Brexit and the arts: reflections on a BBC Radio 3 discussion

Listening to BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme the other day, I was struck by a discussion they had about Brexit and the arts – and thought it was worth breaking off from my book-writing to reflect on it a little.

The discussion illustrated once more the remarkable hold that ideas and myths associated with ‘the European project’ have taken over the great and the good in Britain. That includes the BBC of course.

As we have come to expect from the Beeb since it was allowed to drop its impressive impartiality during the referendum campaign, the discussion here was remarkably one-sided. All three guests, Cathy Graham of the British Council, composer Gerard McBurney and Emmanuel Hondre of the Philharmonie de Paris, were resolutely anti-Brexit. The only questioning of their consensus came from a short segment of an enjoyable rant from the artist Grayson Perry, railing against the complacency of the arts Establishment for peddling its comfortable ideas and preaching to the converted. 

However, the substance of what Brexit means was for the most part explored only on a plane of abstractions, and Perry's message was assimilated into how ‘we’ need to respond to what a horrible and nasty thing ‘they’ have done to us. Listeners heard from McBurney a fear of how ‘parochialism’ might take over, a wailing about how Leave voters “feel resentful at a world in which ideas flow from one culture to another”, with the strange implication that ideas and people might somehow no longer circulate between these Isles and the rest of the world after Britain leaves the EU.

It was all rather strange. Taking these ideas seriously, you might think that music and ideas and people hadn’t circulated between Britain and the rest of the world before we joined the EU in 1973; as if the arts in Britain were a wasteland before that point and have been some sort of beneficient paradise ever since. It also had me wondering how all these Russian violinists and Chinese viola players and American trumpeters managed to get jobs with British orchestras given that their countries are not in the EU.

But somehow such details didn’t seem to be the point, with the assertions just left hanging, remaining unexplained and unexplored and largely unquestioned by presenter Tom Service (who is generally excellent on this programme and others). It seems that all this was an established consensus (among an Establishment, you might say) – and with established consensus, assumptions are shared and become part of a generally accepted reality, however questionable they are.

Quite clearly, this is what has happened in the arts world. That world, like those of the business and economic elite, mainstream politicians and our major institutions (not least educational), is genuinely baffled by and afraid of the world outside itself. It sees the other half that voted a different way to it as genuinely ‘other’. Existentially, there appear to be two sides which are separate from each other: a new form of a very old class divide.

But that divide is not strictly middle class to working class – and from this Radio 3 discussion I think we could hear some intimations of the lines on which at least one side draws it. The invoking of ‘parochialism’ and ‘provincialism’ by McBurney in particular might be absurd if taken seriously, not least in such a multi-cultural country as Britain, but it points to a slightly different and more substantial political position. That is a political stance of not wanting to be tied down in any way to the land, territory and people of Britain, of not making one’s identity connections on those lines, of subsuming oneself into the much bigger, European entity. This means to a greater or lesser extent sacrificing affiliation to the smaller unit and forsaking the attachment to one’s geographical origins. It is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level, being part of Europe not as a separable part but as indistinguishable from the whole, casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, 'provincial' and ‘nativist’.

This mirrors the political integration of Europe of course: of the drive to sameness, of European citizenship rights trumping those of nation states, of the disintegration of nation states and nationalities within Europe.

Even by getting quite involved in the whole EU referendum thing I still gasp sometimes at the extraordinary hold this story and the myths associated with it have come to have. Indeed I am constantly surprised by how many people – especially those in elite positions in our society – do not just approve of these ideas but are wedded to them as a core part of their own personal identity, one which is utterly different to that of those they oversee from their exalted positions.

It is visceral and emotional and in some ways incoherent (which is the nature of attachment), but it is also indelibly attached to what it is not: the most important aspect of who I am is that I am not like them. As an identity relation, this doesn’t have to manifest itself as being better than them in an absolute sense, but it often does – and certainly does here. There is a potential challenge here for the arts as for politics and the other ‘top’ professions: to show they have something to offer to people they seem to have lost all existential contact with - and often hold in contempt as we have seen from the referendum and its aftermath. This is fundamentally problematic though, for a great many of them are deeply protective of and committed to their separateness and higher status, and of looking down on people.

Thinking of classical music as I do (which is why I was listening to the programme) I couldn’t help associating all this with the modernist music movement. Modernism – especially in its atonal form - often seeks to intellectualise music, to take it beyond tunefulness to a place where it can be judged as other intellectual works are: through the use of concepts, thoughts, brain-power – thereby putting it beyond the reach of those who like music more for its musical qualities and placing its adherents on a pedestal with intellectual, ideological backing to justify it.

To me, one piece of contemporary musical modernism generally sounds pretty much the same as another (generally, awful), whoever produced it and wherever whoever produced it came from. It seems to be part of the same general movement as the wish to disappear into Europe: a process of assimilating and integrating, of losing the connection between ourselves as distinctive beings and the place where we come from: the push of globalisation in other words.

To my mind at least, great works of art are more likely to come from rebelling against this drive than going along with it. In that light, Brexit might itself appear like an artistic statement: one of rebellion and reaction against the people who direct our culture, who tell us what to do and what we should like; an assertion of individuality and distinctiveness. Maybe our Establishments are right to feel threatened by it?


  1. With reference to your point about modernism, Pierre Boulez was famously contemptuous of Benjamin Britten for the fact that his music is so accessible and popular. While he was Conductor in Chief of the BBC Symphony Orchestra he did not play a single work by Britten or Michael Tippet.

    Over the past few months I've noticed a sort of undercurrent of what can only call "decolonialisation" on Radio 3, with intermittent tut-tutting about white male domination of European classical music, frequent references to race and gender and other things. The composer of the week this week is Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-George. Up to now I'd never heard of him. I'm sure he's a worthy, but completely unexceptional composer, and I surmise that he is Composer of the Week chiefly because he was Afro-American. Take a look at the Composer Help Page here:
    Are they perhaps overdoing it in trying to "redress the balance"? At this point I must hold my hands up and confess that I am, as you might have guessed, male, stale and pale and therefore a racist for pointing these things out.

    1. I believe identity politics like this is working out really well in the US.

  2. An excellent dissection, as ever, of the 'liberal' elite.

    One thing I have noted about these people is that they are wont to champion the form of multiculturalism which says you don't have to leave behind the practices and mores of Mirpur and Syhlet - in other words, arrivals from those places don't have to integrate - and yet they chide Britons for their desire to protect their own culture and to not be subject to, or have to pay for, the pathologies which have come from South Asia and the wider Muslim world: 'honour' killings, Shariah courts, Islamism, FGM, clan politics and endemic voter fraud.

    These cultural imports are the antithesis of the European project and values that they champion and yet they continue to either turn a blind eye or defend / excuse them. But one can't help feeling that this is not due to any sense of egalitarianism but to paternalism. And orientalism.

    They find these 'diverse' areas - in reality not very diverse at all - interesting and entertaining yet they never live in them. And they chide those Britons who have witnessed their neighbourhoods be transformed, unbidden and without warning, and who object.

    So, as you point out, this is less about clear principles and more about class superiority.

    I wonder where all this is heading.

  3. Very good post, especially the point about identity. I have quite a few friends who voted remain, I can still have reasonable, amicable conversations with about two thirds of them but the other third are beyond reasoning with. It is not that Brexit will impact on them personally, because it won't, it's the fact that I have aligned myself with the others. Curiously it reminds me of the furious reaction amongst sections of the middle and upper middle classes to Labour's victory in 45. There was never any real danger that they would be reduced to the ranks of the poor, their anger stemmed from the fact that the masses hadn't voted the way they had been told. You can catch a flavour of this in Evelyn Waugh's diaries and in the novels of Angela Thirkell. It is though the servants spoke back to you

  4. I work in the arts and was horrified at a national survey quoting 94% of those in arts industries voted to remain. Like academia it's terrible group think. Where are the dissenters, the rebels and the mischief-makers.

  5. Where are the dissenters, the rebels and the mischief-makers? Here I guess! Excellent article. Thank you.


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