The chaos over Womad visas shows the dangers for the UK’s arts, culture and economy after Brexit.
This week came the news that acts at this year’s Womad had been cancelled, owing to artists’ difficulties in obtaining visas under the Home Office’s “hostile environment”. This is not an issue confined to the world music festival. It has been causing problems for British cultural organisations for years. Applying for visas is often a humiliating strain for artists and a time-consuming nightmare for the festivals and venues that have invited them for no other reason than the pleasure and enrichment of British citizens. It took Scotland Street Press five months to help Belarusian poet Tania Skarynkina get a visa to appear at this month’s Edinburgh international book festival: time that could have been better spent on the work of publishing authors – and contributing to the UK’s economy.
Things could get much worse. The government’s Brexit white paper is desperately vague on possible arrangements for mobility for those in the cultural sector after leaving the EU. There are fears of more Womad-style chaos, spread across the entire creative industries, especially in the case of a no-deal Brexit, which the Bank of England chief Mark Carney warned today was an “uncomfortably high” risk.
This is not just a matter of artists visiting the UK, though that is in itself important. No: this is also about how the British economy works. It is about bringing in the highly specialised skills that make the British company Jellyfish Pictures the firm of choice to create the visual effects for the Star Wars films. This is about the 25% of architects in Britain who are EU, non-UK nationals, or the over 20% who work in video games, or the 15% of employees at the British Museum. British creative industries generated almost £92bn in 2016 and grew at twice the average of the UK economy – in large part because of their ability to attract the very best talent from Europe.