Now is not the time for a festival of Great British hubris
Festival of Britain 1951 - Image credit: Holyrood
Last week, as the Tories prepared to go to their party conference, Theresa May announced plans for a year-long ‘Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ in 2022 to strengthen “our precious union”.
Starting four months before the next planned general election, the £120m festival has been billed as a “nationwide festival in celebration of the creativity and innovation of the United Kingdom”.
The festival will take place just over 70 years after the 1951 Festival of Britain, which in turn was supposed to echo the Great Exhibition of 1851.
May said the new festival will showcase the UK’s talent in business, technology, arts and sport. She hopes events will take place in every region across the UK and generate billions of pounds of investment in post-Brexit Britain.
“Almost 70 years ago, the Festival of Britain stood as a symbol of change,” the Prime Minister told The Sunday Times.
“Britain once again stands on the cusp of a new future as an outward-facing, global trading nation. And, just as millions of Britons celebrated their nation’s great achievements in 1951, we want to showcase what makes our country great today.
We want to capture that spirit for a new generation, celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent and mark this moment of national renewal with a once-in-a-generation celebration.”
There is, of course, the potential for it just to be an expensive flop.
In recent memory, a huge white elephant celebration of national pride was the Millennium Dome.
It resembled the Dome of Discovery at the Festival of Britain, but failed to attract anything like the predicted number of visitors and it was beset by financial problems.
And while the 1951 Festival of Britain was a success overall, it wasn’t quite the same story in Glasgow, where the Kelvin Hall hosted an exhibition devoted to ‘industrial power’.
Despite some dramatic exhibits, including an indoor waterfall, a million-volt machine sending flashes of lightning into a domed roof representing the night sky and a coal mine, the exhibition was considered a bit of a flop, attracting less than half the projected number of visitors.
It became the butt of jokes in the local media.
“Oh wad some power the giftie gie us to bring the legions in to see us,” quipped a wag in the Evening Times at the time.
But aside from the potential for it just to be an embarrassing spectacle, what other signals does this planned festival send?
As well as being an enormously clunky attempt at distracting from the fact that we seem no closer to a deal with the EU, just weeks from the final deadline – so perhaps rather premature to announce a celebration of our national greatness – and a more general positive call to come together as a country, there are some unfortunate associations.
While the 1951 exhibition was generally considered a success and is credited with helping to shape modern British design and architecture, one of its main purposes was to prop up waning support for the then Labour government in the midst of tough post-war austerity.
The historian Kenneth O. Morgan described its success thus: “A people curbed by years of total war and half-crushed by austerity and gloom, showed that it had not lost the capacity for enjoying itself.”
Aside from affirming suspicions that the view of Brexit is backward looking and harks back to a Britain of the past in a world that no longer exists, it’s not a particularly encouraging parallel.
There seems to be an underlying message: ‘Don’t worry, Brexit won’t be like Mad Max; it’ll only be like the aftermath of a major war’.
It seems unwise to use a post-WWII festival as a point of reference in the week the UK Government had to appoint a minister for food supplies, amid non-ironic talk of a return of stockpiling and rationing of food and medicines.
The 1951 Festival of Britain was itself a celebration of the centenary of the 1851 Great Exhibition, but without that earlier festival’s international focus or the inclusion of the Commonwealth – something that may also resonate now.
But in terms of celebrating the nation’s diversity, a festival of ‘Britishness’ fails to recognise there are many in parts of the UK who will not want to celebrate that.
The year 2022 has been chosen to mark the anniversary of a number of events, including the Queen’s platinum jubilee, the 100th birthday of the BBC and the 75th anniversary of the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe, and it will coincide with the next Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham.
It will also fall around the centenary of the partition of Ireland and the creation of Northern Ireland, but, not surprisingly, this is not being mentioned as part of the celebration.
With the UK Government having failed to broker a deal to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running, and possible future scenarios for the province ranging from the breakdown of the Good Friday Agreement to a majority opting for a united Ireland, and with the Irish border question still unresolved, there is little for this government to celebrate.
Last week, DUP leader Arlene Foster flung down the gauntlet to Theresa May, reiterating the Northern Irish party’s red line on a border in the Irish Sea and noting that the DUP’s support was of the Conservative Party as a whole, not May herself, as well as warning that the Good Friday Agreement was not “sacrosanct”.
But aside from the current situation in NI, the link to its history is deeply insensitive on two fronts.
Not only does it fall around, and fail to acknowledge, an anniversary that only one community there will want to be reminded of, it echoes another festival in 1971 in Northern Ireland to celebrate 50 years of Stormont that caused similar upset at that time.
John Dallat, SDLP MLA for East Derry, told The Irish News last week that the festival of Britain was a “terrible example of déjà vu”.
He said: “Just like now there was political breakdown, with nationalists withdrawing from Stormont and unionists behaving like headless chickens pretending everything was rosy in the garden.
“I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard of the crazy plan to celebrate 50 years of Stormont rule.
I wondered if it was for real – fêtes, dog shows and free buses to the Botanic Gardens to see a one-sided presentation of history in a big tent.
“Are we going to have another ‘Ulster 71 Exhibition’ and little garden parties funded by the government across the north? Where on earth is the logic in what [Theresa May] is doing?
“Is she trying to rekindle the old empire, pretending that the world hasn’t moved on?”
And indeed, the question is, how much has the world moved on and what will there be to celebrate in 2022?
At this point, we don’t know but when Morgan talks of people in 1951 “half-crushed by austerity and gloom”, that could refer to this country now.
Last week was Challenge Poverty Week in Scotland and a newly published Joseph Rowntree Foundation report found that 230,000 – or one in four – children in Scotland are living in poverty, with families “facing impossible decisions such as whether to pay the rent, heat their home or put food on the table”.
It called for “decisive steps” from the Scottish Government.
Meanwhile, foodbank charity the Trussell Trust has reported a 52 per cent rise in demand in areas of the UK where Universal Credit has been rolled out, while earlier this year, the Resolution Foundation calculated that last year there had been the biggest increase in poverty in the UK in a single year since Margaret Thatcher was in power in 1988.
We already live in an era of austerity similar to that in the post-war period.
In her party conference speech, Theresa May announced an end to austerity and affirmed her belief that “our best days lie ahead of us” and a post-Brexit Britain would be “full of promise” because we have “everything we need to succeed”.
She said that a Brexit that might make Britain stronger in 50 years “is no good to you if it makes your life harder today”.
But a positive outcome remains contingent on a good deal and things could get much worse, leaving many with little to celebrate by 2022.
The deadline for a workable solution approaches and a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looks ever more likely, accompanied as it is by predictions of food and medicine shortages, the loss of up to 80,000 Scottish jobs, and one in ten companies going bankrupt if queues at customs reach just half an hour.
Meanwhile, the UK still expects the EU to jump through hoops to create a bespoke deal that resolves all the problems of our own making.
Perhaps rather than the 1951 Evening Times columnist’s call for a power “to bring the legions in to see us”, we should rather be asking for what Burns originally proposed –“to see oursels as ithers see us”.
More appropriate at this time may be a period of sober humility and self-reflection rather than a festival of national hubris – until we see what we actually have to be proud of.