Arts and culture overlooked 
in Brexit-focused campaign

With the ‘snap general election only days away, the museum sector is having to weigh up the parties’ policies through Brexit-tinted glasses
Nicola Sullivan
A shredded Union Jack hanging off a tatty piece of bunting is one of many arresting images that Cornelia Parker, this year’s official general election artist, has posted on Instagram. But, according to Parker, it is the one that seems to best capture the essence of the campaign.
“The flag with the tear in it is, sadly, what I think is going to be the result of this election, which is something that nobody is voting for – the break-up of the UK,” she says.

It’s easy to see where she is coming from. The prospect of a second Scottish referendum, a hard border in Northern Ireland and deeply divided opinions about Brexit, displayed by the electorate and the key political parties across all four nations, certainly doesn’t instil confidence in a “United” Kingdom.
Many of the other photographs Parker has posted indicate that this is almost entirely a one-issue election with almost all of its associated virulent discourse filtered through the Brexit lens. Among the images that stand out are: a Daily Mail front page declaring “May’s outrage at EU’s dirty tricks”; and a faded map held together with tape to show “a world falling apart at the seams”.
Parker says: “It’s a hugely important election. At the moment, it is completely dominated by Brexit, which is a bit weird because there are a lot of other issues that are getting swamped.”

Unlike any other general election, what has become widely referred to as the “snap”, has not involved much detailed discussion of health, security, social care or welfare – the meat and potato issues that have dominated previous campaigns. Unsurprisingly, arts and culture has not found its way into the spotlight and, like everything else, has to be looked at through Brexit-tinted spectacles.
The Conservatives’ hard Brexit, under which prime minister Theresa May wants to withdraw the UK from the single market and strike a new trade deal, has several implications for museums, particularly for those who employ large numbers of EU nationals whose future in this country is now uncertain.

Museums Journal has reported previously that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been in regular dialogue with the Department for Exiting the European Union and national museums over Brexit, but none of the museums contacted had been offered assurances over the future status of their EU staff. In crude terms, the government’s refusal to guarantee the rights of the 3.2 million EU citizens living in the UK could be viewed as a bargaining chip in the final negotiations.
But this rather bullish approach has hit the morale of EU staff working in the cultural sector.

“The feeling that Britain neither valued nor wanted my contribution led to a state where I didn’t merely feel excluded, I actively stopped participating in life in the UK,” an EU national who worked for a local authority-run museum in England told Museums Journal in February when MPs voted down an amendment to the European Union (notification of withdrawal) bill that would safeguard their rights.
“It is important to me to express that I felt I had no choice but to return to Germany. I was absolutely heartbroken.”

Loss of skills

Alistair Brown, the Museums Association’s (MA) policy officer, says: “Using these people as a bargaining chip in negotiations may turn out to be self-defeating, as talented individuals could decide to take their skills elsewhere.
“Many of these people have become deeply disenchanted with life in the UK since Brexit, and politicians need to take the risk of a ‘brain drain’ seriously.”

The Conservatives’ hard approach to Brexit seems to have made Ukip’s longstanding anti-EU stance less relevant. And although Ukip hopes to take votes in Labour constituencies that voted leave, the big losses sustained by both parties in the local elections indicate this won’t be the case.
While Labour campaigned for remain, the party believes the referendum result should be honoured, with most MPs bowing to pressure from the party to allow article 50 to be invoked in February’s parliamentary vote. Labour has, however, pledged to guarantee the rights of EU citizens and wants assurances given on workers’ rights and for the UK to have access to the single market.
The Green party is pushing for a second referendum on the Brexit deal negotiated with Brussels, and has stated it is against a hard Brexit.

Pro-EU stance

By contrast, the Liberal Democrats have taken a markedly more pro-EU stance, pledging to stop a hard Brexit and to fight to ensure that the UK retains its membership of the single market. The party also wants a referendum on the terms of the final deal.

The Liberal Democrats told Museums Journal that the consequences of Britain’s exit from the EU will be felt by “every person and every industry” – and culture will be no exception.

Chancellor Philip  Hammond has said the  Treasury would match EU funding until after Brexit on several projects agreed before last year’s Autumn Statement, including funding streams for universities, which can benefit museums. A statement from the Liberal Democrats said: “Funding levels could fall dramatically once EU sources are cut off. The government has pledged to match EU funding until the date of our departure; this must continue after Brexit.”

Creative Europe

Many people have also raised concerns about the future of Creative Europe –the European Commission’s programme to support culture and the audiovisual sectors, which has a budget of €1.46bn to spend on the arts for 2014-20. As yet, there has been no confirmation of what will be used to replace the UK’s share of this funding pot.
The Liberal Democrats argue that leaving the single market will also affect tourism: “Our cultural institutions rely on tourists from around the world, and more than two thirds of those tourists come from the EU. By taking us out of the single market, the Conservatives’ hard Brexit risks making it harder for people to come here and visit our museums.”
Meanwhile, the Labour party would “reinstate the cross-Whitehall ministerial group on tourism, so that the concerns of the industry have a platform during the Brexit negotiations”.

Barriers to tourism

In its Museums Manifesto, the MA is calling on the next government to ensure that any Brexit deal does not result in additional barriers to tourism from other EU member states; no new restrictions to the exchange of expertise among UK and EU museum staff, and protections for existing museum staff from other EU countries; and no additional customs, regulatory or tariff barriers on the exchange of museum objects or specimens between the UK and other EU member states.

A Brexit deal that takes the UK out of the single market, argue the Liberal Democrats, could mean that new tariffs and other barriers are imposed on goods moving between EU countries and the UK, including museum objects and artworks.
Public investment

The MA has also called for the next government to sustain public investment at a time when local authorities in England are spending 31% less in real terms on museums than they did in 2010.

It says the government should mitigate the impact of cuts by increasing funding for Arts Council England’s National Portfolio scheme, so more museums can benefit. The Museums Manifesto states: “There are a number of potential sources of funding for this work, including the growing receipts from gambling taxes.”

John Roles, the head of Leeds Museums and Galleries, says: “Continuing reductions in local authority funding on top of a 31% fall since 2010 will see an increase in the number of closures. More importantly, there will be more loss of expertise – not just in terms of collections, but in core areas like learning. There is a danger of a return to the pre-1974 situation, when many museums were largely static displays with a limited schools programme but little else.”

Business rates

The economic uncertainty associated with Brexit could also affect business rates, which local authorities are increasingly reliant on for funding.

Roles says: “The uncertainty has seen firms pull out of some current/recent redevelopments in Leeds. The climate of caution and uncertainty impacts not only on direct funding via business rates, but also limits the opportunities for sponsorship, which is already challenging for those outside central London.”
Business rates have increased for many museums due to changes to the way they are calculated. Labour has promised to reform them to “create a fairer system of  business taxation” and to deliver longer-term funding settlements to help local authorities plan ahead.

Huge change

“A logic is appearing but I’m not sure what it is yet,” says Parker of the final installation that she has been commissioned to create for the election. This sums 
up how many people feel about the election – huge change is unravelling, and while the polls suggest that it will be delivered by the Conservatives, nobody knows exactly what form it will take.

National concerns

One of the most heated debates taking place across the nations is whether Brexit will lead to the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

A border and a halt on freedom of movement have a number of implications for Northern Ireland, which voted remain and shares a 310-mile land frontier with Ireland.

Not only are there fears it will threaten a carefully negotiated peace agreement, which is partly hinged on a commitment to eradicate check points and make the border as open as possible, it also has the potential to affect trade, tourism and key funding streams.
And there is concern about what the upcoming split from the EU will mean for Northern Ireland’s museums and other cultural and creative industries.

Fears about the loss of EU funding are particularly pertinent in Northern Ireland. In addition to Europe-wide programmes such as Creative Europe, the Northern Irish culture sector has greatly benefited from targeted funds such as the EU’s Peace Programme, which supports reconciliation through stimulating “social and economic progress” in Northern Ireland and the border counties of the Irish Republic.

“After being a peripheral 
issue it seems as if Ireland and Northern Ireland have been put at the front of the stage”, says Paddy Gilmore, the head of programmes at National Museums Northern Ireland.

“It raises bigger issues in terms of identity with a lot of people who were fairly content with their role within Northern Ireland. From the nationalists and the unionists perspective a lot of people were guaranteed European citizenship and that has been good, and in many ways underpinned the Good Friday Agreement.”

In Scotland, where all its 32 electoral regions voted remain, the Scottish National party has placed a second independence referendum on the table. But so far polls show that the support for independence has not spiked significantly since the Brexit vote.

Nat Edwards, a heritage and museum consultant, said: “We shouldn’t be too complacent but it is true that Scottish museums are cushioned from the full impact of Westminster austerity policies and a potential Tory landslide by devolution and a Scottish government that has been broadly sympathetic to heritage and culture.

 “While everyone’s reeling from hammer blows south of the border, our psephologists will be studying the nuance of results in Scotland to see what they suggest about the likelihood and likely result of independence referendum number two,” says Edwards.

“It will be interesting to see how museums engage with a second referendum, with a sense of less political control on what they say at local levels.”

Plaid Cymru’s manifesto argues that it would create an effective opposition to the Conservatives at a time when Labour MPs are divided. The party also has a strong focus on Brexit in its manifesto, with the party pledging to ensure Wales will be able to continue to sell to Europe without penalties, guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Wales and secure money promised by the leave campaign

Looking back at the 1997 general election

An exhibition on the rise of NewLabour, culminating in Tony Blair’s landslide election victory in 1997, is helping audiences to reflect on the challenges facing the Labour party 20 years on as it fights June’s general election.

The exhibition New Dawn? The 1997 General Election is at the People’s History Museum in Manchester until 4 June, and charts how a rebranded party ended 18 years of Conservative government.
“It was a government that was elected with a lot of optimism,” says Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham and the curator of the exhibition.

“Now it has got this reputation, which is also evident within the party, that it didn’t do anything worthwhile in terms of equality and fairness, and there are those on the right that say it spent too much money and is largely to blame for the austerity that followed.”
The exhibition starts with the 1983 election, when Labour suffered one of its worst defeats, and explores what happened in the run up to the 1992 election, which saw the party’s fourth consecutive election defeat against the Conservatives, leading many experts to believe that Britain had become a one-party state. It also explores the questions that were raised about the party’s future direction, and the changes that were made to its policies during the five years leading to its 1997 victory.
“The exhibition starts in 1983, which saw one of Labour’s worst defeats,” Fielding says. “If the polls are right there will be comparisons with 2017. The debate about what Labour should do next will be very similar.”
In this year’s election some 
in the right-wing press have resurrected the phrase “suicide note” to describe the party’s manifesto, as they did in the early 1980s. It will be interesting to see if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s response to his likely defeat will mirror the triumphant stance taken by the late Tony Benn, a former Labour MP, who, in 1983, remarked on the high levels of engagement in left-wing policies, says Fielding.
How the 2017 general election is viewed in 20 years’ time will largely depend on the success of Brexit, says Fielding. One item that he believes would appear in an exhibition on the current campaign would be the front cover of the Daily Mail, which used a picture of Theresa May and the headline Crush the Saboteurs! in its announcement of the election on 19 April.

“It implies that anyone that opposes Brexit is not a patriot and some kind of traitor, and that May is riding this wave,” says Fielding. “But whether May is riding this wave to great national triumph after Brexit or it is all going to crash and burn we don’t know.”

Update: 30.05.2017

This article was written before any of the major political parties published their manifestos. For more on specific policies affecting museums, galleries and heritage sites read this news article on the MA's website.   

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