Key themes from: Devoted & Disgruntled: What action can we take as the arts sector in response to the proroguing of parliament?

On Friday 6 September 2019, Improbable organised a Devoted & Disgruntled (D&D) meeting to discuss the question above. It was hosted by Battersea Arts Centre.

• Around 100 people attended. The majority of participants worked in theatre – at venues or companies, as artists, as students.
• Around a third of attendees worked in other artforms – particularly film, music, opera and dance.
• It was notable that a small number of participants worked for / with campaigning groups, including Extinction Rebellion and the Change Collective.
• Around 50 sessions were timetabled for discussion across the day.

Last week, I was asked to speak at a What Next? meeting about the D&D and key things that emerged from it. As there were around 50 conversations over the course of the day – and given that reports from those conversations are still being added to the D&D website – I can’t speak to everything that was discussed. Nonetheless, here are my observations; I’d welcome thoughts from anyone else who was there.

I think there were four main themes that emerged over the course of the day, as follows:

1 – Suggestions for direct action in response to prorogation.

These included:

• A street art protest that took place outside Westminster that evening
• A #MothersStrike
• A proposal to establish mock parliaments
• A “Banana Republic” protest at Westminster
• A list of legal but disruptive acts of civil disobedience
• A tweet at Boris Johnson asking for his input at the D&D

Reports about these actions are online at

2 – Conversations about how to support people working in the arts to take direct action.

The D&D took place 8 days after the official announcement that parliament would be prorogued. I got the impression that many of the participants had been part of protests at Westminster in the preceding days. Vicky Featherstone had tweeted a few days before the D&D saying “I think we need to call a General Strike. We need to show we will not accept this.” So protest was in the air, and the mood at the start of the D&D was one of outrage and a desire to take action in some way (notwithstanding confusion / overwhelm at the fast-changing political climate – see point three below).

This led to various conversations about how people working in the arts can take direct action, especially when many are freelance; and how employers can support employees to feel comfortable in their choice to take part in direct action if they wish. I heard three main take-aways from these conversations:

A. How would freelancers take part in a General Strike? There was a discussion about the wide-ranging obstacles facing freelancers who wish to take part in direct action but can’t afford to take a day off, fear losing their work, or are concerned about being portrayed as a troublemaker. There was a proposal to create a collective of freelancers in the arts (and other sectors?) who could make a joint decision to withdraw labour in the event of a general strike, enabling mass action by a collective. There is a report of this session at
B. How can employers be pro-active in saying if and how they would support employees to engage in civil disobedience? This was also brought up with relation to the Climate Strike on 20 September. Suggestions included organisations making a clear statement, before the fact, that employees who are arrested as a result of participating in civil disobedience would not lose their jobs if they were unable to attend work the next day. And/or employers granting a day’s annual or unpaid leave to any employee who wants to participate in strike action. Of course, there are considerations here in terms of employment law and it is ultimately up to each organisation to make a call on its own policy; the request I heard on the day was for this policy to be pro-active, clear, and articulated to employees before the fact.
C. How can direct action be inclusive? There was a discussion about what Extinction Rebellion had learnt from its last wave of civil disobedience – particularly around how seeking volunteers to be arrested alienated some people, particularly people of colour, for whom being arrested by police carries has historical, emotional and often violent implications. This also touched on how people with caring responsibilities can participate in protests. How can future direct action be more inclusive? Suggestions included: organisers set up protect action buddies, pairing first-time protesters with more experienced protesters; organisers suggest ways of engaging that don’t require physical presence, so that people who can’t or don’t want to be there in person can take part (e.g. the Mothers Strike); protesters take time to read about and understand the concerns and fears that some people have about taking part in direct action; and that employers are pro-active and clear in their policies regarding employees who take part in direct action (see above).

3 – A need for more spaces like D&D where people can process what’s going on.

The political climate is moving so fast that even on the morning of the D&D, a week after the announcement that parliament would be prorogued, people said things like “when I signed up to this event I was really angry about prorogation – but so much has happened in the last week that I’m not even sure what’s going on any more.” There were a few sessions that were variations on “what on earth is actually going on?” and some that referenced a need for processing the situation, healing, befriending, tribes. Someone observed that there was so much going on that they didn’t know which bit to be angry about. Someone else observed that chants at the previous evening’s protest outside Westminster had started off as Stop the Coup and against prorogation, but gone on to cover Save the NHS, Stop Brexit and anti-Conservative messages.

For me, one of the most valuable things about the D&D was that it created an informal space in which people (myself included) could process some of the recent political developments, and try to understand them, with peers, in a supportive environment. This type of space felt different to, for example, a training session about being prepared for a no-deal Brexit; it was a space in which people can just work through some of the recent socio-political developments, try to unpack them, and consider if / how the arts sector could engage. It was suggested that organisations should be mindful of how they can create these spaces for their own companies; and that Arts Council England might consider creating spaces like this for the arts sector as a whole (such as more D&Ds). It was proposed that participants feed a request for these spaces into the 2020-30 ACE strategy consultation.

4 – What questions does the prorogation of parliament raise for the arts sector as a whole? What can we do now to build better relationships between the arts and civil society, and to make the arts better placed to engage with socio-political unrest in the future?

A number of sessions touched on these questions. Some recurring themes included:

• The political Right is really good at storytelling. Why is the political Left so bad at it at the moment? It didn’t used to be… How can we use our skills as storytellers to engage with the Left and help tell stories better? Suggestions included artists and people who work for arts organisations engaging with local political parties and campaign groups within the sector (What's Next) and beyond (Another Europe, Momentum); and considering standing for local / national elections on an arts platform. There was discussion of Bob & Roberta Smith's parliamentary candidacy and Vote Art campaign.

• How can artists, venues and organisations engage more with their local communities on a social-political level, with the aim of both building better relationships between the arts and local communities, and putting the arts on the agenda at local-level discussions so that next time there’s local civil action arts activity is naturally part of that plan? Suggestions included that artists join their Local Residents Associations, and that organisations and venues have representatives on their LRAs.

• How do we address the elephant in the room, Brexit? This D&D was about prorogation – it was about how the arts responds when there are fundamental challenges to parliamentary democracy. But of course the context was Brexit, and however much one might want to focus a discussion on questions of constitution and parliamentary process, the broader picture cannot be ignored. Many artists and people working for arts organisations are left-leaning and pro-Remain. Our audiences might not be; the taxpayers who help fund much of our work voted to leave the EU. How do arts organisations engage authentically with huge questions of the day like Brexit and express their views without alienating, ignoring or undermining the majority of the population who voted Leave, and/or compromising their charitable obligations to serve the population as a whole?

• Does the principle of Arts Council England being an arms-length body hold true in this political climate? Some representatives from NPOs asked whether receiving NPO funding from a quango of a government that was perceived by many, though not all, as having shut down parliament was ethically or morally justifiable. What is the balance between the need for arms-length government bodies to be independent and subject to democratic oversight, and the need for such bodies to support the views and protestations of organisations they fund about the government? If ACE-supported artists included in their work a statement to the effect that the work was part-funded by a government that has suspended parliamentary democracy, would ACE respond? If so, how?

• What would civil disobedience by organisations or venues look like? Could arts organisations take their work (rather than / in addition to themselves) onto the streets? For example, to perform one night of a show in Trafalgar Square rather than on the main stage? Or to repurpose their labour towards action; instead of a general strike, to use their time to create some art that responds to prorogation?

These are some initial observations written a week after the event. Any thoughts / responses / questions would be very welcome. For any further updates and reports, keep an eye on

Ben Monks
Executive Director, Improbable
[email protected]