The boundary between cultural and political leadership has always been vexed and unclear. Right now, it’s pretty meaningless as Westminster descends into unmannered chaos and no-one (except Nicola) has a plan. On the streets xenophobia is becoming commonplace and our workplaces, schools and pubs, even our family dinner-tables, are fraught. No-one knows how this is going to end, but it’s not looking good for that central, enigmatic character ‘the country’. It’s time for the artists – writers and photographers, film-makers and dancers, all of us – to step up.
Let us make #artistsforeurope, a movement to weave us into patterns that sustain us, to draw us together and consciously create the future. That is, after all, what we do.
18 days in
Two weeks on and the absurd nightmare just seems to get worse, the list of political humiliations getting longer by the hour. The urgent question is what should the 48% do next? And of course I’m interested in my roles, as a writer, a networker, an activist, as something of a governance nerd. A stereotype of the middle-class remainer who could not believe that the sky would fall on her bubble of conformity and convenience.
How can I simply move on, as the comments threads urge? The tone of sneery bias and belittling nastiness sticks in my throat, as if this was the end of an adolescent fling or a lost football match. I am a UK baby, with Welsh, Scottish, English and Jewish blood. I was born and brought up in Kent and now I live just outside Caerdydd. I’ve always been a proud European: I was too young to vote in 1975 but campaigned for a yes vote, to the surprise of my family who were secretive about such matters.
Rather than cowering behind the sofa, watching the unfolding drama through spread fingers like a ten-year old in Doctor Who, we need to find other ways to come together and change the ending. Waiting for the nice woman to settle herself in the armchair and ask if we are sitting comfortably is not going to work.
Who are our leaders now?
We all want our political leadership to sort itself out, for the adults to take back the nursery. To me, though, the leadership battles are a bit of a sideshow, a distraction from the grim reality. The ongoing quest of the Labour party to eat its own backside, the Queen of the Cage tory fight and the Green’s efforts at collectivism are all taking up precious time, while the world watches and Brussels (understandably) fumes. Of course, focusing on the Eaglet and women-in-suits rather suits the chatterati, who can go on sitting on sofas stoking up enmity rather than getting out a bit.
I want to see leaders who will build alliances, represent all of us (including the half who voted to remain), seek to rebuild the tattered economy, community and countries in which we live. I’m not seeing many of those fluttering around Westminster at the moment, though there are stronger signs in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff. (As I prepared this Andrea Leadsom stood down: although we have been forced to accept Theresa May as preferable, she is hardly a unifying leader.) I want to understand what May, Letwin and the rest of the as yet un-named team will do to include me, to represent the 48%, when they talk to Brussels.
So far, though, I’m waiting in vain.
I have not given up on the marriage yet. I do not believe that Brexit has to happen. Whether or not it does, there is work to be done, detailed practical work, over the next few months.
We have seen many petitions and the legal battleground is taking shape. Philosophers and lawyer-historians are pointing to the real constitutional and legal hurdles to implementing the will of the 52%. We will even struggle to negotiate: about 40 years ago we decided to share the work of negotiating trade deals (as so many lower levels of government are urged to share services) and we haven’t kept sufficient resource in-house to deliver the tasks ahead.
Some interest groups are already pulling together. The Arts Councils of England and Wales, like Scientists for the EU, and I am sure many others have asked for evidence of impact. We already know about funding pulled or deferred, travel risks affecting teams and companies, and overall uncertainty. Archant Group did an impressive job of producing the pop-up New European so fast: I wonder if we could do such a thing specifically for Wales?
The practical work must be done. We need to know what’s going on, whether it’s the Tata talks hitting Port Talbot, or Seimens nervousness costing Hull new investment. (Both areas voted over 58% to leave, by the way.) We need the information which helps the negotiating teams at all levels to seek the best outcomes for the UK as a whole and for its constituent nations. We desperately need those negotiations to contain some facts that our UK leadership can understand and use for good, so that they are not conducted with faragist brutality, but rather in the spirit of the man in seat 123.
But it is not enough. Where are the bigger visions, the weaving together that might bring us all to a better place?
Planning taking shape
Whether Brexit happens or not, we are not returning to the dewy-eyed comfort of three weeks ago. The volcano has erupted, with plenty more lava still to spew. The landscape has changed, not just for us but across Europe and beyond. Which future are we living in? Who owns it?
There are political leaders urging thought. Vince Cable’s article last week was at least the beginning of a manifesto. He talks about fighting recession and developing a tough industrial strategy, about immigration and local power. All good stuff. I’m glad someone is trying to set out the glimmerings of a plan. Corbyn, too, has at last started to spell out the importance of building alliances across parties and movements. Some people’s movements are emerging around these arguments, moving beyond the party-based stalemates.
Cable also talked about inequality. No less a neo-capitalist than Christine Lagarde has been banging the drum about the impact of inequality within countries for some time; her speech last June spells out the issues the IMF sees but which the UK government seemed happy to ignore in the name of austerity and rolling back the welfare state. This week, I listened to an artist talking about people in Blackburn who won’t go to Preston to shop, for whom Paris is a different world, who might see the fancy baubles on the screen but have no reason to believe that such opportunities will come to them any time soon. Inequality led to the referendum outcome.
Any substantive plan for the future must address that inequality, should look at jobs in the Valleys and coalfields, build education and pathways to real employment, improve our care and health system and encourage investors from all over the world into our poorest areas. I’m not holding my breath, though, for the overwhelming narrative remains metropolitan and backward-looking, focused on short-term fights rather than long-term gains. Even the eruption has not changed the paradigm.
Changing the ending
That curious entity, the United Kingdom, may not survive. The bigger project, the EU, may fail too. Whatever the institutional projects we believe in, these islands will stay anchored in the North Atlantic mud. We have roiled in founding myths of Arthur and Agincourt, of Windrush and Kipling, the stories of border wars and the soil of northern France. Opposition in Europe and aggrandisement beyond has become our definition, our excuse and now our failure. We need to change the ending.
We – the story tellers and dreamers, the weavers and painters, the designers, singers, musicians, the curators, producers and poets – are the creative myth-makers. My friend Marcus Romer says ‘the future story of this country is in all of our hands.’ Like him, I have spent a lot of time with artists in the last fortnight, and I share the imperative to listen, to reflect and to rebuild.
We need not only a plan but a story, or rather, many, many stories. We need to reimagine who we are who we will become. In Gwynedd or Glamorgan, Caithness or London/Derry, in Cornwall, Lincolnshire or Sunderland, from Liverpool to London, who are we and where are we going?
I would like to find a way to create an Artists for Europe, a movement coming from the well-springs of creative practice. We need both the work we are already making, and the new material that we are driven to make now. We need to be both hyper-local and focused, while looking outward across the UK and the continent. I’d love to see us all, in our creative work, in our political practice and in our institutional strategies, find ways to re-weave, re-dream, reimagine what it means to be here, on these islands, in the twenty-second century rather than the nineteenth. I’m not moving on, but I am stepping up.
If you are interested in this nascent idea, then share and like this. Use the hashtag. I can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. (There is no website yet: so far this is only me.) I am curious to know what happens next.