By Paul Carey jones
The shortcomings of the Brexit deal continued to dominate my thoughts, and I’m sure those of many others, over the last week. I must have clocked up triple figures of Parliament live stream viewing hours this year already, and on Tuesday morning I found myself tuning in once again, this time to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee as they met to take oral evidence from three industry specialists, including FMTW’s Paule Constable.
In response to the opening question from Damian Hinds MP, asking what the principal request should be of Minister of State Caroline Dinenage (who appeared later in the same session) Paule replied: “My ask would be to prioritise this. We are sitting as part of one of the huge success industries of the UK. I cannot see the model for how it can continue to be successful in the current situation. We need help for it to continue to be the world-beating economic driver that it is. So that’s our request.”
Many freelancers in the performing arts will have campaigned hard against leaving the EU, leading up to the 2016 referendum and in the transitional period afterwards. That was very much a series of win-or-lose situations to clear deadlines, and the switch to a different sort of political process has come as a shock to many of us.
I spent most of last year writing weekly about the impact of the pandemic on the industry overall, but also on my own professional and personal life. One of the few rules I set was that I had to be as honest as I could, and it rapidly became second nature to dig into my own feelings about it all, and lay them out in public. For some reason I’ve been finding that much, much harder to do since the focus of my writing has switched to the Brexit fallout over the last couple of months. Why is that, I wonder? Perhaps it’s because the full impact is still being delayed as a result of the continuing Covid lockdown. But perhaps it’s also because it feels like such a huge and enormously complex challenge, that it’s tempting to hang back from fully engaging with it at all, on an emotional level at least. How do you eat an elephant? In all honesty, I probably wouldn’t even be brave enough to start.
I asked Athena Stevens for her thoughts on dealing with this kind of long term campaign, in the wider context of the overall work of FMTW. “This is going to take much longer than just one moment in history. What we’re talking about is social change and workers’ rights, (asking for things) which traditionally people in power are not willing to give up. This is going to be a long race and take years. It’ll be muddy and messy as well as frustrating, and it’s okay to have moments when we feel tired, because changing a system is exhausting; but we also can’t allow the slowness to stop us. So get your boots on because it’s going to be a long trek.”
So rather than drag myself down contemplating the drawn-out trauma of it all, I asked myself what I could practically do to make things better; even the longest of treks starts with one small step, after all. And a lot of small steps eventually add up, especially when taken together. Perhaps this job will never be “done”, the battle never won for all time; the process by which we keep our horizons broad and our cultural borders open may well be a lifelong commitment of shared experiences and efforts, from one generation to the next.
No one should be left to feel helpless or alone. One highly effective step is to write to your local MP - or if you’ve already done so, write to them again for a progress report. The FMTW MP’s letter template on the subject of post-Brexit visas has just been updated, in particular with a request for them to sign the recent Early Day Motion calling for government action on the issue, which has now reached 79 signatures. It could do with a few more; and I’m sure those MPs who have already signed could do with a word or two of support.
FMTW is currently building a web page collating all the currently available information on European visa processes in various countries. And we’re also gathering together experiences of individual freelancers who are currently or are about to start working in Europe - if you’ve got any details to add about your own problems and successes in those processes, please do get in touch, since all those stories are particularly valuable right now.
After her Select Committee appearance, Paule Constable gave an interview on BBC News (where she received a rave review from presenter Simon McCoy for her much-envied Zoom lighting set-up). Reflecting on the morning’s proceedings, Paule observed:
"In terms of soft power the arts are immensely important, particularly in this moment where we're trying to retell the story of who we are, having gone through Brexit. We need to make something good out of this. And at the moment we can't move.”
This is an existential crisis for the performing arts in the UK; there’s no question that we need the Government to wake up to this, and take urgent action to help us out of it. It’s an enormous and intimidating challenge. But I’m going to take Athena’s advice and get my boots on.