Brexit: A cultural call to arms

4 November 2016

In the first of a regular series of thought pieces on key topics within the industry, Jasper Parrott ponders the meaning of Brexit four months after the referendum.

Four months after the ill-starred referendum of 23 June, what do we really know of the future we face? We are told repeatedly “Brexit means Brexit”; that however misinformed, the votes of 17 million Leavers must be sovereign, and that the 16 million Remainers must now await the consequences of our late and unlamented Prime Minister's folly, as though somehow an examination has been failed, and at least three years must be endured in limbo before we learn to which class or club we will eventually be admitted. Indeed the High Court yesterday ruled that the government will be acting illegally if it bypasses parliament in triggering Article 50.  The government has said it will appeal the ruling, allowing the uncertainty to drag on yet further.

The much trumpeted announcement of new investments by Nissan make it clear that special deals will be made for some sectors of our economy. But what support can we expect for the cultural industries, which by now we know to be of such enormous importance to the UK economy and to our international trade and prestige? They were barely mentioned in the lamentably deficient referendum campaigns of both sides, and historically UK government ministers have always largely ignored not only the economic but also the social and spiritual values of music and the arts. Instead they focus always on the vote-catching sectors of sport and popular culture, thus bringing consequential impoverishment to the educational and cultural values, and investments in civil societies made by better-run countries such as those the Nordics and by Germany and Austria. 

Certainly the biggest problem we face is the collective historical amnesia of our governing classes, and through them of our voting population. Let us not forget the difference between a referendum and a general election. In the latter the democratic process of parliamentary opposition to the elected government means that bad policies can at least be scrutinised, revised and potentially modified. A referendum – as dictators and demagogues understand all too well – gives a spurious legitimacy to what in most cases is a badly communicated and poorly understood proposition, which cannot thereafter be reviewed and reconsidered. Brexit should not mean Brexit, but should be a proposition that must be debated, examined and evaluated over a period of time, thus allowing the best outcome to be achieved – one that not only serves 52% of those who voted, but a large majority of all citizens in our society. This is what our elected government should have done: how shamefully they have failed us.

Both before and after the referendum, there has been scant mention of the inescapable truth that the European project has been the greatest success story in modern history in bringing freedom and democracy to hundreds of millions of people previously subject to communist or fascist dictatorships, and that through this process even more hundreds of millions have enjoyed previously unheard of levels of prosperity, peace and social harmony. The EU’s principle of free movement has been the greatest engine for these achievements, and the young people in the 28 member states are the most significant long-term beneficiaries. These fundamental truths are ignored or denied by the Brexiteers who would exchange these solid achievements for vacuous and delusional hopes of free trading deals which cannot be evaluated or verified until long after we have lost what previously we enjoyed so securely.

Our politicians have also forgotten that the greatest objective of all was to make Europe free from the wars which have ravaged our continent throughout its history, and that if the European project breaks up we will surely experience again on our continent all of these horrors in the not too distant future. Let us remember the very recent barbarities of the Yugoslav wars. Can anyone who has studied the histories of the two world wars not fear for the future without the cohesion of the EU? Instead, the ever-louder voices of the demagogic extremists now active in so many different European countries will surely bring us to new disasters. And is it not obvious that Putin's policy is to threaten the bulwarks of collective security at this moment where Brexit and other disruptive political movements distract our leaders from coherent and effective responses?

On a much more practical level, we who work in music and the arts must not forget the pre-EU world where labour permits and quotas hampered so badly the free exchange of artists, performers and talent of all categories in our different European societies. I am old enough to remember how frustrating and limiting those rules and regulations used to be – and how diminishing to the growth and development of the great treasure trove of our cultural potential. In those days before freedom of movement was established, unions and other special interests did their upmost to restrict and limit the free exchange of artists and musicians. Once we are out of the EU do we really believe that we will continue to be able to enjoy the wonderful diversity of opportunity which the free market brings to all of our cultural practitioners? Do the Brexiteers not understand how catastrophic it will be if the costly and endlessly bureaucratic visa and permit procedures, which artists, musicians and actors have to endure before they can perform in the US or in China or in Russia, are applied even to a mild degree in Europe? And let us make no mistake: once these procedures are back in place every effort will be made by governments and by unions and by other interested parties to restrict and slow the free exchange of artistic activity, and we and the whole world will be the poorer as a result.

In the lead up to the referendum those of us engaged with culture, music and the arts were much too passive and quiescent, believing I suppose that the unimaginable could never happen. But now we are faced with the reality that the grand achievements of the last decades will be systematically eroded by uncaring and ignorant politicians submitting to pressure from special interests who care nothing for the values shared by all beneficiaries of civilised and cultural societies. In the end the difference between the Serbian nationalists of the 1990s and those extremists now increasingly rampant in so many different countries including the UK are only of degree not substance.

There is of course much that is wrong with the EU in it current form, but reform is possible and can and must be achieved. But once broken up, it can never be put together again.

We have a choice: to stand up and use our voices and our brains and our passions wherever we can be heard or remain seated and be partly responsible for all that will otherwise surely be lost.

Jasper Parrott
Executive Chairman, HarrisonParrott