The so-called "Festival of Brexit" was billed by some as a celebration of the UK’s bright future outside the European Union. However, festivities have already soured.
Organisers have shunned the “Brexit” label for the event, which now features arts projects spanning abandoned offshore rigs and Wales’s uncertain future. Furious MPs called the newly branded scheme “meaningless”.
The £120 million celebration of Brexit first announced in 2018 was known under the working title of Festival UK 2022, and has now conclusively distanced itself from all links to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
The nationwide arts programme to take place next year will be known simply as Unboxed, following PR work to convey the project’s vision of being “open, original and optimistic”.
What was once hailed by some as a celebration of Brexit will feature 10 projects, including a decommissioned offshore platform being placed in a former lido in Weston-super-Mare, and a TV drama set in a near-future Wales which could be independent from the UK.
Craig Mackinlay, one of the original 28 “Spartan” Tory MPs who voted against attempts by Theresa May to deliver a softer Brexit, said: “What could have been a great celebration of global Britain post-Brexit has now been Whitehall-sanitised down into something anodyne and meaningless. It is a great opportunity missed.”
David Jones, another of the Spartans, said he was “shocked” that it seemed Brexit had been airbrushed from the celebration of the UK.
He said: “Brexit is the rebirth of the United Kingdom as an independent nation. It is something that we should be celebrating and this is a huge opportunity to do so. I very much hope that reference to Brexit will be made in future. A lot of colleagues will wish to take this up with new Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries.”
Marcus Fysh, another one of the Tory Spartans, added: “Reclaiming the freedom for our and future generations to make our own law was the main purpose of Brexit. It is absolutely to be celebrated. But more importantly, it must also be used for the UK to rise to the significant challenges ahead.”
A spokesman for Unboxed explained the branding: “We wanted it to be informed by our values of ‘open, original and optimistic’, and the idea that collective creativity is a positive force in the world. We also wanted it to be playful.”
She added that Festival UK 2022, formally marked with an asterisk to indicate it was a working title, was always intended to be replaced.
Unboxed projects announced on Thursday make no reference to Brexit. But Martin Green, the chief creative officer, has said the 10 commissions will “explore the ideas that will define our futures”.
Welsh project Galwad is canvassing people across Wales to help devise a future that is not necessarily “utopian” or “happy”, which will be included TV drama and a series of live performances, with independence and the climate crisis potentially factored into the fictional world.
The project StoryTrails will use augmented reality and 3D technology to “reignite people’s pride and passion for their hometown” by bringing the past to life digitally.
Stories that will be explored in these digital displays include those from “marginalised communities alongside stories of celebration, LGBTQ+, environment, class, health, work and technology, race and migration”.
Other works to be rolled out across the UK include PoliNations, highlighting the UK’s multiculturalism by explaining the international origins of the country’s plants, with the help of man-made forest installations in Birmingham and Edinburgh.
A source close to the European Research Group of Tory MPs added: “The Festival of Brexit was launched by Theresa May to champion her vision of Brexit Britain. Unfortunately, this festival is not even Brexit in name only.”
Boris Johnson’s government backed the project in 2019, after it was first announced in 2018.
It was quickly nicknamed the Festival of Brexit, in particular by Jacob Rees-Mogg, an informal title which echoed the 1947 Festival of Britain.
Organisers have been keen to distance the event from Brexit, with Mr Green stating in 2020 that it was not about Britain’s break with the European Union.
A spokesman for Unboxed said: “Unboxed is a celebration of the creativity and innovation to be found across the UK. The programme builds on the UK’s diversity and through events, learning and participation, and aims to bring people together. We believe that creativity has a critically important role to play in our world and, increasingly, in how we live, work and play.
“Unboxed is about new ideas and contributing to a global conversation about the role of creativity in our shared futures.”