What is the ‘Festival of Brexit’? Everything we know about ‘hugely expensive and deeply unpopular’ celebration

Phil Batty, the executive director behind the so-called “Festival of Brexit”, has insisted the project has been a success despite its recording official in-person attendance figures of just 2.8m, a long way short of its initial target of 66m.

Mr Batty told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the £120m Unboxed series of arts events had “showcased the very best of science, the very best of tech and the very best of the arts”.

“I believe it has been very successful, because we’ve seen that, whether that’s live events in towns and villages, there’s been an economic boost,” he said.

But the National Audit Office is investigating the festival after MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport select committee warned it was “irresponsible use of public money”.

Tory MP Julian Knight, chair of the committee, responded to the organisers’ final numbers by maintaining that the undertaking had amounted to nothing more than a “colossal waste of money”.

“These final figures only confirm the committee in its view that Unboxed has been a failure and rightly the National Audit Office is investigating,” he told the BBC.

Unboxed’s organisers have repeatedly criticised the politicisation of the project, saying it was “unfortunate” that the Brexit tag had stuck.

The controversy over low attendance figures began in September when a report in The House magazine cited figures for four major Unboxed live events totalling only 238,000 attendees, just 0.36 per cent of its ambitious target.

Naomi Smith, chief executive of Best for Britain group, said the festival had been “the perfect metaphor for how Brexit itself has turned out – hugely expensive and deeply unpopular with no-one really getting what they wanted”.

What was it?

“Unboxed: Creativity in the UK” featured 10 projects taking place over a seven-month period across all four nations of the UK, produced by creative people “across science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics”.

The event was originally announced during Theresa May’s time as prime minister and then backed by Boris Johnson’s Conservative government.

At the time of the announcement in 2018, Ms May said the event would come at a moment of “national renewal” as the nation sought to establish itself outside the European Union (EU).

Paisley Abbey illumintated during an installation as part of Unboxed (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty)
Paisley Abbey illumintated during an installation as part of Unboxed (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty)

However, event organisers subsequently sought to distance it from the “Festival of Brexit” label it acquired after its launch earlier this year.

The project, originally titled Festival UK 2022, but rebranded as “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK”, is now described by organisers as “once-in-a-lifetime celebration of creativity”.

The nationwide celebration was reputedly inspired by the 1851 Great Exhibition during Queen Victoria’s reign and the post-war Festival of Britain more than 70 years ago.

When did it take place?

The festival began in March 2022 and its final event was held in October.

Events took place up and down the country, including in Birmingham, Slough, London, Edinburgh, Belfast and Merthyr Tydfil.

What events were involved?

The festival included “See Monster”, a decommissioned North Sea offshore plant regenerated as an art installation in Weston-super-Mare.

It also included “Our Place in Space”, a 10km sculpture trail in Northern Ireland and Cambridge centred around the Earth’s place in space, and “Tour de Moon”, described as a cosmic journey into the possibilities of the future through live shows, nightlife and digital experiences.

How much did it cost?

The government channelled £120m of taxpayers’ money into the arts project.

During the first wave of Covid-19 in 2020, the body representing Britain’s festival sector criticised the spending, arguing that the money should be diverted to save long-standing and much-loved arts venues instead.

Unboxed organisers have criticised the politicisation of the events (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty)
Unboxed organisers have criticised the politicisation of the events (Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty)

Fiona Goh, director of the British Arts Festivals Association, said the money would be better spent sustaining the existing network of cultural experiences across the country, rather than on an untested event.

Who named it the ‘Festival of Brexit’?

The event is now officially known as Unboxed but government figures including Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg preferred to characterise it as a “Festival of Brexit”.

The event’s organisers explicitly rejected that label and said it was, in fact, “a UK-wide groundbreaking celebration of creativity taking place in 2022”.

Though they have continued to downplay the festival’s association with Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in the time since its initial announcement, it has still been widely referred to as the “Festival of Brexit” among members of the public.

What do we know about its rebranding as Unboxed?

The event was given its new official name in October 2021 in an apparent move to distance the celebrations from the events of June 2016.

MPs previously claimed they were told its final name could not be chosen before then, less than a year before it was due to take place, because ministers “did not know what it was”.