Britain is on course for a ‘hard Brexit’ following a parliament decision this week that saw 494 MPs vote in favour of a Brexit deal without concessions. The vote, which was harshly criticised by pro-remain advocates, will allow Prime Minister Teresa May to continue plans to trigger article 50 in her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ agenda.
Although the prospect of a hard Brexit seems harmful in many ways, the threat of lasting damage to our cultural sector presents a huge but lesser-discussed point of concern. In the run-up to the referendum many campaigners tried to highlight Britain’s role as a European nation. The idea that divorcing from neighbours with whom we share so much history would negatively impact on our culture is hugely powerful, and one many people were keen to emphasise.
But outside of attempting to cut ties with a continent that has shaped our heritage and culture, the prospect of a hard Brexit presents very significant practical issues too. How exactly the void left by EU funding, that keeps cultural sites alive, is to be replaced is unclear (hint: it probably won’t be) – but more importantly perhaps than this are the questions surrounding the sector’s workforce, and especially its reliance on EU nationals.
EU funding has paid for everything from comic books to Welsh-language programs, but what will be most heavily felt is the impact Brexit will have on British and EU workers in all areas of the cultural sector. According the Museums Association, as much as 20% of employees at the Natural History Museum are EU nationals, while similar levels are also seen in public institutes across the UK.
For the cultural sector Brexit means the very real potential of an exodus of workers. Not just at the expert levels of researchers and directors, but in all areas of the workforce – from cleaners to curators. At the same time British-born experts uncertain of their future in a post-Brexit cultural sector are likely to be tempted to jump ship (if possible) in favour of free movement and broader job prospects within the EU. Not only are our museums, institutes and venues faced with a brain-drain crisis, but on every level of operations the future is bleak.
Outside of the significant questions surrounding our workforce the way in which post-Brexit museums, galleries, venues and cultural centres will operate is uncertain too. It’s incredibly likely that a Britain less-integrated with European partners will struggle without the freedom of movement of artworks and artists it previously had. Touring exhibitions and loans from European institutes are likely to be more difficult and therefore more rare, while musicians and other artists will also find it trickier to tour their work across the UK. In academia too Britain is set to lose its place as the host of many international conferences – as universities and researchers opt for an easier travel destination within the EU.
From being a centre of European art, research and culture Britain is likely to move towards the ‘edge of Europe’ status that countries such as Turkey, Ukraine or Georgia have experienced. Although culture will obviously never die off completely Britain is set to lose much of its appeal as a destination for international arts as researchers, curators, musicians, artists, performers, theatre producers and filmmakers are discouraged by whatever ‘less-European’ future our country is in stall for.
A hard Brexit will likely damage all aspects of British society, but for our cultural sector this threat is existential. With no certainty over plans to fund important cultural endeavors, and restrictions on movement that threaten the lifeblood of our museums and cultural institutes the sector faces a period of darkness and uncertainty. How our culture will structure itself in this post-Brexit future raises countless questions, but at the very least cultural institutes more-influenced by the nationalist and ethnocentric ideas of a new British politics is something that should concern us all. On the lowest level this seems like an unpleasant step backwards, but at its most extreme it presents a horrifying future not just for inconsequential things like paintings and theatre, but for our nation’s culture as a whole.
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