrastructure projects’, but the examples it provides suggest that organisations which succeed in getting funding have to go through complex bureaucratic processes which shape projects to fit EU policy agendas rather than the needs of local communities! In theory, the same funding could just come direct from the UK budget instead (under some democratic control), rather than via its stopover and slimming down in the EU.

Some things are more important than funding. The willingness of the culture sector to hand over decision making to the EU, on however small a scale, indicates a real problem with how they view the arts – as a semi-detached imposition on local publics.

No more freedom of movement within Europe or for European artists: Controls on immigration are a matter of national policy. Even as members of the EU, the UK imposes different restrictions on visitors from outside the EU. People from outside the EU can enter most EU countries for a three month visit without a special visa, but can’t come to Britain, except under extremely restrictive conditions. Immigration policy should be subject to a national debate, not just left to bureaucrats, experts and politicians.

What are the implications of tighter or looser controls? Should some people from some countries have privileged immigration status? Should immigrants be allowed in only if they are able to make an active economic contribution to society? How can we help and enable immigrants to adapt to living in this country and integrate with local communities? How should we relate to the cultures they bring with them? How do we help refugees fleeing from extreme political repression and war?

The fact that the immigrant population in Britain has expanded rapidly over the past two decades makes these questions important ones for public discussion. Most British people are not hostile to immigration, but they are worried about the implications of large numbers of immigrants who neither contribute to the economy nor become assimilated. Brushing these questions and problems under the carpet of bureaucratic management processes will only make the problems worse.

The hostility to leaving the EU among some sections of the public seems to be rooted in a certain faith that EU membership symbolises a commitment to multiculturalism, diversity and cosmopolitanism; that without the EU, Europe will disintegrate into fractious fragments, where extreme nationalists will destroy everything that is good about a diverse and tolerant society. But, ironically, the insistence that EU is essentially good for us, and describing Brexit voters as ‘low information’ (i.e. ignorant) people, suggests its own intolerance. Given that so many people in Britain believe that the EU is a bureaucratic institution which operates outside the processes of democratic accountability, shouldn’t we at the very least open a discussion on what kind of Europe (and what kind of Britain) we want?

Although there is no doubt that Brexit presents challenges, it also presents opportunities, both to build the economy and to reach out to the wider world. Nothing about Brexit is pre-determined. In voting to Leave, the British public set a challenge to political, business and cultural leaders to take a critical look at how they are running our country and try a lot harder. Every one of us has a role to play in making sure the economy grows so our connections with the rest of the world, including Europe, get stronger. So perhaps it’s time to stop complaining and step up!

Photocredit: Phil Shirley