Unboxed: rebranded Festival of Brexit an ‘irresponsible use of public money’

MPs issue scathing report on £120m celebration dreamed up by Theresa May

An Unboxed installation
An Unboxed installation called About Us, by 59 Productions, at Paisley Abbey in Scotland
(Image credit: Andy Buchanan/AFP/Getty Images)

A nationwide celebration dubbed the “Festival of Brexit” is an irresponsible use of £120m of public money and is shrouded in confusion even as it begins, according to MPs.

The controversial Unboxed festival is a “recipe for failure” and a “prime example” of a large-scale project with aims that are “vague and ripe for misinterpretation”, said a report by the House of Commons’ Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

The beginnings

The event’s origins date back to 2018, when prime minister Theresa May promised a national event to “showcase what makes our country great” as Britain left the EU. The plan was to model it on the 1951 Festival of Britain and the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

The proposed event was quickly nicknamed the “Festival of Brexit” but it has since been “heavily rebranded” as “Unboxed: Creativity in the UK”, said The Guardian. The event’s organisers have explicitly rejected the Brexit label, said The Independent, and insist it is in fact “a UK-wide groundbreaking celebration of creativity taking place in 2022”.

The project’s chief creative officer, Martin Green, told The Guardian earlier this month that the widespread scepticism over the event was based on “a myth” about the nature of the project. He added: “We have a huge appetite and it’s clear that people want to get out again.”

The events

The free festival kicked off on 1 March with a light show in the Scottish town of Paisley celebrating connections between humanity and the universe, reported The Times - and runs until 2 October.

It includes ten major projects at sites around the UK, including a “tour de moon”, an “oasis of plants” in Birmingham and an art installation on a disused oil rig off Weston-super-Mare.

The website describes them as “awe-inspiring new ideas, shaped across science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics by brilliant minds working in unexpected collaborations”.

The reaction

“The assumption was that May’s festival would be jingoistic propaganda, a festival of Brexit,” said Henry Mance in the FT Magazine, but “Britain’s creatives didn’t want to celebrate Brexit” and so it has become “something much weirder”.

With a £120m budget, bigger than the £80m allocated for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies, the festival - “like Brexit itself” - was “approved before it was thought through”.

In its report yesterday, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee said it was “an irresponsible use of public money given the Government’s own admission that it does not know what it is for”.

Committee chair Julian Knight added: “The Unboxed festival acts as a prime illustration of an event with aims that have been vague from the start. That it took three years to come up with a rather nebulous name, which will mean little to the few that are even aware of its existence, does not bode well for its chances of delivering a true lasting legacy.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.