What does Brexit mean for culture in UK?

Various tools salvaged from the Grand Hall. Photo by Jake Tilson.

I am a producer who works in south-west London. I am also a resident in Kent near Dover. Those are the extent of my qualifications to write the following.

Last Thursday evening I caught a cab from the train station to get home to hear the first results. The cab driver and I talked about the referendum all the way from Folkestone to Dover.

The conversation began…

He said ‘So you’re “in” then’
I said ‘Yes’

I said ‘So you’re “out” then’
He said ‘Yes’

We both laughed.
How did he know?
How did I know?
It was a strange, frank, intimate moment.

We talked about immigration, the crash of 2008, democracy, London, Folkestone, politicians and so on.

He told me that he’d picked up 40 passengers that day and I was the only one voting in.

We tried to see things from the other’s point of view, avoiding confrontation, respecting taxi etiquette. But by the time the journey ended, things had started to feel strained.

Without noticing it a chasm had opened up between us. The honesty of our initial exchange was gone and there was an edge to the conversation.

‘Good luck’ he said to me.
‘Good luck’ I said to him.
As if one of us was about to fall off a cliff.

An hour later, the Sunderland and Newcastle results were in and it was me who was tumbling down Dover cliffs.

The sinking feeling of an election night took hold…but it felt worse…irreversibly worse.

For the rest of the weekend I consumed a steady diet of 24 hour news, clicked on hundreds of commentaries, video clips and heartfelt comments that had gone viral online.

I stared in to the middle distance.
I ended up feeling a lot but doing nothing.

But I’m a pragmatist and an optimist at heart. And after several wallows in self-pity, fitful bouts of sleep and a thousand visits to Twitter, by Monday morning, I was beginning to think how to make the best of it.

To be honest, my optimism partly sprang from a dawning realisation that I was part of the reason that Remain lost and that Leave won.

And I wanted to do something about it.

This sums up my train of thought…

I think a vibrant culture helps to breed tolerance, open-mindedness and empathy. I think artists reflect truth and ask great questions and have a positive and transformative impact. I think our everyday creativity is an everyday super-power, available to every one of us. Creativity helps us tackle any challenge and gives us agency to make change.

I also think that during the referendum campaign Nigel Farage dressed himself up as a man of the people and with thousands of committed volunteers, told a story again and again on millions of doorsteps. I think his narrative is having a deeply corrosive impact on our values of tolerance, open-mindedness and empathy.

So if both these things are true, why is there no cultural turf war being fought, for the hearts and minds of millions of UK residents?

This made me think about a bunch of questions that I keep coming back to…

  1. How much public investment in culture do we actually make in post-industrial cities and seaside towns compared with the resources available for more metropolitan, urban areas?
  1. Who considers themselves connected to our current breed of cultural organisation, who is being resourced in these organisations to tell their story, who do these cultural organisations represent?
  1. What kind of education do we offer our children, why do private schools invest millions in culture and yet our national curriculum is squeezing out culture with the introduction of the Ebacc?

In short:

  • where are we spending our resources?
  • who is benefitting?
  • how are we bringing up our kids?

The referendum results shone a light on an increasing divide in our country.

And I think we, who work in culture, need to take some of responsibility for not tackling that divide.

I read this article on the Guardian’s website, by great artists and people running arts organisations and the anger they felt as a result. I shared their frustration but it also struck me that, except for one or two notable exceptions, there was no recognition that we tend to reflect the divide in our country, rather than tackle it.

I watched the Marr show on Sunday morning. The show starts with Marr giving some personal reflections on what’s gone wrong (clip is 5:05 to 8:05). His analysis is compelling and focuses on that divide: why it has come about and what it might mean. But then, without a moment of irony, the programme plays out in what can only be described as a metropolitan bubble, with the same old voices, characters and language.

Echoes in the echo chamber. Like my Twitter feed over the weekend.

How is a different narrative going to be written? Not by the likes of people like me. But by millions of people around the country, finding spaces and resource for their story? How do we break down the chasm that has opened up across our country?

If there is truth in what I am saying, then I think it’s useful to ask ourselves what do cultural organisations need to look like in the future? How are they going to be funded by Arts Council England and others? And how can we, once and for all, make the case to government, and to people, for a creative and cultural education for every child?

There is of course exceptional work already happening all around the country.

But after the referendum result I am wondering if we are just scratching the surface?
Do we need a radical shake-up and change?

This blog isn’t some kind of masochistic, post-Brexit, self-loathing of the cultural sector.

The real fault of rising levels of intolerance and nationalism is rooted in the death of our manufacturing base in the 1980s and the fact that it was never replaced with a new model of prosperity and hope for millions.

People have been forgotten. A growing service and banking sector has benefitted very few great British seaside towns and post-industrial cities in the UK.

My question is whether we, who work in culture, want to be part of that divide or whether we want to be part of what breaks it down? Like really break it down. It is not a physical wall but I think it has become a cultural one.

Here’s four possible starting actions…

  • redefine the role of cultural organisations so that in ten years’ time, we are known as a group of organisations who passionately develop the creative potential of everyone in our communities
  • understand which areas of our country do not have effective cultural infrastructure, and find creative ways to reallocate resource and/or create partnerships that sees real investment in currently under-served areas
  • encourage a number of cultural organisations to set-up and run free schools in areas of the country where educational attainment and confidence is low, to demonstrate the huge value that creativity can have across the curriculum
  • consider how our creative industries, the second fastest growing sector of the economy, can contribute to economic regeneration, prosperity and hope, right across the country, to create a new story

I voted Remain because I think we are better off working things out, imperfectly, together. I am full of anger about the campaigning of the leave side. The brutal murder of Jo Cox MP was a horrific reminder that if you feed people enough poison then someone gets sick. Brendan Cox’s inspirational, super-human and incredibly moving response to the death of his wife has not been given enough recognition because referendum-mania took over. I encourage you to trawl through Brendan’s tweets using the #MoreInCommon hashtag and donate to Jo’s fund.



  1. I totally agree with everything you say David, except perhaps I’d be (typically) more angry!

    One thing that perhaps might be needed on top of all your ideas to better engage with the most disenfranchised parts of our country: Invest in new organisations ran by a local people from the grassroots using local artists also from the grassroots. This is a class issue. The local people REALLY need to decide what their culture, their art, their narratives, their performances, their musical tastes are and the issues they may wish to explore.

    Expecting many (not all) current arts organisations to expand their “offer” into new disenfranchised areas which are not their areas is a futile, missionary expedition; an attempt to “civilise” the (perhaps) “uncultured” Leave-voting “natives” with middle class, bourgeois arts and culture. An attempt that will probably reinforce and reproduce class and labour divisions.

    For me, far too much money is “invested” in posh opera, massive extensions “for the people”, places calling themselves factories that are the antithesis of factories in the eyes of many working class people.

    I therefore suggest that it’s essential to implement something like what you’re suggesting here. I caution that this cannot be piecemeal or seen as a form of cultural salvation. Grassroots arts and culture means an end to the democratisation of existing, bourgeois culture (whilst, of course, keeping some of this for the bourgeoisie) and a deep rebalancing of resources to deliver cultural democracy of the people, with the people, by the people.

    Keep up the good work!


    • Great ideals – and of course you are right. With the gutter press, and the noxious influence of Murdoch, though, it’s hard to see how messages will get across. We should all do whatever we can, in our own small way, to make a difference – but in the end, it’s political parties and governments that make decisions. With a far right Conservative government about to get its way with us, the Labour Party imploding, probably going to officially split, it’s hard to see how any change can come about in the short term. I am almost more angry by being told I shouldn’t be angry … but it’s an anger brought about by despair. This just should never have happened – people around the world (except for Trump, and the likes of Marine Le Pen) can see this, and apparently we have to go along with it, and not be cross! Anger – carefully harnessed, so keeping a cool head – is a great motivator. Yes, of course, understand where it’s come from, and don’t point fingers except at the politicians who brought it about, but keep on fighting … with the ultimate aim of a more loving, inclusive and respectful society (as per Jo Cox).

  2. As a matter of interest arts funding in Cornwall apparently is £4 per head of population whilst I am told it is £40 per head in London

  3. I too agree with this David, and having worked in the visual arts for so long I am more than aware of the echo-chamber. I stopped going to ‘private views’ some time ago, preaching to the converted doesn’t expand audiences or minds. I recently spent a day in the back room of a theatre – which is something I’ve not done for many years. I was particularly struck by the positive dynamic between the performers, the audiences and the staff.

    As a freelance visual arts producer, I’ve observed institutional dynamics for a long time and worked closely with many. The recent years of austerity has seen many arts organisations turning inwards as they, understandably, draw up their bridges and try to stay afloat.

    Organisations like MIMA are thriving – they get it – just as theatres do. They engage with people and embrace cultural diversity, they don’t try to shape people to fit their curatorial mould.

    Stephen, I agree with comments abut posh opera and David B’s comment about London spend – but let’s not do instead of, but keep it as well as. No privileges. We’re watching what privilege does to people in Parliament, and it’s a nasty nest of messed up men.

  4. Thanks for comments. I agree Stephen. I saw yours, Luke’s and Stella’s comments on twitter too – which I also agree with. So in some ways there’s probably not much point in adding much to what you have already said. I guess there is one thought/nuance to add…

    I do think it’s good to be open to different models and ways of making this change happen.

    For example, I think the Fun Palaces model is wonderful. One of the wonderful things about it is that different Fun Palaces are run in different ways by different people with different interests – but with a shared set of strong values.

    We support something called Collaborative Touring Network (CTN). This is made up of producing outfits in Wigan, Darlington, Hull, Peterborough, Medway, Thanet, Torbay and Gloucester, usually working out of found spaces – halls, huts, abandoned arts buildings, old court houses and so on. Each producing outfit develops creative ideas and projects from the area, providing resource and a platform.

    The network also chooses artists on tour from Battersea as part of the mix. They create a melting pot of stuff twice a year and now year-round programmes. Each producing outfit and model is different according to the way they set it up and run it.

    I’m not holding these up as perfect examples, I guess I am just trying to illustrate that I think it’s good to enable lots of different kinds of models. Not everything will fit a very pure model.

    For example, both Stella and I do work in London – some might say we are (or least I am as I run a venue) part of a metropolitan bubble. But I think it’s good for us to use our position, such as it is, in an unbalanced world, to help encourage and resource other people to lead their own schemes, ideas, programmes, from their own perspective.

    An example of this is what I think is one of many positive outcomes of CTN – that the major foundation who funds the project – is now funding some CTN members directly. It’s been a way of transferring resources out of London.

    My interest is in people coming together, to shape a better future together and that means people of wildly different backgrounds – because that makes our future stronger. I try to do that in Battersea. And I’m passionate about others doing it, in their own way, where they work and live.

    David B – I’ve explored those statistics too. The imbalance of funding across country must be resolved – and we also need to keep making the case to central and local government, local enterprise partnerships and others, to invest in culture and from different sources of funding too. David

  5. And, now, no more Boris! A person with the brains of a genius, but the mind of a fool. A fool that has left us with a floppy Michael, an ex underprivileged young enthusiast, a thinking lady and whatever else might be rising to the surface.

    You can fool the majority of a nation part of the time, but you cannot raise it to cultural heights at any time ever! When a machine is of low quality it remains so – for always until it is replaced or renewed. And that is the problem of Britain – it has to rely on amateurism and ignorance that is self protecting and it cannot, will not, accept change unless it is forced to by, say, a bloody revolution. And if there were to be a bloody revolution, who would win – certainly not the enlightened good parts of the macchine?!

    I do not wish to say more – I am to old, weary and sad to do otherwise.

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