Festival UK 2022: Why Scottish culture should not turn its back on the 'Festival of Brexit' – Brian Ferguson

When the idea of a “Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” was first unveiled by Theresa May just over two years ago it was almost immediately branded a “Festival of Brexit”.

National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Jackie Wylie says the Festival UK 2022 initiative has given the company the opportunity to work with an 'extraordinary' team of partners. (Picture: Eoin Carey)
National Theatre of Scotland artistic director Jackie Wylie says the Festival UK 2022 initiative has given the company the opportunity to work with an 'extraordinary' team of partners. (Picture: Eoin Carey)

The then Prime Minister’s announcement was greeted with widespread dismay and derision, not least because she had decided to allocated £120 million to a year-long programme of post-Brexit events.

Despite Downing Street’s insistence that the festival was inspired by the staging of the 1851 Great Exhibition and the 1951 Festival of Britain, it was inevitable that it would be linked to Brexit after Mrs May’s pledges that it would showcase “what makes our country great today” and “mark this moment of national renewal”.

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Given the hostile reaction, including from many in the arts establishment, it was something of a surprise when Boris Johnson insisted that his new government would be pressing ahead with a “Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” shortly after he assumed office in July 2019.

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Much has changed since then, of course, not least thanks to a resounding General Election triumph for Mr Johnson and the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the UK-wide cultural sector.

But there also appears to have been a significant softening in attitudes to the prospect of “a UK-wide celebration of creativity and innovation”, as the initiative has been described since that first announcement by Mrs May, and not just within the British arts establishment.

For not only are the Scottish government enthusiastic cheerleaders for Festival UK 2022, as it is now known, but some of Scotland’s leading cultural institutions and events are on the cusp of being involved.

The National Theatre of Scotland and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival are leading two separate “creative teams” in Scotland which have made a 30-strong longlist of proposed programmes for 2022. Their plans also involve V&A Dundee, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Edinburgh International Science Festival, the traditional arts group Fèis Rois, the University of Strathclyde and Aproxima Arts, the new venture of outdoor events impresario Angus Farquhar.

But there is also strong Scottish involvement among the 28 other bids, including the Eden Project, which is pursuing plans for a new attraction in Dundee, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh and the Edinburgh-based arts centre Dance Base, which is working with the Royal Astronomical Society.

Although there has been criticism on social media of some of those involved, there has also been a fair degree of cautious excitement and enthusiasm, understandable given that up to £10 million will be available to each of the final 10 teams.

When applications for funding proposals opened in September, Scottish Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop hit the nail on the head when she hailed the festival as “a boost to provide opportunities for work for artists, practitioners and organisations across the culture sector and beyond”.

That sums up why the Scottish cultural sector appears to now be giving the idea of this festival a ringing endorsement. After all, who can afford to walk away from such opportunities given the devastating impact of the ongoing shutdown of the live events sector this year?

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