Voices: Brexit is undermining the arts – and those in the creative industries are not being listened to

·4-min read
Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra during a concert celebrating the conductor's 90th birthday at The Barbican in London (AFP/Getty)
Dutch conductor Bernard Haitink conducts the London Symphony Orchestra during a concert celebrating the conductor's 90th birthday at The Barbican in London (AFP/Getty)

The government seems to take delight in reminding us that Brexit is done. I’d say it’s not so much “done” as a seeping, slippery slop that belongs in the waste bin.

But we must try to achieve a much more worker-friendly Brexit, by continuing talks with a government that seem strangely reluctant to help a lucrative industry worth £116bn. Trade is deliberately confused with immigration because populist party politics demands headlines on border control, which has nothing to do with trade. Even EU artists working in the UK get a better deal than Brits in Europe. Talk about an own goal.

We are now a year on from the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) being signed into law and the situation for musicians and creatives is bleak. There has been little progress on the issues facing us with touring, education and more. It’s a point of continual frustration that our brilliant, experienced sector knows what the solutions are, but is often ignored.

Small teams representing the creative industries, mostly spearheaded by Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, are constantly negotiating with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and making representations to select committees in the Commons and Lords.

In a September 2021 session, evidence from Annetts, Noel McClean of the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu) and Craig Stanley, chair of the Live music, Industry, Venues and Entertainment (Live) touring group makes stark reading for those who love our industries.

How did we find ourselves in this situation? To me, it’s clear that the people who represented the UK’s creative industries during the TCA negotiations were rushed and ill-informed despite endless offers of help from sector organisations. Bob Geldof, Elton John, Damon Albarn, Brian May and others including myself have been derided as scaremongers for speaking out.

It would be churlish not to mention progress where it has been made. Spain recently announced 90 out of 180 days access for UK musicians. Nadine Dorries was eager to claim this as a DCMS-led success without acknowledging the Association of British Orchestras, Live and their equivalent counterparts in Spain who I understand did most of the negotiating.

Crucially, our soft power is a major factor in maintaining the immense reputation British artists have abroad, which is roughly 20 per cent of global artistic excellence. British creatives are considered reliable and highly skilled. They are in huge demand. But that demand is dwindling due to red tape created by those who didn’t take our advice during failed TCA meetings. I hope interim Brexit minister Liz Truss recognises the importance of UK creative industries and how they are faltering.

One worrying but little-reported aspect of Brexit is the financial strain our music conservatoires are now faced with. Until very recently, these institutions were the envy of the world, places where foreign students flocked to gain degrees and performance practice. Now, EU student visas prevent paid work experience and this is reciprocal in Europe. Numbers are down by 14 per cent.

Why would a French violinist do a postgraduate course in the UK if they can’t join an orchestra or string quartet and earn a little money from it? Our musicians now cannot apply for travel visas to Europe unless they have a letter of invitation from a top-tier company. I gained my reputation and work experience singing with small Belgian and French Baroque orchestras. But this isn’t possible anymore, partly because of the 90 out of 180-day restrictions, and the expense and availability of work visas.

Universities abroad are not available to our children for (almost) free anymore. The Erasmus scholarships, another Brexit casualty, offered placements for teaching, college staff and youth workers as well, but the replacement Turing scheme will not. Nor is there any promise of funding beyond 2022. Perhaps our government would be wise to consult expert members of our industry instead of going straight to the private sector.

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Many in the creative industries look at 2022 with trepidation. Omicron cases are rising and the year-old Brexit deal still causes problems for the arts today. My message to the government for the new year is to listen to us. We are trying to help.

Maybe heed the words of Saul Bellow, Nobel laureate. “Only art penetrates what pride, passion, intelligence and habit erect on all sides – the seeming realities of this world. There is another reality, the genuine one, which we lose sight of. This other reality is always sending us hints, which without art, we can’t receive. Proust calls these hints our ‘true impressions’.

“The true impressions, our persistent intuitions, will, without art, be hidden from us and we will be left with nothing but a ‘terminology for practical ends’ which we falsely call life.”

Dame Sarah Connolly is a mezzo-soprano opera singer and fellow at the Royal College of Music

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