Culture clash

Dismay, fury, incomprehension and a scramble to renegotiate follows the EC’s terse note to the PM that for the UK to nominate Europe’s Capital of Culture for 2023 “would not be possible” and the nomination process should be “immediately discontinued”.

Why the surprise? What on earth does the government think Brexit is? Not passing Go to collect £200, but going round the board anyway?

What is confusing about the proviso that European Capitals of Culture have to be in member countries of the European Union, which in 2019, four years before our designated slot, the UK will cease to be? In March the government thrust its Article 50 letter at the EC, and proceeded to ask cities to bid for the title, assuring it would all be fine. There were five bids: Dundee, Nottingham, Leeds, Milton Keynes and a joint bid from Belfast, Derry and Strabane, and they’re pretty miffed not only at their hopes being raised and then dashed but being encouraged to spend cash on promoting themselves that they can ill afford. Some of them have spent more than half a million already.

Dundee is more than miffed. The Scottish culture secretary finds the whole thing “deeply concerning that the amount of time, effort and expense Dundee have put into scoping out their bid could be wasted thanks to the Brexit policy of the government” says Fiona Hyslop, and she wants to know what Mrs May is going to do about it. Mrs May is disagreeing with the European Commission’s stance. She wants “urgent discussions”.

There’s 1.5m euros in it for the winner from the EC, but oh so much more from having the title which Britain has had twice in the ECOC’s 30 years. In 1990 it transformed the perception of Glasgow from a grimy crime-soaked series of middens to the happy, cheeky, cultural alternative to dour old Edinburgh (which had disdained to bid for the title and has regretted it ever since) we now know it to be. Liverpool in 2008 generated more than £750m for itself, and increased its visitor numbers by a third, 10m of them; they’re still coming.

So the government understands that culture can be transformative – after the Liverpool 2008 Phil Redmond, the Scouse TV producer who chaired Merseyside’s phenomenal year, urged a UK version and Hull is blinking in the unaccustomed light of its year in the sun. Mrs May and Philip Hammond can see that it works.

So why are they purblind to the value of the creative industries? They represent the fastest growing sector in the country – about the only one that is growing, actually – which John Kampfner at the Creative Industries Federation reminds us is worth £87bn to the economy. That’s £27bn more than the EC wants as our Brexit settlement, so naturally in this week’s Brexit imbued Budget it gets billing… where? You’ve guessed it.
European cultural leaders tell us Brexit will not be recognised by them in that British culture will always be part of Europe whatever the political/economic deals might be, and the government seems to hear that bit, thinking the EC hears it to. Now it knows the EC doesn’t.

It does know that the economy is failing, feeble growth forecasts etc, but that £87bn sector, the one that’s growing 10% a year and represents something unique that we do that everybody wants, isn’t worth considering investing in. I’m scared, aren’t you?

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