how would brexit affect london's cultural landscape

Should we stay or should we go? Why leaving the EU could irrevocably change the London we love.

by Oscar Quine
15 April 2016, 8:05am

What has Berlin ever done for us? According to those campaigning for Brexit, not much. Apart from, by way of the EU, drain our public finances and chip away at our sovereignty. How about for youth culture, though? The city has long been a Mecca for British youth and embodies a particular kind of cool. But, many say - and whisper it - Berlin is past its best. With the party moving on to Lisbon, Stockholm, Gothenburg and the like, what, in terms of youth culture, can Berlin truly call its own, that has made a mark on the record? Yes, there's Berghain. But can you name a musical artist from the city who has had international success in the last ten years?

Now see how many internationally successful acts you can name for Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, Madrid. And, finally, London. Compare notes. I bet I can guess which city comes out top - and by far more of a factor than the British capital's larger population size should allow.

These questions may seem facile. But with politicians asking us to vote on Britain's future within the EU, we should explore the issues surrounding them. The EU referendum debate has so far been kept narrow. Despite lip service being paid to engaging young voters in the discussion, little has been said about what Brexit would mean for British youth culture.

That the debate instead centres on concerns around money and power, speaks to the fact it is largely an argument within the Conservative Party. And it's no secret that the Tories aren't the natural guardians of culture and the arts. Boris Johnson's favourite film is Dodgeball. Iain Duncan Smith has previously declared a love of Eminem. And their fellow Brexiteer Nigel Farage says his preferred form of cultural indulgence is the West End play Les Miserables.

All calculated choices, of course, intended to reinforce, or offset, elements of their public image. But for those that care about anything vaguely on the vanguard of British culture, they do not inspire much faith. It is a feeling amplified by this government's slashing of the arts budget. If you can't fit it into a spreadsheet, it seems, the Tories aren't interested.

But I digress. There are of course examples of stellar cultural output from across Europe. Largely, though, they occur in isolation. Nowhere else do cultures clash, collide and coalesce like they do in London. Need more evidence? As well as music charts around the world, look at bestsellers lists and who the leading artists, fashion designers and architects are. You might not subscribe to these metrics of success but they rightly indicate that Britain's cultural scene, from top to bottom, is thriving. And a lot of the influences that make our culture so dynamic come from countries that lie beyond the EU - be it the cultures that surround Jamaican dancehall, Japanese anime, US hip hop, or Scandinavian pop.

This totting up chimes with one of the central arguments of the Brexiteers. They say that the EU is too confined a focus. Our international standing is best realised with a more global perspective, be it for trade, partnerships or culture.

You could leave the argument there and decide to vote 'Leave'. But pull back further and there is no doubt that Brexit could cause seismic damage to British culture. Not least by discouraging young people from the 28 EU nations from coming to Britain.

Free movement between the continent and the U.K would be suspended. Immigration terms would need to be negotiated individually with each European country. Visas could be reinstated. Residents of some countries would find it harder than others. All of this would take time. For the talented young people who see Britain as the continent's cultural capital - the place you come to make things happen - interest could quickly switch to more hospitable countries. Lisbon, Stockholm, Leipzig, and plenty of others, could quickly benefit from strands of London's displaced cultural excellence.

These young people are, of course, not just the artists and musicians. They are also those that graft across the arts sector, giving their labour to make Britain's cultural record what it is.

And what would we be left with? Brexit comes with the express intention of tightening up our borders and reducing immigration, not just from the EU but from the whole world. Its hardcore proponents' utopia, exemplified by Nigel Farage, is of a Britain of the 1950s. A Britain before mass immigration, and concomitantly, anything in the way of youth culture. Note that as well as Les Mis, Farage says his cultural pursuits are touring World War One battlefields, reading military biographies, fishing and watching Dad's Army. An accurate snapshot as you'll get of the Brexiteers' cultural aspirations.

To pull out, would not just harm the UK. It would also do a disservice to young people and artistic communities across the continent. Free movement, exchange of ideas and the clashing of cultures are the best means to encourage creativity - whichever country you're in. Moreover, it would be simplistic and unfair to say we owe nothing to other European countries. In its marked difference, the influence of culture from regions such as West Africa and the Caribbean stands out. But the addition of different inflections of Europeanness, from France to Germany to Hungary to Greece, brings tone and texture to the great messy masterpiece that is British culture today

Here lies the rub. Because when it comes to culture, we can have our cake and eat it. Unlike the arguments around fiscal and legislative autonomy, to say that British culture benefits more from the global community than from the EU is to create a false premise. On culture, the referendum does not provide a binary choice. We can stay a member of the EU and retain our connections with the wider world, as the setup stands now. If the health of British culture is what you care most about, it really is a no-brainer - on June 23rd, vote Remain.


Text Oscar Quine

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