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5 June 2019updated 02 Sep 2021 5:48pm

Britain’s creative sector is the envy of the world – and the Brexiteers are wrecking it

Manufacturing was allowed to fall away. Now the same could happen to the arts. 

By Melvyn Bragg

The impact on the arts of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union will be dire. From every corner, comes hard evidence that Brexit will do great damage, yet we are told that the referendum cannot be challenged. We are told that it was the will of the people – in my view, of crucially underinformed people. Even so, 48 per cent were against the withdrawal, a minority far greater than those minorities that have altered our society for the better over the centuries in the matter, for instance, of the slave trade, the trade unions, women’s suffrage and much else. These original minorities became the lasting will of the people and reflected the best of us; the majority was originally mistaken.

A referendum is not a sacred document. We do not do that here. For centuries, millions of people in this country have fought to establish our democracy. One fundamental tenet of it is that a few years after we have elected people we can kick them out if we do not like their programme. Who said that in this country a referendum should become a God-given, unassailable document? We are better than that. It was conceived as a cynical short-term fix and executed with embarrassing ineptitude. Its begetter, David Cameron, instead of staying on to fight the day for remain, failed to fight for his belief and just scuttled off. He should not be forgiven. But why should we follow his pusillanimous example?

The creative sector employs more than two million people in this country, many of them in niche highly-skilled jobs. It contributed £91.8bn to the UK economy in 2015-16 and showed an increase of twice that of the UK economy as a whole. Its growth has been uninterrupted since the end of World War II, but Brexit will reverse that growth.

Here are a few instances of our strengths. The three most successful film brands in the world come from the work of British novelists: JK Rowling, Ian Fleming and J.R.R. Tolkien. Under Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, we challenged and, at times, overtook the great American musical. We are the only nation that has a regular showing at the Oscars apart from the Americans, and we alone take on the mighty American pop industry. The arts have proved the best engine to dynamise failing cities, rebuild communities and re-energise schools. They blaze British talent around the planet and are a major asset for the new Britain.

What is it about the destructiveness of those set in authority over us, starting perhaps with Henry VIII and Cromwell, who destroyed an enviable system of monasteries that nourished industry and cultivated the arts and education, as well as providing the spiritual guidance thought to be needed at the time? Every now and then since, our rulers swing another wrecking ball. Only a few decades ago, the north British powerhouse of manufacturing was allowed to fall away and then encouraged to destruction by the Conservatives, when other post-war north European countries were so successfully rebuilding their manufacturing base. Why did not we? Now they seem intent on doing the same with two of our greatest new intellectual and cultural success stories, science and the arts, both of which are severely threatened by Brexit.

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We know the Brexiteers do not like experts, but here are some inescapable facts from an industry that is remarkably efficient and has gathered in outstanding talents from many new generations since 1945. Richard Corbett MEP has pointed out that only 2 per cent of people in the music world thought Brexit would be good for the industry. Today our musicians travel freely; connections are essential in the global creative world. Post Brexit there will be no guarantee of free movement across Europe. In 2016, our orchestras made 96 visits to 26 different EU countries, according to the Association of British Orchestras – impossible to imagine after Brexit.

The post-Brexit visa system will result in a situation that has been graphically described in a well-researched article by the composer Howard Goodall. His work takes him all over Europe at a day’s notice by means of a ticket from Heathrow. This will now take him weeks to organise, and that will deter many of those in this country from going to Europe by reason of expense. The reverse is also true. Musicians from the EU play a crucial role in the day-to-day make-up of UK orchestras and are often called on at a couple of weeks’ notice, which the new system will make impossible. Between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of musicians in some orchestras are from other countries in the EU. There are around 14,000 EU citizens in the UK music industry. Given the restrictions that will be put in place, the future of that proportion looks bleak, and import duties will have to be paid on every instrument. Imagine that, with the LSO going one way and the Berlin Philharmonic going another.

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This is not just about great orchestras and conductors. School jazz bands and youth orchestras will be subject to restrictions and expense. Young musicians from Britain will no longer be able to participate in EU-wide schemes such as the European Youth Orchestra, which is moving from the UK to Italy as a result of Brexit. That is a great shame for us and for them. Horace Trubridge of the Musicians’ Union has described the way that musicians hop regularly between Europe and Britain and said: “If every musician has to get a visa and carnet for every country they visit, it would make any work in Europe impossible to schedule … My members are already moving to Europe because they worry about their future work.”

We are not just talking about classical music. Peter Gabriel has expressed his alarm after a number of international artists were unable to perform at the Womad world music festival after visa issues. Gabriel, who founded Womad, said: “It is alarming that our UK festival would now have real problems bringing artists into this country … [many of whom] no longer want to come to the UK because of the difficulty, cost and delays with visas, along with the new fear that they will not be welcomed.”

This year marks the first time that artists declined invitations to perform at Womad.

This is echoed in Alan Bennett’s new play Allelujah! At the end of the play, a young Asian doctor decides against “joining us”. As he puts it: “Why, I ask myself, should I still want to join? What is there for me here? … There is nobody to touch you, but who wants to anymore? Open your arms before it’s too late.”

Open them to what another Northern artist, John Lennon, in his song “Imagine”, called “the brotherhood of man”, to which all artists instinctively belong, and need to be part of now as never before.

In an open letter to Theresa May published in the Observer a few days ago, Bob Geldof voiced the opinions of a vast range of people from the music world. He wrote:

“Imagine Britain without its music. If it’s hard for us, then it’s impossible for the rest of the world. In this one area, if nowhere else, Britain does still rule the waves. The airwaves, the cyberwaves, the soundwaves. It is of us. It is our culture. We dominate the market and our bands, singers, musicians, writers, producers and engineers work all over Europe and the world. In turn, Europe and the world come to us”.

Geldof’s characteristic authority and passion ought to be a red alert. Unlike those who talk about building bridges across the Irish Sea, he and his colleagues know that of which they speak.

I have more hard facts. The Arts Council commissioned surveys from 992 arts organisations on the impact of Brexit on the arts: 73 per cent said there would be a negative impact on bringing objects, exhibitions and artists into the UK; 73 per cent said there would be a negative impact on cross-border projects with EU partners; and 70 per cent said there would be a negative impact on future touring within the EU. These are the voices of committed, professional, often modestly rewarded people, a planet away from the wishful huffing and puffing of fact-free Brexiteers.

Dance will be heavily affected, too. Tamara Rojo, a prima ballerina and the artistic director of the English National Ballet, moved to the UK from Spain more than 20 years ago, “attracted by the growing diversity”, she told me, “of the dance that was being created in this country, the consequence of transparent and stable institutions here as well as the newly open borders that brought freedom of movement for individuals like me from Spain”.

The English National Ballet has dancers from 23 different EU countries and it thrives. She also said: “On a personal note, I am for the first time considering leaving the UK, which has been my home for more than 20 years. As yet I do not know what my rights will be post-Brexit.”

This would be a terrible loss.

Then there is the question of copyright. Howard Goodall points out: “European copyright laws have during my 40-year career as a professional composer been far more protective towards me and my fellow creators than our own UK government”.

He gives examples. The first wave of copyright piracy was in the day of cassette recorders in the 1980s, when the music industry losses to cassette copying were seismic. The EU backed a proposal that a small levy be placed on the sale of every blank cassette to remunerate composers and musicians. The Tory Government of the day refused to grant the levy. He continues: “The EU also responded to creators’ requests for the granting of … rights to writers, composers and copyright holders, so that, in an era where media were increasingly being … re-distributed, the original makers of a work would have to be acknowledged.”

If the EU does not succeed in protecting copyright holders, then, as 3D printers become readily available, all copyright material will be rip-offable on the internet without consequence or remuneration. This will be a massive setback for our design and manufacturing industry.

Our theatre is currently the richest on many levels in the world. James Doeser wrote in the Stage: “EU structural funds have helped build and rebuild the theatre infrastructure of the UK (Sage Gateshead, Liverpool Everyman) and Creative Europe has helped instigate – and lubricate – international collaborations across the continent”.

James Doeser is wholly pessimistic about the UK government’s promise to fill those gaps.

Finally, there is the British videogame industry, which began with brilliant young individuals in back bedrooms and garages and has evolved into a thriving sector that employs over 12,000 full-time workers in more than 2,000 businesses. Games made in the UK are played around the world and sales are growing prodigiously. It is now a major talent pool for young people. More than 80 per cent of videogame industry professionals supported Remain in the referendum.

The disregard of the basic needs of the cultural economy is the canary whistling in the mine. The whistling means danger, not only for that industry but for so much that has helped reconstruct this country. After a century of devastations in war and peace, we have regrouped ourselves to seek out and find a European and world role dependent on the freedom and enterprise that people so evidently show in the arts. It has been something of a miracle, and that has happened inside the EU. To surrender these gains on the basis of a single referendum and condemn especially the younger people in this country to leave Britain or to restrict their imagination beggars belief. We face a certain prospect of closing down when we are so successfully opening up.

Brexit will be a bar to the future of the fastest-growing, most democratic sector in this country. It will be a clamp on the imagination and the freedoms that younger generations have found to surmount the decline and wreckage of the past.

The arts inside the EU promise ever-enriching landscapes. Outside will be a smaller and smaller patch of increasingly barren ground. What sort of a legacy is this for our generation to pass on?

This is an edited version of Melvyn Bragg’s House of Lords speech, which can be viewed on Hansard here