Support 110 years of independent journalism.

  1. The Staggers
1 September 2022

Who could have foreseen that the Festival of Brexit would be a disaster?

It’s tricky to feel celebratory during war, economic crisis and the tail end of a pandemic.

By Jonn Elledge

In 1851, the Great Exhibition introduced the British people to the marvels of industry, empire and the world. In 1951, the Clement Attlee government arranged the Festival of Britain, a way of showing that a country exhausted by war and austerity was still a place of invention and creativity. In September 2018, the then-prime minister Theresa May announced that 2022 would see another such event, a “celebration of the creativity and innovation of the United Kingdom”, known as the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Nobody called it that. They called it the Festival of Brexit.

That name, which was never official but was embraced and propagated by the pro-Brexit newspapers, had the unfortunate effect of implying that that accursed referendum was in some way a parallel to the Second World War; and that the austerity wrought by an existential struggle and the austerity brought about by George Osborne were in some way comparable. Which is offensive in about six different ways. But the idea wasn’t entirely crazy. These events can act as catalysts for creativity at home, and demonstrations of self-confidence abroad. This summer also saw the Commonwealth Games come to Birmingham, and our almost comically long-reigning monarch’s Platinum Jubilee. Bundle it all together with some of that creativity we keep telling people we’re good at, and it must have seemed like the summer of 2022 would be the moment to show that Britain was back, baby.

Britain, alas, is not back. The ten projects that make up Unboxed, as the project was rebranded, cost £120m (does that sound like a lot to anybody else?), and were expected to attract 66 million visitors between them. In the event, an investigation by the House magazine revealed this week, with just two months to go, that they’ve attracted only 238,000 visitors. That works out to just over £500 per visit (oh, yes, it is a lot).

What went wrong? Perhaps external factors are to blame. We’re all dealing with war and economic crisis and the tail end of a pandemic: perhaps no one feels particularly celebratory. Or perhaps it’s the events themselves. Things like an epic scale model of the solar system, and a kaleidoscopic light show that you watch through closed eyes, which the organisers have described as “almost indescribable” (great PR there, chaps), sound like a lot of fun. It’s not clear, however, that they sound like £120m-worth of fun, or that they say anything about Great Britain and Northern Ireland, come to that.

More to the point, they don’t say anything about Brexit. This was deliberate, because half the country hates it and pro-Brexit creatives are in short supply; but it does mean that Unboxed alienated the only people who weren’t put off by the “Festival of Brexit” tag in the first place. The result is that half the country won’t go because it’s too Brexity, and the other half won’t go because it’s not Brexit-y enough. It’s the artists I feel sorry for.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

Perhaps the biggest problem here is that our leaders have made no attempt to heal the divisions created by Brexit: quite the opposite, because fighting culture wars is easier than fixing real problems. War and reconstruction were national projects; Brexit is not. You can’t create a spirit of national unity by press release.

[See also: Why OnlyFans wants us to regulate the internet]

Content from our partners
What you need to know about private markets
Work isn't working: how to boost the nation's health and happiness
The dementia crisis: a call for action

Topics in this article : , ,