Comedian Josie Long has pulled out of the so-called “Festival UK* 2022” after learning that the event was actually a rebranding of the government’s widely ridiculed Brexit Festival.
Long, who backed Remain, had been due to receive £100,000 to develop a proposal for the nationwide event, which aims to “showcase the UK’s creativity and innovation to the world”.
But on Tuesday she announced she no longer wanted to be involved in the project after being made aware of its “nationalistic agenda”.
The comedian appeared to have been unaware of the link until a Twitter used asked why she was involved in the “Brexit festival thing”.
First announced in 2018 by then prime minister Theresa May, the festival – intended to mark Brexit as a moment of “national renewal” and to “celebrate our nation’s diversity and talent” – was given the go-ahead by Boris Johnson last year.
It has since been rebranded under the rather more prosaic working title “Festival UK* 2022” with a budget of £120m, spearheaded by London Olympics 2012 head of ceremonies Martin Green.
But it has long been a subject of ridicule with critics claiming it is a massive waste of taxpayers’ money. Recently there have been calls to divert the £120m to save jobs in the arts sector facing catastrophic job losses as a result of Covid-19.
More than 300 artists and groups have signed an open letter by the campaign group Migrants in Culture calling for the cancellation of the festival and criticising the “nationalistic branding exercise that is Festival UK 2022”.
The letter claims the event aims “to whitewash what is essentially a nationalistic project into a ‘national celebration’” at a time of “cultural devastation” with thousands of arts workers out of work and cultural companies and venues facing closure.
“In the midst of a global pandemic, with a devastating loss of life, jobs, earnings, threatening even the ability to remain in the country, the las thing we need is a vacuous celebration of so-called ‘national unity’ when the most at risk are already shouldering the effects of the UK’s economic downturn,” the letter reads.
“We do not need a festival claiming to ‘bring people together’ while the government’s hostile environment forces people apart.
“We do not need a festival that seeks to whitewash the UK’s endemic racism using our cultural capital.”
Long had been selected alongside 29 other shortlisted teams to pitch ideas to become one of the final 10 commissions in the festival programme.
After the letter by Migrants in Culture was brought to her attention, she announced she would no longer be part of the festival.
“Wow. Thank you,” she wrote on Twitter. “I’m sorry because I obviously haven’t examined this properly. I like the people in my team who invited me and wasn’t aware of any of this.”
Long’s decision was met positively on the platform, with many praising the exchange as an example of productive listening.
“This such a wonderful example of active listening and leadership and I respect the hell out of you for it. Must have been a really difficult decision but I can’t commend you enough for this,” one wrote.
In a statement, Green said: “Festival UK* 2022 is about bringing people together – creatively, as audiences and participants, and from across the four nations and beyond.
“Whilst some may have misconceptions about what the festival is seeking to achieve, hundreds of brilliant individuals are now working together to develop genuinely ambitious projects. When we announce the 10 projects next year that will go into full production for 2022, we are certain they will excite people, whilst demonstrating the festival’s positive aims.”
Other shortlisted teams include the British-Nigerian historian David Olusoga, the Imperial War Museums, and Jamie Oliver.
The event’s final name is expected to be announced next year.