If there’s one thing everyone in this country can still agree on, it’s that expecting us to agree on anything is doomed.
So when Theresa May unveiled her plans for a Festival of Brexit Britain, to be staged in 2022 in the vain hope of glueing a divided country back together again, she did so to near-universal derision. What the hell was Brexit culture, anyway? Spam fritters, Rule Britannia, and Nigel Farage leading a flotilla out from Dover to set fire to a few symbolic French fishing boats? Snarking about how impossibly lame Festival UK 2022 (as it’s officially known) was going to be – on a par with one of those rip-off British “winter wonderlands”, which turns out to consist of a drunk Santa and some angry elves brawling in a muddy car park – has been one of the few genuine joys of recent years. But now even that seems to have been taken away from us, with the horrible prospect that it might actually be ... not that bad?
I don’t mean Brexit, obviously. That remains every bit as awful as it was always going to be; only this week the governor of the Bank of England noted that a no-deal scenario would be more damaging for the economy than Covid-19, and even the deal currently hanging in the balance is only marginally less awful. (For the pedants at the back, the immediate hit from Covid will be far deeper but hopefully temporary, while the Office for Budget Responsibility puts the long-term negative impact of a no-deal Brexit over the next 15 years or so at about 6% of GDP. And there’s no vaccine for that on the horizon).
I’d rather chew my arm off than celebrate Brexit itself, but something more interesting is going on beneath the surface of a project that this week unlocked another £29m of government money and has quietly made a point of hiring freelancers during a horrendously bleak year for the arts. And if it works, there’s a useful lesson here for the left about telling a modern, upbeat, inclusive national story – something any aspirant prime minister must learn to do – without being either painfully jingoistic or embarrassingly naff.
It helps that the festival’s chief creative officer Martin Green is adamant that “this is not a festival of Brexit, it never has been”. Rather, he says, it’s about delivering “a bit of joy and hope and happiness” to a country that was sorely in need of it even before the pandemic struck. Green previously ran Hull’s City of Culture project, a brave, quirky attempt to breathe new life into a city desperately down on its luck and – well, I think we can all see the parallels with the new gig.
Nor do his plans, as I’d vaguely imagined, involve constructing some great glass palace in which to house sacred relics such as the towering pile of ring binders Michel Barnier brought to Brexit negotiations, while David Davis rocked up without so much as a dog-eared sheet of paper. Instead, the initial shortlist of creative teams published this month suggests something a bit like Hull’s efforts but on a much bigger scale; mixing up the arts, science, tech and culture into a wild melee of creative grassroots projects popping up all over the country, aimed at creating feelgood moments and unexpectedly illuminating collaborations.
When asked what he’s aiming for, Green used to cite the filmmaker Steve McQueen’s recent display at Tate Britain of primary school photographs from across London, an unexpectedly touching snapshot of a diverse city. Now his shortlisted hopefuls range from dance troupes and performance poets to an NHS project uncovering the reasons for poor health outcomes among deprived children in Bradford and a black activists’ collective from Staffordshire. One never knows, but I’d be frankly amazed if most had voted to leave.
If it all sounds vaguely reminiscent of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, which ended up somehow juggling thrilling hymns to the steel industry and to NHS nurses alongside Chelsea pensioners and the Spice Girls, that’s not a coincidence. Green was also head of ceremonies on that gig, and while this one lacks the budget and the big names, the idea that there are as many different ways of telling the British national story as there are individual Britons lives on. (If anything, since the arts and those working in them tend to skew liberal, it’s harder for artistic celebrations of Britishness not to end up following suit.) We’ll see how well all this survives contact with leavers in government, of course. But the culture secretary Oliver Dowden, a rare surviving remainer in the current regime, has wisely so far allowed the project to slip through political hands into the control of some rather more interesting characters.
Is it going to heal all the wounds of the past four years? Don’t be ridiculous; they are artists, not miracle workers. No festival could by itself reconcile impassioned remainers to this cataclysmic rupture, or uber-Brexiters to the fact that the deal won’t be what they wanted (it never, ever is), or a nation to the loss of jobs and prospects. Only politicians can do those things, and the politician equal to that task is not yet in Downing Street; perhaps not even on the Westminster horizon.
But the last few years have been tough enough as it is, without heaping scorn on the efforts of well-intentioned people to dig through the rubble and find some grounds for hope. My hunch is that as a nation we’re going to be rubbishing the festival right up until the day it opens, and will then surprise ourselves by grudgingly quite enjoying it. If only the same could be said for Brexit.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist