#EURef | The Arguments for the Arts in Wales

#EURef | The Arguments for the Arts in Wales

As the vote on the EU Referendum draws ever closer, we asked some of the leading figures in Welsh arts their thoughts.


David Pountney (Artistic Director Welsh National Opera)

There are more profound reasons for Britain in Europe than fickle financial fortune. The first is that sovereignty is a mythical substance that has always been much less substantial than it seemed. This ‘power’ which the Leave campaign claims would be repatriated is about as tangible as Falstaff’s ‘honour’: can you eat it? Can you touch it? What is it? An expression! Even the much-vaunted ‘5th largest economy’ will have little power to take genuinely independent decisions. That is a fact of modern life. The second reason is that culture is an enduring link. It may not have any direct relevance or imperative towards this or that political solution, but it should point the way, as is always the functions of the arts. A broad and open and informed cultural outlook will tell us quite clearly which way to vote on June 23.

Kully Thiarai (Artistic Director and CEO of National Theatre Wales)

The European Union may have many flaws and like many institutions there will always be things that can be improved. However, the UK’s current approach to a conversation about the role and effectiveness of the EU and whether we remain or leave leaves much to be desired. There are huge technological, social and economic shifts happening across the globe. Our greatest strength is to work together, with generosity and trust, and to address the issues we all face collectively, both within and beyond the borders of Europe.

Our current narrative of fear is one that condemns us all. It leaves the UK looking less like a grown-up democracy capable of engaging with complex ideas and propositions and more like a scene from Lord of the Flies where chaos and bullying are the order of the day. As artists and creatives we are provocateurs, seeking to explore and shed a light on the here and now; to capture a moment in time and perhaps enable us to imagine and see a different future for ourselves.

Of course we could talk about all the numerous artistic projects and collaborations that have only been possible because we have been part of a united Europe. We could talk about how, without the ease of movement of artists and the funding that is available for creative collaborations, many extraordinary, creative projects would have been impossible to realize. But for me there is a more fundamental reason to remain a key player in Europe; simply that together we are stronger. The voices of the many make us better, bolder and braver in all that we do. Our creative capacity grows as we engage with those who are different from us and enables us to see through a more complex lens what we value about ourselves, our nation and our place in the world.

Niall Griffiths (novelist, poet, professor)

The sense of betrayal is understandable; we expected nothing more from the Tories, but Labour lickspittling to predatory capitalists, as in the gifting of an entire valley to Amazon, was a shock and a disappointment. After this, the desperate are there to be taken in by falsehoods, if there’s a promised reward, no matter how hollow that promise is. But imagine this government and its savageries freed from the ECHR; imagine the slackening of food safety standards, the removal of Objective One funding, the complete withdrawal of any financial stirrup for the young and adventurous. The Brexiteers market this as intrepidity, as heroic risk-taking, but multi-millionaires can afford to take such risks. Even they admit that Brexit would usher in, at first, a few years of economic hardship, but they don’t say how that would be borne – taxes for big business and on unearned wealth, or further austerity? Farage, Gove, IDS, Johnson; there is nothing in the political records of these people to suggest interest in the welfare of anyone who does not share their ambitions. And would they fall in love with a Wales out of the EU? Or would it be a case of searching for the enemy within? Right wingers, after all, possess a deep need to define themselves against what they are not, and once the Polish plumbers have been ousted, and the Spanish baristas sent packing, then, to the immigrant-descended, immigrant-marrying Farage, Britain’s struggles must be seen as the fault of someone else, not, of course, of those whose fault they truly are, because such people are of his kind. A vote for Leave is a vote not just to leave the EU but to leave any collective sense of social responsibility, any notion of moral accountability, any idea of shared endeavour, boundary-crossing and language-crossing commonality. Like the NHS, the EU is one of the great human achievements, and we are now at a stage where they are both being eroded, deliberately, consciously, ideologically so. You think things can’t get any worse? Oh yes they can; there are no absolutes to human misery and things can always be made worse. Of course there is a left-wing, liberationist case to be made for Brexit; but not at the moment. Christ, not now.

Me, well, the day after a Leave vote I’ll be applying for an Irish passport; I satisfy the criteria. And not only me; expect the branches of family trees to thrash with the search for a non-UK antecedent. Little Britain? Tiny, yes. Tiny and pinched and mean and small. I’ll be saying goodbye to it.

Gary Raymond (Novelist and editor of Wales Arts Review)

It’s difficult to not feel a responsibility to push the positives of Remain over the fears of Brexit in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder. Positivity could well be one strand of what will hopefully be her substantial legacy. But sadly Fear simply must play a part, because being afraid is part of the narrative, because for Wales the prospect is truly terrifying.

Brexit will be catastrophic for Wales in general, and signal the End Times for world-class, recognisably Welsh art and culture. As the artistic community works well beyond the resources afforded it to grow a global reputation for artistic excellence, it will be left no resources at all. Of course writers will still write, painters still paint, but where will be the professionalising support structures? Whether you like it or not, the vast majority of success stories in the arts in Wales in modern times have been subsidised – in theatre, dance, opera, the visual arts, literature, the work that is recognised around the world, is supported by one government body or another, be it the Arts Council, or the Books Council or whoever. With the UK out of the EU that model would see a swift disintegration. We live in a country already where the Labour government has very little regard for art and culture as it is, and when, post-Brexit, Westminster strangles Wales’ budget to a snap, how do you think the arts will do up against education and health? In the month when former National Theatre Wales artistic director John McGrath spoke of the ‘managed decline’ of the arts in Wales in his Patrick Hannan Lecture at the Hay Festival, a Leave win would signal the start of the decline without the management. The arts would plummet.

The organisations that provide support of the arts have been up against it for some time. It is well known the government has been trying to liquidise the Arts Council in favour of some more meager body for many years. Brexit would make the end of the Arts Council a foregone conclusion. The Welsh Books Council just managed to avoid a massive 10% cut to its publishers’ budgets with an eleventh hour u-turn at the Senedd at the beginning of this year. Brexit would crush any further attempts to withstand such existential threats. The Welsh publishing industry will be over within two years.

What will happen to the Welsh language? By most estimations I come across it is hanging on by the skin of its teeth at the moment as external pressures increase during austerity, so further cuts to its provision and protection will be difficult to deal with. How are the pro-arguments going to stack up against a country that slips ever further under the poverty line – post Brexit there will be a great many worthy causes flapping in the wind as the government tries to feed its people. A recent report proves categorically that every person in Wales benefits to the tune of £79 a year from EU investment. And Wales is struggling. Without it ‘struggle’ will be most easily redefined as ‘apocalypse’. Don’t dismiss Project Fear because you don’t have the stomach for it. Be very afraid.

Lleucu Siencyn (chief executive of Literate Wales)

The events of the last few days have left many reeling. The murder of MP Jo Cox was cruel and shocking – we should all mourn the death of this committed, intelligent and compassionate woman. I also find it hard to convey in words my utter disgust at Nigel Farage, and UKIP, for releasing the now infamous “breaking point” poster.

Why has the EU referendum debate been consumed by hatred, fear and panic? Why have the leaders of the Remain campaign so far failed to inspire confidence and trust amongst the many thousands of disenfranchised Britons who will march to the polling stations to vote leave? This is a big decision, and one for which the full consequences will become increasingly apparent as the years go by. As a people, we are intrinsically connected to each other, across borders and centuries, languages and religions. Our shared humanity and love should prevail.

Like many others, I have a framed copy of Waldo Williams’ famous poem “Cofio” (Rememberence) hanging on my wall, and I see it every day. The last two stanzas are worth remembering at this time:

Oh, earth’s innumerable generations,
Their sacred dreams and fragile sanctity,
Is the heart silent that was once acquainted
With sadness and with gladness and with glee ?

Often at close of day, when I am lonely,
I long to know you all, bring all to mind;
Is there a heart or memory still to cherish
The old forgotten things of humankind?

(translated by Alan Llwyd – full version here)

Rhodri Glyn-Thomas (president, National Library of Wales)

Having spent almost a decade on the European Union Committee of the Regions I have witnessed how other small countries and Regions, including Scotland, place a far greater value on the Arts generally and especially their national and regional institutions.

Wales has punched way above its weight in the Arts for the whole of the post devolution period and yet the budget set in Cardiff Bay to support and foster arts projects has decreased dramatically and our national institutions have been forced to look at efficiency cuts year on year. The 2016 Welsh Government doesn’t even have an Arts Minister!

We can take great pride in watching individuals from Wales starring on the world stage but we need to recognise that little is being done by Cardiff Bay or Whitehall to develop the Arts in Wales. We need to be in Europe and to learn from other small countries and regions that the Arts can be a major contributor not only in terms of creating national pride but also contributing towards economic development and social cohesion.

We need to invest in the Arts not only for their own sake but in order to create sustainable and viable communities within a proud nation which has a clear strategy to support its national institutions.

Europe can inspire us as a nation to share its best qualities and achievements with other small countries and nations.

Iwan Bala (artist)

Artists of all disciplines have always sought the freedom to work across borders, with other artists, in other places. Some would prefer the borders not to be there at all, others engage with a cultural specificity that they wish to share with other cultures worldwide. They enjoy the ‘fusion’ of creativity and traditions. They do this with honesty. Politicians on the other hand are self-interested, and dis-honest. This debate has highlighted the way they are only ‘creative’ in their total disregard of truthfulness in order to sway voters, and in this they are abetted by vested interests and the sensationalist media.

There is a growing divide, greed and the ethos of entitlement in a corrupt ‘ruling class’ along with an un-educated, easily manipulated and misinformed electorate. Fear is fed by untruths, and this is most apparent from the Brexit camp. It would suit the growing right wing all over Europe to see an UK exit, they would like the European project abandoned to ease their rise to power in their respective nations. The European Union has it’s problems, it is still a work in progress, but these are mitigated by it’s belief in social justice and human rights, whereas a rampant and unrestrained Boris – Gove – IDS, Tory run UK would be an absolute disaster, in particular for Wales, and particularly if it leads to Scottish independence. It will see more division between the few with wealth and the many in poverty. It will lead to wholesale privatisation and the destruction of the NHS, and to the loss of the few workers rights that still remain.

A more united Europe is not merely political and economic, but ideological. Separating from this process, from being involved in this enterprise, is an act of bigoted, small-minded, unthinking, uninformed stupidity.

Menna Elfyn (Poet and president of PENCymru)

The image of  ‘y bont’ – the bridge – is an interesting image about what’s happening today. Do we really think we can keep people fleeing wars from wanting to cross a bridge to safety instead of being faced with barbed wires and walls. ‘I am Welsh first, and European second,’ used to be my mantra, but perhaps in the past year or so it has changed into ‘I’m a human being first and foremost’ and to quote Desmond Tutu, ‘we are only human beings through other human beings.’ And we need a bridge for that to happen. One in the mouth but one also under our feet.

I’m on the road at the moment with 15 writers from America travelling through Wales on an annual Summer School I run for the university (Trinity St David). And some can’t understand why we are not visiting castles. They think castles are wonderful. And I guess they were to those on the inside. But I couldn’t care less about castles, erected to keep us, the Welsh, in our place. It seems to me that the ‘Out’ campaigners (who haven’t, by the way, bothered to find a catchy Welsh slang word for Brexit), are drawbridgers – ready to retain a way of life that is anathema to me—with it’s sense of entitlement. Someone once said that the Scots, like the Welsh, have always understood being the small partner in political terms, whereas the English have never understood how not to be domineering and work alongside other entities. I’m thinking of Bridges again. Let’s hope Bridges in the mouth win the day – let’s remember Bendigeidfran of the Mabinogion – A fo ben, bid bont. Let him who wishes to be a leader make a bridge, and not just for the few, or those who are Welsh… soon, I’m off to Amsterdam and at the border will show my British passport and hide it back in my bag, and feel ashamed. Terribly ashamed.

Shani Rhys James MBE (artist)

I would hate us to leave the EU because it is a terrifying thought to be isolated from Europe with a Tory party in government. They could do what they liked, without being answerable to anyone. In Europe we have human rights protection, workers protection, environmental protection which is essential when we are witnessing global warming ruining the coral reef, creating crazy climate changes, destroying our planet through greed and short-sighted policies. As artists we need easy access to Europe to see exhibitions, exhibit, live, work, to be part of a bigger picture in Europe where the best art has been produced for centuries and be part of a cosmopolitan life style, better food, joie de vivre etc. Having exhibited in Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Germany and France it expands ones vision, we can be too isolated and insular in Wales, obsessed with identity, But there is a big world out there and we need to broaden our horizons.

David Anderson (Director General, National Museum Wales)

I will vote for Europe.  But which Europe?  Not that of TTIP or austerity, but the Europe of democratic accountability, and a commitment to social justice; goals still worthy of our belief and our commitment.

John Norton (Actor and Director)

EU? Well.

Can we stop talking about economy for 5 minutes and talk about something else: ideas, culture, philosophy, who we are? I think that one reason the Leave campaign has been so successful is that they do sometimes talk about ideas, like sovereignty, or independence. Regardless of the fact that the UK is by definition a sovereign, independent state within the EU. The remain campaign on the other hand is dominated by economy, the price of your holidays, the safety of our exports. Pragmatism. Self interest.

Reading the Schuman declaration from 1950, I discover this “European Union” was founded just after WW2 to make war between historic rivals “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. Here’s the opening line :”World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it”.

So that was the starting point. A really big idea. A better future. In the UK in 2016 we are afraid of big, difficult ideas. We like precedent, pragmatism and nostalgia. Even the Scottish referendum debate was centred on economic arguments, not on the opportunity we all had to be reinvent our unclear, outmoded concept of Britain. In Wales at least we have the Welsh language: we invest in it not because it is pragmatic or economically advantageous but because it is just important. And what a change that makes in the legislative landscape. Suddenly ideas are possible.

My children are part French and part Spanish. My great grandparents were Irish. I was born in England. I live in Wales. My neighbours are from Pakistan. The idea of the Nation is pretty fluid and past its best, and the Kingdom is frankly out of date.

We live in Europe. We are European, because of geography, because of history, because it’s a more fulfilling proposition than being ruled by a Monarch, because, which continent do we actually live in? The Americas?

We should stay in the EU because we live in Europe. The Union is deeply flawed, but it is a strong and worthwhile idea, still evolving, and it is us.


The head image is of Holly Davey’s ‘This Is Where We Came From’