On Brexit and the arts, Part II

I am continuing to see a lot of wailing and moaning about Brexit from the classical music and wider arts Establishments and thought it was worth a further word or two following my previous blogpost on Brexit and the arts, which seemed to go down well with a few people.

Barely a month seems to go by without another letter signed by the great and the good of the arts world railing against everything to do with Brexit and demanding that the government either cancel or dilute it so that the status quo is maintained. Moreover, we find major arts figures seemingly using every opportunity presented by their privileged public access to attack Brexit, implicitly or explicitly, as nasty, bigoted and nationalist.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I reject the idea that artists shouldn’t get involved in politics. The arts are part of the public world and therefore part of politics. To artificially separate them off from politics is itself a political act, an act of control which is against the spirit of art. However, on the other hand I think their stance doesn’t reflect well on artists and those who oversee them. It shows the opposite of a lively, spirited, independent arts scene. It shows one that is locked in to established networks of money and power and whose priorities have merged into the priorities of these networks.

This is understandable. After all, we all need to earn money to live, and hopefully to live well. But I don’t think the almost unanimous conformity we have seen from artists and impresarios necessarily makes for good art, let alone interesting political art. The views we hear from actors and conductors and painters are all more or less the same, as if on an echo loop. They don’t really have much of interest or originality to say, which isn’t necessarily a good thing if your business is being interesting and original. 

There is a more practical anti-Brexit case from the arts which deserves more attention though. For the art moguls and managers, as for many in business and technocratic occupations, this practical opposition to Brexit basically comes down to a defence of free movement. Free movement offers great flexibility to bring people in to work from anywhere, to travel freely and perform (or exhibit) anywhere in the EU without much if any trouble. The critic Norman Lebrecht has given the example of how the soprano Sabina Puértolas stepped in for a major part in the Royal Opera House's Rigoletto at the last minute, asking “could this possibly happen after Brexit?”

Opera singer Sabina Puértolas
This is a powerful case, no doubt, and it’s understandable that artists as well as arts organisations are worried about the future under a Brexit regime, especially a ‘hard Brexit’ where reciprocal arrangements are not made all in one go in a ‘deal’ with the EU.

But we rarely hear the other side of this argument expressed in public life, except from those who wish to attack it as (at best) ‘insular’, ‘inward-looking’ and ‘parochial’, in contrast to their ‘open and outward-looking’ stance.

Being open and looking outward is all very well, but you have to be somewhere to do that. If you are against looking inward at that place where you are, then you are basically justifying averting your eyes from the place where you are. You are justifying not caring for your surroundings and the people who surround you. To look inward at the nation would be to pay attention to it and perhaps look to address some of the issues that appear from paying attention.

For the classical music sector, looking inward might reveal its almost total withdrawal from the state education sector, falling concert attendances and its declining place in our public life. It might show up how it has been placed between a rock and a hard place – facing social and political demands to become more ‘inclusive’ at the same time when it is being shunted off into being more exclusive. Without training up a new generation of musicians (and therefore music fans) in schools and other places of learning, the future looks bleak in our country for the greatest music tradition the world has ever seen. Keeping on filling up the pot with people from outside can provide a short-term fix, but obscures the real issues that are bubbling under the surface and which those in charge of things prefer not to address while carrying on like before.

These issues are pretty much the same as those of other sectors in our society. We hear how the NHS relies on free movement, at the same time as the government has cut training for British nurses. British business sneers at British workers as lazy and unreliable, while continuing its fine tradition of not investing in training and new equipment, focusing instead on activities which require few skills and provide low wages with insecure employment. The juggernaut of English Premier League football has relied on a constant stream of foreign players, foreign managers and other staff while the grassroots of English football remains in a poor state, with poor facilities, few coaches and a Neanderthal playing style of kick-and-rush with minimal refereeing control.

I see Brexit as an instruction to our government to start paying attention, to start governing more, to start exerting more control over what happens in our country and start addressing its problems, which is what democratic governments should do. I especially see it as an instruction to reassert the relationship between citizens and government which free movement and the illegality of citizen preference within the EU so undermines. At the present time, in my view, our governments should be re-focusing their efforts on representing their citizens, the people that they are apparently answerable to in elections. They aren’t providing much of that representation if their actions (and inactions) promote a situation in which these citizens find themselves being repeatedly out-competed by those who do not share this relationship of supposed reciprocity.

A government which is happy to see you out-competed in your home country, not least in your ability to have a home in your home country, is not representing your interests. Our technocratic experts appeal to abstract economic rationales to claim the opposite, that generating wealth is a good in itself and provides compensation in the form of welfare and public services.  But this compensation is brought on by the reality of loss and defeat. Solidarity with our fellow citizens means according them respect, not compensation for our lack of respect.

Certainly, Brexit will not address this huge issue on its own, but it will give the opportunity to address it, and help to focus the minds of those who govern on . . . governing, rather than virtue signalling about how open and outward-looking they are.


  1. Brilliant. Particularly the last two paragraphs.

  2. The government subsidises the arts, especially the high arts and all UK governments of the last 25 years have been pro EU. Big business also sponsors the arts and big business certainly wants the free movement of labour EU membership brings. You could say the arts have been bought and are now part of a ‘state class’ - artists, performers, film makers, actors, broadcasters, sportsmen and women etc who all publicly express the aims of government like diversity, multiculturalism, tolerance and also ignore that which the state wishes to ignore. The middle classes who devour the arts like to behold a multiculturalism in the arts which they do not have in their own personal lives. They praise diversity while sticking to their own kind and fail to understand why anyone would think differently to them.

  3. This is the usual anti-foreign prejudice Leavers indulge in, isn't it?

  4. Yes and this appears to be the usual standard of online debate between remainers and leavers! I wonder if we can do better? Anti-foreign prejudice is not good but nor is abandoning whole swathes of people who come from here which is what we have seen under globalisation, and not just in Britain. That's what I take from the article. Surely it would make sense to eg train the number of doctors and nurses that we actually need. Out of this number some would naturally go and work abroad and some from abroad would naturally come and work here, but the basic idea would be to assess need and then train for it. This would be different from the present system where we don't train enough people and rely on doctors and nurses from abroad for the NHS to survive. We also rely on other, often much poorer countries to train our medical staff. This doesn't seem right. Is this idea of training enough medical staff prejudice? Or common sense? Is it possible to express an idea like this without accusations flying?

  5. Hello Ben, when I met you on the RVW site you were a supporter of the EU. I would like to know if you have changed your mind, please. The argument about holding our government to account is one of the strongest I have found for leaving. Thanks.

    1. Hello R, you're mistaken. I was never a supporter of the EU on the RVW site or anywhere else (though I do say that I would support *an* EU, just not *this* EU).

    2. Did I not read you on earlier blogs wanting to stay in? A lot of people seem to have altered their position in the light of further understanding of the nature of the EU and I visited today wondering if you had done so, and also I am interested in your take on yesterday's revelations about Soros, but perhaps you already knew what he was up to? Btw you can put my first name in, I can't see how to put it right!

    3. Hello R, it's up to you who you appear as. You will see a 'Reply as' selector below this where you do that. As I said, I haven't written anything expressing support for the EU. As for Soros - least surprising news I've heard. I'm only surprised we haven't heard more about the continuing campaign to Remain and who's funding it, since they are clearly not short of resources and organisation (given that they dominate the airwaves day after day - this doesn't come about by accident).

  6. Also, thanks for a well argued piece. I especially like the examination of the need to look inward. Please don't diss Neanderthals who were highly intelligent and creative ��


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