Festival UK is a vanity project for big government

by Angus Gillan

Festival UK 2022 rightly aims to cultivate civic pride and kick start economic recovery. Unfortunately, the endeavour is full of big-government tendencies that will not benefit taxpayers and ordinary businesses.

A revitalised and celebrated Britain is a vision that has been espoused by all sides of the political aisle. Now, next year sees Festival UK 2022, billeted as “a celebration of the UK’s creativity and innovation”. Despite caricature labelling of the event as a Brexit festival, there is a complex precedent for showcasing British business as part of socio-economic stimulus. The concept is based on the 1951 Labour Government’s Festival of Britain, a post-war uplifting series of events nationally that highlighted British scientific, artistic, and engineering achievement.

Labour cabinet member Herbert Morrison MP stated this itself was inspired by The Great Exhibition, held in 1851, during the tenure of Whig/Liberal Prime Minister John Russell, 1st Earl Russell. So, while Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone, who called Festival UK “sick” and “testament to how skewed the Tory moral compass really is”, may want to hit the library, there are legitimate reasons to question the underpinnings of Festival UK.

The aim is admirable. Be it 1851, 1951, or 2022, civic pride should be cultivated to enhance community cohesion and inspire future innovation. It is also morally sound and economically right to develop long neglected regions and communities. Whatever the year, we should not shy from striving for growth and conducting modest self-celebration along the way, for while we constantly live and learn, there is a lot to show for British inventiveness, from steam engines to vaccines.

Yet, the method is problematic. The Festival is artificial, not self-sustaining, and benefits established companies. It also showcases our growing propensity to turn to government. From New Labour’s stealthy statism, here a Tsar, there a Tsar, everywhere a Government-appointed official with powers that are unaccountable to the people, to Boris Johnson’s love affair with large-scale, state-run infrastructure projects.

Firstly, the Festival goes against the market. Festival UK is structured in such a way the State directs economic development. Over 150 organisations will be competing as part of teams to be designated one of the 10 exhibiting winners. The Government will be selecting winners, acting as a judge and jury, and handing out millions in taxpayer’s cash. Amid the greatest economic crisis in a generation, if not a century, it is dubious to neglect accountability.

The innovation the groups are no doubt capable of could generate significant and genuine public interest and engagement with the projects and visions for the future. If community engagement were built into proceedings, significant long-term revenue could be generated. As it is, the Festival will exist separate from us. The event will be presented as a celebration of us, but whether the Festival succeeds or not is only down to you or me if we filled in our tax returns for HMRC.

Secondly, the Festival is not self-sustaining. Rather than kickstarting economic development by encouraging daily interactions and transactions between the public and SMEs, the event is a one-off. It is a showcase that will illuminate the imagination and then fade. While the Government may be providing £120 million to the winning companies, once the grant money runs out at the end of 2022, the Festival stops.

This has been thematic of past showcases. The Great Exhibition generated revenue only through admissions fees and souvenirs and while the Festival of Britain in 1951 both toured the UK and featured exhibits nationally, reaching an estimated 25 million people, the event recouped only a fifth of its cost. Loss-making one-off enterprises are not adequate when dramatic economic recovery is needed.

Thirdly, the Festival benefits established players. Many of the companies and organisations competing for the money are stakeholders with political insight and market footprints that SMEs cannot hope to compete with. SMEs contribute nearly 50 per cent of the UK economy and are the lifeblood of all villages and regions, as they have been since Napoleon labelled us a nation of shopkeepers.

In even worse news for the plucky start-up or local business, in some cases the established industries have partnered together. One such team includes the Tate galleries, the European Space Agency, and Holition (an award-winning creative agency). Roland Rudd, the chair of the Tate, was previously chair of the People’s Vote Campaign. Now, the Tate has wonderful art, but millions of people know of its existence. As Britain emerges from coronavirus malaise, there are many small businesses that will be in dire need of the funds that national organisations may receive as part of the Festival.

At a time of socio-economic change communities and nations are entitled to support. Sadly, Festival UK 2022 starts with good intentions but derails itself with delivery. The Government has rightly recognised the need to generate civic pride and kickstart innovation in a post-Covid, post-Brexit Britain. However, big government, directed spending with a veneer of market engagement, brought forward during the 1990s in the ‘Third Way’, seems to have become the only way.

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