A new internationalism: the arts after Brexit

The first of a new series of guest opinion pieces on art and the new political landscape

By Munira Mirza

Munira Mirza at No Boundaries 2017. Image: Chris Payne


Munira Mirza is an arts consultant, writer and broadcaster, and between 2008 and 2016 was London's deputy mayor for culture. This is an edited version of a speech Mirza gave at the No Boundaries 2017 conference in Manchester, on Wednesday 29 March

It won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that as the political events in the UK have unfolded over the past year, the arts sector has become pessimistic and anxious about the future.

 For many people in the arts, the vote to leave the EU looked simply like a mass rejection of the rest of the world, a ‘pulling up of the drawbridge’ against ‘Johnny Foreigner’. The fear of many arts organisations and professionals is that this will have both practical consequences on the way they work with artists and partners abroad, but more profoundly, that Brexit will turn us into a nation of Little Englanders and make it harder to support creativity and diverse ideas.

Such a view is simplistic and inaccurate, both because of what it assumes about the majority of people who voted to leave, and because it misses the fact that we now have a chance to forge a new, more dynamic and inclusive relationship with the world.

There will be many different reasons for why people voted the way they did in the referendum. But what we can see from recent polls is that the majority of Leave voters – like Remain voters – want free trade with the rest of the world. They also support the right of EU citizens in the UK to remain, and want to develop a positive relationship with Europe. Whilst undoubtedly there is a minority of xenophobes who want to end immigration completely, the majority of Leave voters are moderate and sensible. It would be wrong to caricature them as racist and backwards, as so many people did in the aftermath of the vote (including, sadly, a number of prominent artists). Furthermore, post-referendum polls suggest around one million ethnic minority voters voted to leave the EU – a third of the total ethnic minority population of the UK. Again, this doesn’t chime with the stereotype of Leave voters being simply racist and wanting a return to a whites-only country or the glories of the ‘Empire’. As two friends of mine from West Indian backgrounds who voted to Leave told me, they felt that they were voting along class lines, not ethnic lines, and they resented the way middle-class white Remainers caricatured their views. For many voters from Commonwealth countries, it has often felt like Britain’s membership of the EU came at the expense of relations with their countries of origin.

we now have a chance to forge a new, more dynamic and inclusive relationship with the world

In fact, there were and are many people who support Brexit on the grounds that it is paradoxically the EU that stops us from being truly international in our approach. The EU is a protectionist bloc, it privileges internal migration at the expense of non-EU migration (for instance in 1991 the EU required newly joined Spain to harden its porous border with Morocco ending years of temporary migration flows) and makes it impossible for its member states to arrange free trade deals with other countries. The way in which the EU’s tariffs and common agricultural policy harms Africa has long come under criticism. Far from being about taking down borders, the EU has built them up.

These words may upset a lot of people; emotions run high on both sides. My point is not to attack the EU and its problems – but to explain that there is no reason now to think we have to go backwards. Britain – and the arts sector in Britain – can thrive with a new approach to international engagement.

So what should the arts be talking about now?

First, the government’s priority should be to develop a new relationship with the EU and its member states. As was said many times during the referendum campaign, leaving the EU does not mean leaving Europe. No one should pretend that forging this new relationship will be easy but it’s certainly achievable. The priorities will be to try to match as closely as possible the current access we have to the single market without being a member. For many in the arts who work regularly with Europe this is about lobbying to secure ease of travel and movement of goods. It’s about maintaining regulations that support the sector. And asking Government to assist with any additional burden of administration.

We also need to decide which EU initiated programmes we want to remain part of. For instance, the Erasmus scheme for students to work and study abroad is open to many non-EU countries and we’d almost certainly want to remain involved. There will be many other cultural networks – again, these often include non-EU countries – which we will want to remain part of.

The EU has provided funding to arts organisations in the UK (although £10m a year from Creative Europe is a fraction of the £600m that Arts Council England spends, or the total £1bn the government spends on culture. Even with European Regional Development Fund funding on top of that, it is still relatively small). So we should argue to protect that level of funding as much as possible by replacing it with the money the UK will save when we end our large financial contributions to the EU.

And second, beyond Europe, of course, there are also opportunities. Once we leave the EU customs union we will be free to initiate our own trade deals with other countries – something the EU is famously ineffective at. We can develop stronger relationships with India and China, where there is a huge interest in British cultural exports. The UK exports more cultural goods to the USA than any other single country) yet we have no deal with them. We can include culture in future trade negotiations, an element the EU always excluded because of the concerns of other member states who had much smaller creative sectors than ours.

With regards to immigration, we will have control over the entire system, which means we no longer need to discriminate between EU and non-EU citizens but treat people equally and fairly. The Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists Campaign has revealed the difficult restrictions on non-EU artists; a result of clamping down harshly on non-EU immigration because of the inability to control EU free movement. Whilst free movement may end (and with it, the automatic right to citizenship) we should lobby for a more effective system based on ‘fluidity of movement’, accessible work permits, sponsored visas and skills-based criteria. I worked for London government for eight years and believe passionately that immigration brings huge benefits. The diversity of the city, the talent it attracts and its reputation for tolerance are amongst the most important ingredients of its success. But our immigration system needs to be modernised, made more equitable for non-Europeans and reflect our current welfare system.

Finally, we should see that Britain has a huge amount of soft power through its cultural sector. This isn’t about showing off to the rest of the world, but it is about sharing our ‘USP’ and building relations based on trust and mutual benefit. The British Council has a hugely important role to play, as does the Arts Council, in forging collaborations. An example of the kind of programme we should encourage is the British Museum’s International Training Programme which supports residential training for dozens of curators from countries all around the world sharing ideas, skills and inspiration. It is precisely this kind of cultural exchange – including Europe but also looking beyond to the wider world – we need.

Our museums, galleries, theatres and orchestras are working increasingly outside of Europe

Because ultimately, whilst our identity is partly bound up with Europe, it is also bound up with other countries outside Europe through a shared history, as well as a shared future. One of my favourite artists, Rasheed Araeen, moved to London from Pakistan in the 1950s and started making minimalist sculpture. At the time he received very little recognition from the cultural elite in Britain as part of the mainstream modernist movement. He began to write about this eurocentric logic, which he believed blinded so many art historians to black and minority ethnic artists from the former colonies and beyond; they could only see these artists as different, foreign, with a separate identity and culture.

I believe that things have changed – our arts sector today is more diverse, there is a more inclusive understanding of art history, or at least a recognition that we need to make it more inclusive. Our museums and galleries and theatres and orchestras are working increasingly outside of Europe and developing collaborations. Araeen himself was shown at the Sharjah Biennial in 2014, an event which has helped cement the importance of Arab influence in contemporary art. The world is changing; and our relationship with the world needs to change too. The postwar imperative to connect with Europe was of course important, but it no longer makes sense at a time when we have artists from around the world coming to Britain.

So when we are told by political campaigners and artists that ’We Are European’, let’s consider the kind of message that sends to the world, to non-EU artists in the UK, to people from non-EU countries who live in the UK – and how bizarre it seems to them that we should prioritise and privilege one continent in this way. Let’s recognise that there are other ways to engage with the rest of the world and that in fact it is the internationalism of the arts that reminds us of the need to be open rather than closed.