How the Festival of Brexit became a £120m woke fiasco: ROBERT HARDMAN visits what was supposed to celebrate British ingenuity and finds a cultural calamity with a ‘Horse Meat Disco’ and ‘anti-racist’ gardens that cost FOUR times more than the Jubilee
- A two-week garden festival called PoliNations opened in Birmingham yesterday
- It explores ‘the UK’s complex history of migration and diversity’ through plants
- The £8 million event includes useful tips on how to make your garden less racist
Strange multi-coloured steel trees loom over newly installed beds of wildflowers. Beside them is a stage on which a drag artist in a ballgown is interviewing two academics on ‘the possibilities of decolonial practice within art and horticulture’.
A few passers-by are listening, though most are just enjoying a wander through the brand-new pop-up garden here in front of Birmingham’s Town Hall.
This is the latest attempt to breathe life into the corpse of an irretrievably doomed nationwide celebration of British ‘creativity’, in this case a two-week garden festival in the heart of Brum which opened yesterday.
But don’t expect to spot Monty Don or the gang from Gardeners’ Question Time. There are no prizes for the best rose or the biggest marrow. Chelsea Flower Show it most definitely is not.
Called ‘PoliNations’, this is devoted to exploring ‘the UK’s complex histories surrounding migration and diversity’ through the ‘lens of its plant life’.
Robert Hardman (centre) pictured at the PoliNations garden in Victoria Square, Birmingham
Though you might struggle to buy a nice clematis, you won’t be short of useful tips on how, for example, to make your garden less racist. Following yesterday’s talk, there’s another session at lunchtime today, under the ‘Mother Tree’, entitled ‘Decolonising the garden — how imperialism shaped the British garden’.
It is led by Sui Searle, founder of ‘Decolonise the Garden’, and Dr Ros Gray, a London academic who specialises in ‘artistic responses to climate crisis and ecological emergency that involve cultivation and rewilding through anti-racist, anti-colonial, indigenous, feminist and queer approaches to multispecies sites’.
Erudite they may be — but I doubt that either of these two can provide much help with your runner beans.
Two weeks of ‘gong baths’, yoga, ‘walkabout performers’ and activist poetry will culminate in ‘Drag Queen Story Time’ — a ‘family friendly event that celebrates the gender fluidity in childhood’ — and ‘Horse Meat Disco’, described as ‘a queer party everyone can groove to!’.
There’s no need to buy a ticket. Because you have paid already.
The £8 million ‘PoliNations’ project is just one aspect of a giant nationwide festival called Unboxed. It has been conceived to illustrate the best of 21st-century British excellence, ingenuity and talent — and thus help the UK reposition itself on the world stage.
Yet, after four years of planning and an overall budget of £120 million, this is what the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the great and good of the arts establishment have served up. World stage? More like comedy night at the Apollo.
One former Conservative minister has derided it as ‘beyond parody in terms of wokeness’. A report by the Commons select committee on culture has panned it as ‘an irresponsible use of public money’.
If this is what happens with the Tories in charge, think what a ‘celebration of British creativity’ might look like under a Labour/SNP coalition. As a new Prime Minister prepares to offer their mandatory ‘vision of Britain’ on the Downing Street doorstep next week, they will need to improve on this.
The £8 million ‘PoliNations’ project is just one aspect of a giant nationwide festival called Unboxed
In the time-honoured words of my colleague, Richard Littlejohn: ‘You couldn’t make it up.’ Except, in this instance, he did make it up. Shortly after Theresa May, then Prime Minister, revealed plans for this grand scheme back in 2018, Richard offered a withering ‘preview’.
Though he was a little off the mark with his prediction of a gala royal opening of a transgender toilet block by the Duchess of Sussex, he certainly caught the mood. He also gave it a name: ‘Festival of Brexit’. And it stuck, so much so that the handful of people who have actually heard of this fiasco still call it that.
But before its architects blame its demise on the ghastly Daily Mail, I might add that a Guardian columnist gave it the very same name on the very same day.
For if we can say one thing in its favour, this scandalously expensive non-event has at least managed to unite a fractious nation. On the Left and the Right, from splenetic Remainers to card-carrying Europhobes, there is an overwhelming concensus (with a handful of exceptions) that this was a dismal idea.
The whole thing was dreamed up by Mrs May on the eve of the 2018 Tory Party Conference (the one where she danced on stage to Abba).
Then mired in Brexit woes, she needed a good news story. So she announced a huge £120 million festival to ‘showcase’ (as marketing folk love to say) the best of British ingenuity in the aftermath of our eventual departure from the European Union. It was certainly ambitious.
For, as her officials made clear, this would be modelled on 1951’s Festival of Britain, the post-war Labour government’s attempt to reboot national morale.
The event is devoted to exploring ‘the UK’s complex histories surrounding migration and diversity’ through the ‘lens of its plant life’
That, in turn, had been based on Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851, a display of global ingenuity so successful that it left a financial legacy which is still endowing educational projects to this day.
Yet, by linking this thing to the most toxic and fratricidal political schism since Suez, this project was doomed from the start.
The subsequent farce easily trumps any episode of Yes, Minister, The Thick Of It or the BBC satire W1A.
It brilliantly lampoons the creed and character of the managerial cadre of the public sector — ‘the Blob’ as Dominic Cummings called it. It would be so much funnier if the sums involved were not so huge.
Having provisionally called this idea ‘The Festival’, officials were determined to come up with something that didn’t contain the word ‘festival’, in an attempt to get as far away from the ‘Festival of Brexit’ stigma as possible.
After untold hours of brainstorming — and Whitehall does love a meeting — they finally unveiled a new name: Unboxed. A board of eminent figures was recruited from across the artistic, academic and charitable firmament, led by Dame Vikki Heywood, late of the Royal Society of Arts.
An impresario with a fine track record was put in charge: Martin Green had been head of ceremonies at the 2012 Olympics and had latterly been handed the same role at the 2022 Commonwealth Games.
A shortlist of 30 creative ideas was then reduced to ten winners, each of which received somewhere between £6 million and £8 million to put on a series of events across the land during 2022.
Talks under the ‘Mother Tree’, include ‘Decolonising the garden — how imperialism shaped the British garden’
However, there was no escaping two flaws. First, this thing was born of Brexit and you would be hard-pushed to find two less Brexity subsets of British society than the creative industries and the Whitehall Blob.
Martin Green agreed to take on the job on condition it would not be a ‘jingoistic jamboree’. Some of the performers currently involved insisted on contractual clauses specifically precluding any mention of the word ‘Brexit’ in their projects.
There was an even bigger problem. While everyone knew what this was not, no one had a clue what it was. Thus, we behold a shiny white elephant created by bureaucrats and stuffed with squillions of taxpayers’ cash.
Sound familiar? It certainly rang a few bells as the Commons select committee on culture was grilling officials from the DCMS last year. ‘Is this just the Millennium Dome on wheels?’ asked chairman, Julian Knight, Tory MP for Solihull. ‘Goodness, I hope not,’ replied Carrie Cook, the DCMS deputy director in charge of Unboxed.
And yet, that is surely what this has become. Except that the disastrous Dome stayed open for a whole year before the doors slammed shut. Unboxed has been reduced to nine months.
At that same meeting, MPs were told that the ‘stretch target’ for visitors was 66 million. This thing has only two months left to run. And the total footfall thus far? 238,000 people, according to official figures obtained by The House magazine.
As for the budget, the entire bill for the Platinum Jubilee amounts to less than a quarter of the cost of Unboxed
This has led senior politicians to ask what the hell is going on — and how this will pull in 65.75 million people (roughly the entire population of Britain) before the closing party in November.
‘We sounded the alarm months ago that a project with such a vague vision and nebulous name seemed doomed to failure,’ says Julian Knight.
‘Despite reassurances from organisers that everything would be all right on the night, the scant interest shown by the public is a damning indictment.’
Yet I find the management in defiant mood here in Brum. ‘All this stuff has gone brilliantly well,’ says Martin Green, pointing out that the target of 66 million includes those who have ‘engaged’ through media reports (ie seeing it on a TV bulletin).
Is he bruised by the latest attacks? ‘Look, people said the Olympics would be a disaster. You get used to it,’ he says.
Having been at both his Olympic and his Commonwealth Games opening ceremonies, I would be the first to applaud him for the brilliance of both. However, I cannot imagine Unboxed will loom large on his future CV.
As the talk on ‘decolonising’ flowerbeds carries on beneath the ‘Mother Tree’, I meet DCMS Minister, Nigel Huddleston. He insists that the whole Unboxed project has been a ‘great showcase for British innovation’. Is an £8 million pop-up garden, pleasant though it may be, a useful deployment of public money on the cusp of the new Ice Age? ‘There’s something for everyone here,’ he says.
Perhaps, but it’s hardly making headlines outside Birmingham, let alone ‘showcasing’ Britain to the world.
A report by the Commons select committee on culture has panned it as ‘an irresponsible use of public money’
Meanwhile, down in Weston-super-Mare, locals are agog at another £8 million celebration of national brilliance: a disused oil rig hauled across the beach prior to opening to the public.
Called ‘See Monster’, it is way behind schedule and will finally admit visitors in a week or two, shortly before it closes down again. It is, apparently, ‘showcasing’ our brilliance at recycling.
‘I don’t know why it’s here,’ says Liam Hurst, 44, a project manager from Manchester. ‘I don’t see the point in it, really.
‘That is the case with a lot of “creativity” nowadays: no meaning, no purpose and, most of the time, it just looks awful. It’s not my money so I’m not bothered.’
On being informed that it is actually his money, he shook his head and walked away.
‘I’ve seen sh*** that looks nicer than that thing,’ says Matilda Wild, 32. Not so long ago, the artist Banksy erected a grim pastiche theme park called Dismaland on the same spot, which used to be an open-air swimming pool. This has a remarkably similar feel. Several onlookers ask if they couldn’t just get their swimming pool back, maybe with a roof next time.
A decent crowd turned out this week to see a night-time drone show around the oil rig.
However, all those to whom we spoke said that they will be very glad when they can no longer see ‘See Monster’.
I don’t blame individual arts groups for parking their loathing of Brexit and trousering millions in exchange for delivering fluffy, box-ticking ‘community engagement’ projects watched by virtually no one.
Pay me eight million quid and I would gladly rustle up a few ponytailed stilt-walkers, poets and drag queens to tell people that we need to plant more trees.
Nor do I blame the civil servants, though they do seem very adept at blocking most things they don’t want to do. ‘A lot of them admit privately that they felt queasy about this,’ says Julian Knight. ‘But they still went ahead on the basis of “build it and they will come”. Well, they haven’t come.’
Ultimately, the buck stops with Theresa May, though we should not blame her for wanting to trumpet the best of Britain. It was a good intention which bombed.
Here is a textbook case of what happens when a politician in a flap throws a hazy idea and a vast pot of public money at a flabby committee led by modish bureaucrats obsessed by inclusivity to the exclusion of all else. The result is simply nice, nebulous nothingness at huge expense.
Mrs May need never have bothered with her Festival of Brexit anyway: 2022 was already due to include a perfectly good celebration of British values, innovation and excellence — and with the seal of royal approval. It was in the pipeline already. It has been a huge hit and has offended no one.
As for the budget, the entire bill for the Platinum Jubilee amounts to less than a quarter of the cost of Unboxed.
And as for that prized place on the world stage, just ponder this. What will the rest of the world remember most from 2022: our Queen celebrating 70 years on the throne? Or a disused oil rig in Weston-super-Mare?
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