“Thug-like” verbal aggression and the unceremonious snapping of an EU flag — this, according to campaigners, was one of several reactions from a small, unrepresentative number of Brexiteers offered EU flags to fly ahead of the Proms, at London’s Royal Albert Hall, on September 14. It was not, however, the response of 45,000 others who gladly accepted them in London, Cardiff, Swansea and Glasgow.

But hell hath no fury, as a Brexiteer scorned. And with pro-EU “remainers” accused of “hijacking” the Proms — an eight-week summer festival of classical music concerts organized and broadcast by the BBC — musicians and campaigners supporting the EU Flags Team behind the action have hit back at the Brexiteer backlash.

Campaign organizer Paulo Tirago said that, on the contrary, they were “outraged” at Brexiteers for “hijacking the media with their negative diatribe, diluting the underlying message of the campaign.” Campaign coordinator Katy Roberts also said it was a clear case of “Brexiteers in the media hijacking the message of the campaign.”

The Proms became a target for campaigners who said freedom of movement in the European Union is crucial to orchestras and musicians, and that the impact of Brexit was pertinent to this. Lengthy and complex visa applications and border controls threaten livelihoods, they said. Young musicians will be bereft of the opportunity to learn. Standards in musicianship were under the threat of dwindling without the injection of such creative energy. The music industry, with its musicians, songwriters and composers, worth £1.6 billion ($1.99 billion) to the UK, will consequently feel threatened by the impact.

But this was not just in the case of classical music but in every genre. Other artists, including Fat Boy Slim, A Guy Called Gerald and Horse Meat Disco, have also expressed concern at the impact of Brexit. These acts performed for the so-called Stop Brexit Sound System during London’s 1-million-strong People’s Vote demonstration in March.

“There’s a lot at stake. Plus we didn’t want it becoming a jingoistic celebration of Brexit in the wake of the referendum,” added Tirago.

Flying the Flag

The EU Flags Team began distributing flags at the Proms in the wake of the Brexit referendum of June 2016. The campaign grew exponentially from just 2,600 flags in 2016 to 10,000 in 2017 and 20,000 in 2018. In London this year, 23,000 EU flags were handed out in Hyde Park and at the entrance of the Royal Albert Hall, where a flash-mob orchestra of classical musicians played EU-themed popular songs, such as “Thank EU for the Music” and “Ode to Joy.”

“It was about musicians supporting musicians to make the point to a wider audience,” added Tirago.” But efforts of the campaign and such underlying intentions led to accusations of hijacking the Proms. Up and down the land, news editors smacked their lips at the pending saga that the action promised to bring. It was a case of Punch and Judy live and direct. Except the only voices captured by much of the British mainstream media was that of the Brexiteers bemoaning the audacity.

But the fizz had gone before the week was even done. No one was hijacked and no Brexiteers were injured in the execution of this campaign. But what had been hijacked, according to one campaigner, “was our democracy, our British sense of humor, our decency, our empathy and our open and tolerant society.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, Brexiteers were offended by the so-called “takeover.” One Twitter user wrote: “Pushing the EU flag on everyone on the way in, it was an EU rally. Shameful.” Another tweeted: “It’s just a pity @bbc decided to politicise it by having so many identical EU Forth Reich flags handed out to prommers.” 

So the BBC, as it appears, was also on the receiving end of criticism. But campaigners have hit back. Tirago was one of the first to speak out: “These are unfair accusations of bias leveled at the BBC. What could they do? Not film any member of the audience at all? There were thousands of people waving EU flags, it was not something camera operators could physically avoid.”

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While campaigners handed out EU flags, inside the Royal Albert Hall musicians preparing to perform were conscious of the action taking place outside. In a show of emotion, one violinist emerged to thank in person the campaigners and to tell them that performing musicians appreciated their support.

As the flash-mob orchestra played “Ode to Joy” once again, the performance was observed by another spectator. Sakari Oramo, the Finnish chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, was spotted by Arrigo. “I explained the reasons behind what we were doing. He completely agreed and said he would pass on our best wishes to musicians performing at the Proms.” 

One orchestral pianist who did not want to be named said musicians had several “important questions” for British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regarding the consequences of living in a no-deal Brexit world.

Questions were raised about the criteria for the issuance of a work permit, including the process cost and time this will take to generate. They asked whether separate permits are required for every EU country an artist is scheduled to tour in; if reentries are allowed or whole visa applications will need to restart; about the number of days an artist will be allowed to work in an EU country before a new permit is required or if there will be a cap on the number of days a musician can work in the EU; and whether this will be counted as days spent in the country or as days when performances take place.

Differing Opinions

Not all Brexiteers awaiting to enter the Proms agreed with the message behind the campaign. Ruth Smith, a Christian science practitioner, called it a “form of propaganda,” while other Brexiteers such as Fiona and John Truswell, despite their differing opinion, said they supported freedom of speech.

The campaign has led to unavoidable dialogue. As thousands milled about waiting to enter the venue, Brexiteers and “remainers” bantered. Campaigner Rhiannon Taylor spoke of an “engaging conversation” with a Brexiteer who said he “didn’t realize how Brexit could affect his brother’s music career.” She added: “He literally said, ‘My God, what have I done?’ And [he] took an EU flag.”  

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As one Brexiteer accepted an EU flag, another “remainer” refused one. Donning a Union Jack turban, risk analyst Jaz Sidhu said he “refused” a flag because “the UK needs to stay together and, of course, it needs to stay in the EU as well.”

But the flags “were not forced onto anyone who didn’t want one,” according to campaigner Aratxu Blanco. This, she added, also included Prime Minister Johnson’s brother, Jo Johnson. Blanco, a gutsy Spanish campaigner from Bilbao who has lived in the UK for 29 years, was seemingly far from shy about making her approach. “He didn’t take a flag. He just looked visibly shocked by the fact I had asked if he would like one.”

Outside the Royal Albert Hall, security guards warned attendees to remove their “Bollocks to Brexit” badges before they joined the line to enter the venue. Inside, guards were also on full alert after a scuffle that ensued when they intercepted activists with a “Brexit Now” banner.

Polarization

Brexit has polarized UK society more so than ever. If there is a litmus test to prove it, then the Proms was the place to witness it. The event became a global stage for disclosing the true depth of division seemingly caused in the UK by Brexit to date.

The plan for EU campaigners was to “promote diversity,” though. There was red, blue and probably purple too. There was also shock, horror, disbelief, anger, amusement, wonder, elation and awe.

Brexit had become the proverbial big elephant in the room. And no one could get away from the conversation, as it politely sat there waiting for someone to make small-talk at the very least. But this was no time to blow one’s own trumpet. The response was viciously engaging enough. It was definitely diverse and it had the dynamics of a very British affair.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.