Festival of Britain 2011: microcosm of a troubled Union

As Scotland faces the prospect of a vote on independence, the Festival of Britain 2011 is underway in central London. Designed to celebrate the anniversary of the 1951 exhibition and capture the spirit of modern Britain, the festival instead reveals a Union in crisis and denial
Niki Seth-Smith
2 June 2011
OurKingdom's debate on The Scottish Spring

Recently I took an evening stroll across the Thames to see the Southbank’s anniversary celebrations of the 1951 Festival of Britain. I had spent that day discussing the prospect of a Scottish referendum on independence at the London office of ippr at Charing Cross; I then walked over the river to the Southbank. As someone who identifies as both British and English, what was I looking for? A sense of belonging, after a debate that had set out for me in striking terms the distinctiveness of the Scottish sense of national identity?


Festival of Britain 2011

What I found, as I sipped my pint and surveyed the exhibitions under a canopy of bunting, was a microcosm of the Union and its problems.

The four-month celebration, which reinvents the 1951 Festival of Britain, opened just over a month ago. It was loudly trumpeted by the Telegraph, while Nick Curtis argued in the Standard that, along with the Royal Wedding and the success of the film The King's Speech, it showed a 'new confidence' and 'quiet pride' in 'home-grown' British culture and values. Thankfully, I found not only Handel and tea, but also questions. An open-air Avenue of Portraits, running along the walkway between the Royal Festival Hall (the only permanent structure built for the 1951 festival) and the Queen Elizabeth, features photos of citizens from across the union.


Festival of Britain 1951

The placard states: "In the 1951 festival, they wondered, ‘But who are these British people?’ Here we are asking the same questions. Who are you? Were you born on these islands? What do you look like? Did you come here from another place? What do you believe in? How do others see you?" It hit me that one question was missing: “Do you see yourself as British?”

The celebration calls itself ‘Festival of Britain 2011’. When it opened in late April, sixty years after the original, few thought that Scotland might cede from the union within half a decade. It sticks in the throat to think that while the British political classes are digesting, or perhaps trying not to digest, the astounding outcome of the Scottish elections, merry-makers on the Southbank are trying out ancient British customs, from Irish tin-whistle playing to minstreling and Scottish step-dancing, largely oblivious of the results and their implications. 

Alex Salmond, now leading an SNP majority government at Holyrood, will call a referendum on Scottish independence within the next five years. He is very likely to offer a third option of fiscal autonomy. According to a recent ComRes poll, support for independence is at 38 per cent, as opposed to 46 per cent who want to remain in the union. Cameron pledges to 'do everything he can to keep the family together'. But it may prove a tough task to build a No campaign to reverse the process Salmond is unleashing. It is not, I have learnt, just a matter of his personal charisma, or the 69 out of 129 MSPs in Scottish Parliament, but the SNP’s positive message of hope, its grass-roots campaigners and canny development of independence as a better way of joining the world, that has energized the prospect of a radically new Scotland. 

So was I at the wake of the Union as I knew it? It didn't seem so, on the surface. On the South Bank it seemed vital enough; the crowds – a snapshot of multicultural Britain – milled around an art instillation hung with poems by fifty young refugees; a homage to the 1951 Lion and the Unicorn Pavilion, which featured at its heart a flight of ceramic birds, symbolizing migration and freedom of speech. Steps away, an ‘Urban Beach’ complete with a row of kitsch bathing huts provided interval ice-cream to those spilling out of the Irish-contemporary fusion dance performance underway in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Scanning a programme (the celebrations run until September 5th) I was impressed by up-and-coming Scottish comedians, gay community choirs, Ceilidh groups and Birmingham punk bands sharing the limelight with national treasures from Heston Blumenthal to Billy Bragg, AC Grayling and Stuart Lee.

But I felt there was something deeply wrong with the Festival of Britain 2011. Despite the colour and vibrancy, I began increasingly to see it as representing a Union which, if I were a Scot, I’d seriously think about dumping.  

First, the location. In London, a brisk walk from the halls of Westminster – a resounding reinforcement of the idea of Britain as Greater England, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as satellites of an essentially English centre. To have hosted the festival outside of London would have acknowledged Britain as a civic nation; something more than an island governed by the Coalition. That the festival was here ‘last time’ only strengthens the argument to have held it elsewhere this year. In 1951, Westminster was the definite home of British governance. Today, hosting in London disregards Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast as centres of state power.

Anyway, the tradition doesn’t hold. While the 1951 festival was based in the capital, it was celebrated nationwide; Glasgow hosted a display of our industrial prowess, while at the end of the opening day 2,000 campfires were lit across Britain. This year's celebrations say it all with an exhibition named “Visit the Lands”, which invites us to explore themed areas (a beach, a field, a village high-street) all from the comfortable bubble of central London. (The argument that no money could be spared for events outside of the capital tragically misses the point.) 

Timed to coincide with the Royal Wedding, this year’s celebrations made a case for the monarchy’s importance to the British identity.  But while the wedding weekend saw a flurry of Southbank events, prompting several “real couples” (as one reporter put it) to marry at the festival’s Chapel of Love, joining souls amid the aura of the Will and Kate super-couple, it’s fair to say that we no longer see the monarchy as living embodiments of Britain. Sixty years ago, a Royal Service was held before King George VI inaugurated the Festival in a national broadcast. I’d argue that the centerpiece on display this year is Tracy Emin’s monumental retrospective in the Hayward Gallery, ‘Love is What You Want’ – at least as much of a cause for ‘national pride’ as the wedding of the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

Now we come to the aim: to lift the mood of the British people in times of austerity. In this it aped its celebrated predecessor. More than sixty years ago, Labour deputy leader Herbert Morrison devised the festival as "a tonic for the nation" after the devastation of the Second World War and the grind of post-war rationing and reconstruction. Today, we are enduring another period of hardship, but it’s implications for the British identity could not be more different. In 1951 austerity was part of the grand national narrative of the British people pulling together and rebuilding under conditions of scarcity, rationing and shortages, after a desperate six year war with Nazi Germany. Today we are feeling the pinch because of our government's failure to sufficiently insulate the British economy from risks taken by the international banking system – the result not of our sovereignty being upheld, but of its having been undermined. Neither can Cameron say of today’s festival, as King George VI did in 1951, that the message is a "thanksgiving that we have begun to surmount our trials" – we are still far from such an assertion, as the latest scare of a douple-dip recession makes clear.

So, given how we got here, why should Scotland accept that we should dig ourselves out together, or that cuts must be made to the Westminster model of deep, quick and brutal? Scotland's slower rate of cuts has prompted bafflement, even outrage, from the London political classes and media. In the run-up to the Holyrood elections, The Politics Show outstripped other patronizing coverage with Andrew Neil’s assessment of the candidates: "They're still spend, spend, spend, which is fine while the party lasts, but you can't help feel the place is in for a hell of a hangover." The SNP’s victory, and the prospect of a vote for fiscal autonomy, has challenged that supremacist, market dogma logic. While the Scots may still have to implement substantial cuts, they may win the power to try an alternative route out of the crisis. They may build a stable, even a growing welfare economy before England and Wales – and who can blame them for wanting to take the chance?   

Sixty years ago, the Festival of Britain asked, "who are these British people?", secure in the belief in a common British project. Today, the Union is facing a crisis. Perhaps it is the bland way in which this isn’t recognised, or even defied by the so-called ‘Festival of Britain 2011’, but as I walked around the Southbank, I began to believe that the Scots might do better without us. 

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