A deeply visual and expertly narrated journey into the far-reaching implications of the Brexit referendum in the political context of the art of protest.
By Susie Porter
Noni Stacey’s Leave to Remain: A snapshot of Brexit (2023) is a masterclass in the subliminal and a unique visual dive into the implications of art and protest surrounding Brexit. Stacey expertly explores a vast range of photographic and artistic representations from both the political campaigns of the 1970s and 2016, alongside in-depth discussions with the arts community. This is far from being just another book on Brexit – Leave to Remain is essential reading, displaying dynamic insights amid provocative imagery.
Representing the perspective of Brexit as a calamitous decision, we are offered an impassioned calling to reflect on the far-reaching consequences on citizens from a range of cultural backgrounds through the lens of the artist. Stacey frames her narrative in the historical context of the campaigns that both brought us into the EU and pulled us away. Making an insightful case for inherent imperialistic and nationalistic aspects of the British identity, there is an underlying theme of the disenfranchisement of those hurt. Our obsession with sovereignty as a nation has ultimately brought up the drawbridge.
The threat to liberal democracy
The excerpts of often deeply personal dialogue from musicians, artists and photographers paint Brexit as a form of painful betrayal; a loss of a close relationship, led by the manipulative misrepresentations from those in power. The immediate effects of Brexit on the arts industry have been overwhelmingly devastating, preventing free movement for tours and exhibitions as well as creating a logistical wall of administrative challenges. Stacey references with precision throughout, the practical implications for artists from lack of opportunity or investment that came as a direct consequence of our severance from Europe.
We have recently seen dramatic cuts to the arts in higher education, which is perhaps not surprising under the current Conservative government that continues to push an agenda of austerity despite increasing economic inequality, amidst a cost-of-living crisis. Leave to Remain juxtaposes the immediate, stifling effects on artists with populist political tactics, describing how the “process of silencing dissent has been followed by the newly introduced restrictions on demonstrations”. The erosion of our right to protest represents a clear and present danger and what Stacey highlights as “a threat to the very foundations of our liberal democracies”.
Art is critical to a democratic society as it can offer a platform outside of government or mainstream media, from which we are compelled to act or challenge.
The ruinous depiction of ‘Brexit’ in Leave to Remain is given through art, such as the harrowing and poetic representation of the Dover cliffs in Tacita Dean’s Chalk Fall. Through the symbolic use of chalk as a medium, we are invited to see the artist’s reflections on the frailty of national identity. As a voter to remain in the EU, I found there to be a relatable, deep sadness and sense of regret from the arts community which needs a voice. As a collection, however, this book serves as an inspiring manifesto for the future. Art represents collaboration which acts as a necessary challenge to the elite.
Discontent and resistance
When the vote was cast, both Scotland and Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU in contrast to England and narrowly to Wales. This poses an ongoing sense of fragility in the union of the UK and a reinforcement of the clear sense that Westminster holds the ultimate power. We do not have proportional representation in the UK; our referendum system is too vulnerable to the powers of an unknown influence from foreign powers via social media – something that Stacey illustrates was not present in the 1970s and is not quantifiable now. It is always refreshing to see Scotland and Northern Ireland represented outside of an inward-looking English majority; this book represents a very current and ongoing “articulation of discontent and resistance”.
Our colonial history should not shape our future, nor the minds of our children. Being educated on the reality of Britain’s history should not be limited to our pride in the dedication of servicemen and women when faced with fascism. We can be proud, and show our gratitude, but do need to teach about the history of colonial racism, slavery and illogical, self-destructive discrimination. Stacey states “There is no doubt in my mind that a core element of Brexit was a looking back to a Britain that never existed”. Sovereignty is a tenuous term, yet a notion that was written into EU legislation as a promise, something to be valued and respected by every member nation.
Perhaps there will be, one day bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover (there have never been, technically any bluebirds, by definition in the UK) but regardless, we need to look beyond our little island and to the artists who say it best. I would highly recommend the lucid Leave to Remain: A snapshot of Brexit, as a work of art in itself and of value to an ongoing call to political protest.
Leave to Remain: A Snapshot of Brexit © Noni Stacey
All book rights reserved. Published in 2023 by Lund Humphries £35.00 ISBN: 978–1–84822–589–All images and quotes provided with permission from the publisher Lund Humphries
This article by Susie Porter was first published in Bylines Scotland on 7th December 2023.