Jan Zeber is a Research Fellow at Policy Exchange.
Before it is anything else, a nation is an identity, and identity is expressed through culture. This is why any endeavour to strengthen the United Kingdom must have a strong cultural dimension. Sport, art, history and trade all have a role a play.
But how is this to be done? This third and final instalment of Policy Exchange’s articles on revitalising the Union – drawing on our recent report, Modernising the United Kingdom – will offer practical answers. Celebrating the constituent nations of the United Kingdom in all corners of the country, regularly sharing government art and museum collections with regional galleries and exhibitions and ensuring that more sporting events that unite the nation are on free-to-view TV are just a few examples of what can be done.
The upcoming centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland in 2021 is an opportunity to celebrate its history and culture in the spirit of our shared heritage. As the then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland confirmed in July of this year, the Northern Ireland Office is already exploring the options for official celebrations. It should consider making the day a UK-wide bank holiday, which would fall on the 5th May 2021, so that its impact and significance is felt across the entire country.
Whitehall departments should also consider how they can take part in and support the planned Northern Ireland ‘Expo 100’ events taking place in 2021 to celebrate Northern Ireland’s birthday. The Department for International Trade could, for example, launch a special campaign promoting foreign direct investment opportunities in Northern Ireland, while the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport could support the development and promotion of cultural tourism opportunities, such as working with Tourism Northern Ireland to promote Northern Ireland as a tourism destination in the UK.
We should also make our shared heritage – recorded in works of art and museum exhibits – more easily available to people all over the UK. In 2015, it was revealed that just three per cent of central government and local authority-owned art collection – valued then at £3.5 billion – was on display and available to the public. This is an opportunity to build on the success of Tate Liverpool and V&A Dundee, as well as ‘roving’ exhibitions such as the tour of ‘Dippy’ the replica diplodocus skeleton usually on display at the Natural History Museum. It requires our most prominent cultural institutions that receive significant amounts of public funding to demonstrate their impact across the United Kingdom. Importantly, it should also mean key cultural institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (such as the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh and the Scottish National Gallery, National Museum Wales, Ulster Museum and Titanic Belfast) establishing a presence outside the borders of their home nations, similarly through temporary exhibitions and other outreach programmes, working together with their counterparts from other nations of the UK. All four nations of the United Kingdom have proud cultural traditions, and together they make Britain an internationally renowned cultural leader.
Moments of national unity that take place whenever a home nation does well in the Olympics or world cups show how important sport is to countries coming together in shared celebration of their identity. Whether they are playing in men’s or women’s tournaments, playing as Team GB or as constituent nations, playing football or cricket, rugby league or rugby union, sporting teams have an immense capacity to bring British people together. The UK has had many sporting successes to celebrate over the summer, but unfortunately they are often all too difficult for the public to access.
Celebrating these successes (or failures, as the case may be) must be easier. The Government should review what sporting events should be protected (‘listed’) under the Broadcasting Act 1996 and therefore ‘free-to-air’ in whole or in part. There is a particularly strong case for making at least one of England’s home cricket test matches each summer and coverage of the men’s and women’s Cricket World Cup final and semi-finals, as well as women’s national football tournaments, available on free-to-air TV, the latter of which already has the backing of Nicky Morgan.
The Government should also renew support for the joint bid to host the 2030 FIFA Men’s Football World Cup in the UK and Ireland, as well as support a new joint bid to also host the 2027 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The objective should be to host games all over the UK, and as part of this, the Government should work with the Scottish Football Association to upgrade the Scottish national stadium at Hampden Park in Glasgow, and with the Irish Football Association to support Belfast in being able to host games in the future.
These are just some of the examples of what could be done to strengthen the cultural appeal of a collective British identity. It should be noted that it is not just about promoting what we have in common. It is also about bringing the culture of individual nations of the United Kingdom closer to people outside them. Many (even most) Britons will have roots in more than one of the constituent nations – it should be easier for someone living in England to celebrate and identify with their Scottish roots, for example. That is also what we mean by ‘shared heritage’.
As Arthur Aughey, Emeritus Professor at Ulster University, points out, ‘[when] placed in the broadest international context, the United Kingdom can sometimes look like an oddity. But the Union on which it is predicated is a remarkably enduring constitutional arrangement and – by almost any comparative standards – a surprisingly cohesive national state.’ Culture is a key part of that cohesiveness and should not be forgotten in any attempt to reinvigorate the Union.