Brexit and our shared Digital Cultural Heritage

It seems that the tide is more clearly turning against Brexit. This is not just reflecting changing circumstances or opinions, but acknowledges two of life’s great distinctions that, at last, are impressing themselves on a wider British audience. First, simply wanting something doesn’t make it so and, second, grasping the nuances that evolve in the journey from wish to deed does not make a person an elitist or, indeed, a scaremonger.

This stark reality was highlighted recently by German politician Martin Schulz on a recent visit to London. He stressed the importance of the EU and UK finding “a way closer, not just on an economic and institutional level, but on a cultural and youth level”. The context was the wider necessity of countries like Germany and Britain optimising the foundations of their cooperation in addressing global challenges, but the key here is the recognition that phenomena like Brexit operate, for better or worse, on many levels. There is never a final determining that something works entirely or equally and forever for everyone, or not. A kaleidoscope of greys evolves in moving beyond thinking about something to actually living it, and to understanding that emotionally aspiring to greater control of one’s personal or national destiny does not arrive simply through wishing for it.

Of course, pointing to the subtleties and nuances that complicate any societal challenge doesn’t change the hard facts of Brexit as a Failed Promise on a fundamentally commercial level. The ever-vigilant Brexit critic and Observer columnist Will Hutton writes scathingly of “the promises made during the referendum campaign: the economic and trade boom, a reinvigorated NHS, cheap food, controlled immigration and a reborn ‘global’ Britain strutting the world,” concluding that “had today’s realities been known in 2016, we would still be EU members.”

Hutton goes on to list several of the means by which the UK’s direction of travel can turn back towards Europe without embracing the full EU re-entry that Keir Starmer appears loath to consider: closer trading standards and mutual recognition of professional qualifications, greater collaboration on energy security, and so on. But to return to the point made by Martin Shulz, it’s not just about the economy. Far too little was made in 2016 of the significant areas of British life where people felt not only that they had sufficient control within a working world that worked, but they were already leading the world: British science, the universities sector, our museums and libraries, the media and Extended Reality and hi-tech industries. And despite seven years of broken Brexit promises, these sectors still thrive and are increasingly taking back control from the forces for whom “taking back control” was a muddle-headed irrelevance.

Witness the vistas re-opening to British science resulting from our imminent return to the Horizon Europe research programme next month. There’s a growing groundswell of advocacy for our re-entering the student life-enriching Erasmus programme, the exit from which was additionally baffling as it was not, and is not, a condition of membership that a country be in the EU to participate.

And then there’s our cultural heritage sector, going increasingly “digital” as a result of 3D, Virtual and Augmented Reality and AI technologies, our gaming industries, and a richly detailed history which helped drive the European Enlightenment and created (for better or worse) a global Empire for which a chief legacy is the language of global business and international relations. Europe is not missing any tricks here: it will be fascinating to see if, despite Brexit, the Europeana Twin It! initiative might find a means of including the UK.