Despite assurances, the Conservative government’s Brexit deal with the EU excludes visa-less travel for touring musicians, artists and music industry professionals, a move which will lead to increased admin and legal fees. Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Culture Alison McGovern argues that the decision will curtail opportunities for the next generation of musicians – those who have as much power to represent the UK in Europe as diplomats and politicians.
My grandad was a folk singer. I have said those words many times in my life. It used to be my grandad is a folk singer, before he died.
He played on stage at the Liverpool Philharmonic and one of my earliest memories is being sat on the floor of a box to the side of the stage, with my mum pointing him out to me. He always had a guitar near him. He was always playing it. My dad has many stories of driving him to folk clubs across the North of England. My grandad would drink a lot in the process of entertaining the punters at whichever club he had been booked at, and my dad would drive him home to Liverpool and, later, the Wirral.
All that driving was for a purpose. He taught himself to play guitar when he was in his early 30s and started gigging properly when he was about my age – about 40. Alongside a massive love of music, he had the very bright idea that gigging would supplement the not-very-good wages of a railway worker and his wife, my grandmother, who was for some time a clerk in the Philharmonic’s booking office. In childhood, both knew a kind of poverty that I have never in my lifetime seen in this country. But labouring and council housing meant that they could survive. Music meant that they would live. And live they did.
The Conservatives have agreed a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK that stops musicians and other performers touring in Europe without work permits, which they have no guarantee will be awarded. It is personal for me. How many Peter John McGoverns will now be cut off from a life that would have seen a supplement to their income that would fund otherwise unattainable family holidays? That would pay for Christmas? That would promote their one or two popular songs, the royalties from which would help through tough times? How many Peter John McGoverns will never get started, because they cannot get to that vital gig, that breakthrough chance?
What has happened is this: ahead of the end of the Brexit transition, according to the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), the Tories promised that they would sort this issue. That whatever the other consequences of Brexit, musicians would be able to tour freely in Europe, and European musicians would be able to tour here in the UK. It would be irrational not to want this. The music industry alone is worth north of £5bn to the country, and that is before you add in others who need to tour or work temporarily elsewhere: actors, performers, visual artists. You don’t add bureaucratic hurdles to one of your most successful industries. It would be like telling Scotland to produce less whisky, or the Italians to slow down Prosecco production.
But come the Christmas Eve reveal of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, there is nothing there for performers. No agreement to counteract the new hassles we all face. No carve-out for the creative industries. Just mountains of paperwork. Performers must check with each individual EU country what their requirements are and comply to the letter. And it isn’t just performers who are affected, it’s their stuff, too. Imagine the hassle for tour companies that now face border checks, legal uncertainty and a massive disincentive for artists from all over the world, but specifically the USA, to pick a British company to support their European tour. It is a nightmare. We are world leaders in this field: the UK is known globally for its music and performing industries. The Tories have put rocks in the road.
It is personal to me. I see young people from the Wirral and Merseyside with talent. I want the next generation to have their chance. I want there to be no boundary to their ambition. I want them to travel the world showing the best of what they can do. And I want Liverpool to play host to the best musical talent Europe has to offer, whether that is in classical form, as part of our world class Philharmonic Orchestra, or whether that is in the shape of an unheard-of Belgian experimental electronic outfit coming to play at 81 Renshaw on a Tuesday night.
This is what it means to be a world city. Not just in the past, but today. Now. This is personal to me.
There is a solution. What the Tories must do now is make an extra agreement with the EU. They must come up with a reciprocal deal that takes away the need for work permits for touring performers. Both sides say they want it. The EU proposals suggested it last March, so the Conservatives have had some time to get it sorted. Time is of the essence.
Musicians and performers have had the worst year in living memory, and who knows when the pandemic will lift its foot off their necks? The least our government can do is to agree that, by the time that touring can properly recommence, performers won’t have huge administrative and legal burdens to contend with as well as every other thing.
There are many of us in politics who know that when creative people travel, they take with them not just their own story, their hope and ambition, but also the story of who we all are. They represent us, if you like, as much as diplomats do, as much as Boris Johnson himself does, on the world stage. This precious trade, then, is not just about making money. It is the chance to understand ourselves, and present the best side outwards.
My grandad used to say that it was important for all children to learn to sing. If, he would tell us, you could stand on a stage and sing, you would have the confidence to do anything.
The United Kingdom is at a crossroads now. With Brexit, we have taken a chance with our reputation, and the current Conservative government had hitched its wagon to Trump, to populism and to battling Europe – not being a part of it. The next generation deserves its chance to put this right. They deserve a chance to stand on the stage, and sing.