Perhaps all anyone needs to know about the Festival of Brexit, which really is going to take place in 2022, is that its earliest recorded champion is Jacob Rees-Mogg. Love Jacob, scourge of the liberal metropolitan elite, and you’ll love his idea of fun.
“A Festival of Brexit would be excellent,” he said, early in 2018. “There should be a huge celebration and in the spirit of friendship of our European neighbours we should drink lots of champagne to say that although we may be leaving the European Union, we don’t dislike Europe.” And the brand? Unspecified, though for peers we know Mogg insists on “the highest quality”.
Despite the best efforts of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which subsequently renamed the Moggfest a “Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, then, yet more hygienically, Festival 2022, the earlier name appears, being accurate, to have stuck. So the principal task for its newly appointed director, the event professional Martin Green, will be selling the fiction that a crass, xenophobic, hideously timed and inherently divisive event, conceived of purely as a trumpeting of the country’s Moggian – ie immigrant and metropolitan elite-free – destiny, can also bring us, as Green puts it, “joy and hope and community”.
You almost feel for Green (whose track record includes, as well as his Olympic hiring of Danny Boyle, the tragicomic Beijing segment featuring a red bus and Boris Johnson). Even the managers of the Millennium Dome, that monument to all doomed national festivities, were never asked to separate the endeavour from the year 2000. Nobody asked Green, when he supervised Hull’s time as City of Culture, if he wouldn’t mind staging it in Huddersfield (though actually, for poorer people in Hull, that might not have made much difference). But the great You Lost Get Over It Festival could also, we gather, be about “healing and coming together”. How? “Of course, I’m not the one who is going to answer the question,” Green has said. “The great creatives of this country will.”
Come in, then, any individuals who recognise themselves in Dominic Cummings’s recent caricature: “Oxbridge English graduates who chat about Lacan at dinner parties with TV producers and spread fake news about fake news.” You’re needed to clean up after his buses. Perhaps the metropolitan elite really does abound in great creatives who are willing, desperate or privately Brexity enough to stage a national triumph over the metropolitan elite. They might be able to re-enact some battle or other, what with Noel Gallagher, Roger Daltrey, Michael Caine and £120m for fireworks. Imagine, too, a massive blue passport on the fourth plinth; dog shows in every abandoned library; a new Wetherspoon literary prize for the novel that most helps readers – NB Ian McEwan – take pride in Britain.
Other great creatives may believe, more honourably, that they can ignore or transcend the politics, endure Remainer insults about bread and circuses and finally supply experiences more reminiscent of the impressive, often intensely moving events that commemorated, over five years, the centenary of the First World War. Researchers at British Future have commended, as a model for the new festival, that project’s “reach and resonance across different sections of society, crossing divides by politics, geography, age, ethnicity and class”.
But given the government’s determination – against British Future’s advice – to celebrate its triumph in 2022, the anniversary of Irish partition, amid continuing post-Brexit divisions and disintegration, similar divide-crossing would demand unprecedented levels of creative genius. Nobody, not even the miserabilist cynics ritually denounced by professional choreographers of national pride, objected to remembrances for the war dead.
How many of the disappointed 48%, however resigned to the outcome, will welcome the chance to forget old principles and come together with Mark Francois? How shall we celebrate our losses of citizenship? Would it help if the Queen parachuted in? What brilliant cultural intervention – be it theatre, exhibition or a volunteer army – will transform the end of free movement, a stalled economy, shrivelling union, international ridicule and the extinction of the postwar European dream, into something as cynic-crushing as Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder? The new James Bond?
If the squabbles over bell ringing have served any purpose, it’s surely as a hint to the DCMS officials obediently bleating about “a moment of national celebration” that will “help attract new inward business and investment” to learn, while there’s time, from an earlier misadventure in “arts, culture, design and tech”: the dome. Its begetter, Michael Heseltine, talked up “selling ourselves and our country”. The heritage minister, Virginia Bottomley, said: “It will unite the nation.” Tony Blair, having aggressively defended the indefensible, later regretted not building a hospital instead: “It wasn’t really a suitable project for government.”
But the aptest warning may be the event’s opposite, Fanfare for Britain, devised, in defiance of political dissent, to celebrate Britain’s entry into the Common Market. The programme, including a Covent Garden gala, football and a “Miss TV Europe” contest, also anticipated current demands on the church: a controversial service of thanksgiving was staged in Coventry cathedral. “The Fanfare was a flop,” writes Robert Saunders in Yes to Europe. “Wembley Stadium was half empty, events were sparsely attended and the government was accused of squandering £350,000 of public money. Opinion polls, which had shown a slender majority for entry in January, quickly turned sour.”
That a more skilful generation of planners may surmount similar challenges cannot, however, detoxify the new project. Throughout Johnson’s leadership campaign, supporters cited, as though it were some prized premiership indicator, his alleged Olympic feats: ie he was mayor when Danny Boyle delivered on an earlier achievement by New Labour, specifically by Tessa Jowell.
Supposing they can frustrate Rees-Mogg, dodge jingoism and deliver an intelligent, non-embarrassing, basically Brexit-free Festival of Brexit, the great creatives in question will find that this doubles, like it or not, as a triumphal arch for Boris Johnson.
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist