The first rule of creating a festival designed to unite Britain is probably: don’t call it the Festival of Brexit. Ever since Theresa May announced a huge national event celebrating our departure from the EU, set for 2022 and with a budget of £120m, it’s acquired that nickname, suggestive of drizzle, stale pies and being forced to listen to Rule Britannia (with the words) on loop. Even the organisers are keen to stress that the current working title is actually Festival UK.
Name aside, the gargantuan task remains – how can a festival possibly unite the country given the enduring bitterness between leavers and remainers? Last week, organisers put out a call for creative minds to come up with “daring, new and popular” ideas aimed at conjuring instant national harmony. How hard could it be? A quick brainstorm around the Guardian office brought up the suggestions “reform Oasis?” and “get David Blaine back in his box – that united people”, whereas the best I could think of was a big screen playing repeat footage of that time Michael Gove fell over. Clearly we needed to turn to artists instead.
“That’s the million dollar question, isn’t?” says Fox Fisher, whose work as “a brown, queer, trans masculine” film-maker often involves building bridges and reaching unlikely audiences. Fisher has lots of ideas for an inclusive festival that might be good for the country’s long-term health – celebrating multiculturalism, confronting our colonial history, addressing systemic racism. But in an era of endless culture wars how do we deliver such an event without ending up on the front page of the Daily Mail?
“We have to focus on the common values that people have. For example, no one can argue that all children don’t have a right to feel safe and supported,” says Fisher, who maybe hasn’t read anything on Spiked Online of late. “So if we can find those avenues and really highlight them in the festival, we might be able to get people to see from new perspectives.”
Rebecca Lucy Taylor, who records as slinky pop outfit Self Esteem, also thinks common ground is the way forward: “You know every time we’ve voted in a reality singing competition? At one time in everyone’s life they must have cared about them, so surely if you pooled all of them together – your Sneddons, your That’s My Goal guy – that would unite people.”
A David Sneddon and Shayne Ward supergroup? It’s certainly blue sky, and Taylor has a back-up plan for if that fails too: “I was thinking we could all just watch the 2012 Olympics ceremony again.”
Ah yes, the Olympics – that seems to be the one event everyone agrees had a good stab at uniting people. It was patriotic yet open-minded, progressive without being hectoring. Claire Hodgson worked on it and her circus group, Extraordinary Bodies, arose out of it. She thinks any 2022 event would have to completely reimagine who we are and what we can achieve. “A lot of people had their minds changed in the summer of 2012 in terms of what people from different backgrounds could do,” she says. “It was a radical summer. The disabled people I collaborate with saw people like themselves in the media with status for the first time, and that was life-changing for them.”
Ultimately, Hodgson thinks talent will out, and worrying what the rightwing media makes of it is pointless. “Someone might have a marginalised identity but they’re one of the best dancers in the UK … and that begins to turn things on its head. Besides, if you end up choosing people who make art that underpins the current government’s ideologies then you’ll just be left with Jim Davidson.”
Elizabeth Bernholz, who records gloriously unsettling electronic music as Gazelle Twin, also thinks we need to emphasise the UK’s diversity if we’re to begin the healing process: she suggests a huge choir made up of thousands of different voices from across the UK: “It could be a big performance or maybe a digital choir using technological innovation. But I think voices are probably the key element in uniting people. All the big events are backed by big anthems and choruses people can sing along to.” Her 2018 album Pastoral looked into the national condition, although as she admits it was “about all the worst aspects of English identity”. She’s worried that rather than focusing on dynamic, young artists, organisers will end up simply choosing the “whitest, straightest, wealthiest organisations to do flag-waving stuff”.
Ben Myers, author of The Gallows Pole, is also no stranger to macabre visions of England. But he’s confident he could put on a blow-out festival with £120m to spend. “That goes a long way up north,” he says. “So I’d probably recreate 1951’s Festival of Britain, but tour it around Rochdale, Sunderland and Burnley. It would showcase bold new ideas in the arts and science and there’d be free German lager, French croissants and Italian pizza for everyone.”
It sounds idyllic, a far cry from the gruesome material in his books. But he has other plans. “Each evening as the sun sets, there would be brutal gladiatorial bouts between democratically elected politicians, and also Nigel Farage. And I would commission Fat White Family to compose a new national anthem.”
Job done? “I think the country would be united in a fortnight, no problem.”