Brexit has turned liberals into crashing snobs

Rufus Wainwright (right) with Ivo van Hove and Sheridan Smith after the press night of Opening Night: the smiles didn't last long
Rufus Wainwright (right) with Ivo van Hove and Sheridan Smith after the press night of Opening Night: the smiles didn't last long - Dave Benett/Getty Images Europe

Last month, mere weeks into its run, the producers of Opening Night – a West End musical starring Sheridan Smith – announced that it was to close, two months earlier than planned. But why did the show flop so badly? Was it because it was a “pretentious, convoluted mess” (Telegraph)? “Maddeningly opaque” (Times)? “A car crash” (Express)?

No. It was because Brexit has turned the British into philistines, too insular to appreciate unconventional art.

That, at least, seems to be the view of the musician who wrote the show’s songs. Speaking to the Guardian – one of the few newspapers to give Opening Night an enthusiastic write-up – Rufus Wainwright insisted that “all of the reviews from Europe” were “incredible”. Yet in Britain, he complained, there was “a vitriolic reaction” because, “since Brexit, England has entered into a darker corridor” which has made it “narrow in its outlook”. As a result, he said, “There’s a lack of imagination and curiosity about change.”

Presumably this lack of imagination and curiosity explains why, according to the Sun, members of the audience were seen walking out of one performance during the interval – while, according to the Express, others fell asleep.

All the same, it’s possible there may be a small flaw or two in Mr Wainwright’s analysis. For one thing, Opening Night was panned by critics from publications that opposed Brexit – such as the New Statesman (which called the show “unlovable”), the Independent (“misjudged”) and the FT (“clunky”).

Perhaps Brexit is so awful, it’s turned Remainers into philistines, too. But it gets worse. The most damning review of all (“A travesty… A sludgy melodrama”) appeared in the New York Times. So Brexit must have turned New Yorkers into philistines, as well.

Then again, that can’t be right – because Mr Wainwright himself was born in New York. And Brexit hasn’t turned him into a philistine. Because if it had, he could never have helped create such a cruelly neglected masterpiece as Opening Night.

On reflection, therefore, I’m afraid I’m going to have to consider the possibility that Mr Wainwright is wrong. The failure of his show had nothing to do with Brexit. And, when he huffs about our “lack of imagination and curiosity”, he’s just being stuck-up.

If so, however, he’s hardly alone. This type of attitude has become all too common among supposedly “cultured” liberals, in the US just as much as in Britain. Ever since 2016, they have routinely ridiculed Leavers as ignorant, backward and thick. In fact, this intellectual disdain swiftly grew so widespread that, in 2021, the author David Skelton published a book on it, titled The New Snobbery.

All things considered, then, I don’t think Brexit has turned the British into philistines. I think it’s turned liberals into snobs.

The main problem with this snobbery, though, is not that it’s unpleasant. It’s that it’s made it impossible to have a proper discussion about how Brexit is going. Because, if anyone tries to talk about the extra red tape that our deal with the EU has created for businesses, farmers and fishermen, they risk being dismissed as a snob themselves. Perhaps this is why Labour daren’t even raise the subject any more.

Still, if it helps Mr Wainwright feel better about his show’s failure, I suppose that’s something. And his excuse may provide children with some helpful inspiration. Next time they get a bad mark in maths, they can tell their parents that, since Brexit, teachers have simply become too insular to appreciate unconventional arithmetic.