A week ago, I was lucky enough to catch a showing of a newly restored cut of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent masterpiece Metropolis at the Bristol Jazz and Blues Festival. Leaving aside the astounding live score provided by Jazz maestro Andy Sheppard, the event provided a great opportunity to revisit Lang’s bleak, art-deco vision of a futuristic society that offers utopia or dystopia, depending on your position in society.
In a nutshell, the plot centres on a future world; urban and vibrant, where the intellectual elite run the economy from their top floor offices. Their shiny-skinned, chisel-jawed sons inhabit an elysian playground; playing sport and frolicking in the sun by day and partying in debauched clubs by night. Meanwhile, the underclass who run the city live in a subterranean netherworld; working themselves to exhaustion for subsistence wages in terrible conditions. Eventually, and for complex reasons, a misanthropic android persuades the workers to smash the machines and rebel – leading to exuberant scenes of destruction as the liberated oppressed dance around the collapsing infrastructure; ignoring the implored warnings of impending disaster from their supervisors and the eventual collapse of the city where they live.
In the week before the triggering of Article 50, it was difficult to ignore some obvious parallels with events leading up to the Brexit referendum and our failure 90 years later to substantially improve on Lang’s vision in terms of creating a more equal society, or acknowledging the yawning gap between the rich and poor. In the case of Wales, media outlets and celebrities have flocked to Ebbw Vale to highlight the paradox that sees a community which has benefited from millions of pounds of EU investment also being one of the most Euro-sceptic in the UK. Former Deputy Prime Minister and avowed remainer Nick Clegg carried out interviews for BBC Newsnight to explore why this might be. The views on the street were clear; EU money has done little to compensate for the prosperity lost when the steelworks and coal mines closed down and the gig economy aftermath of zero hours contracts and low pay in the service sector took over. The rhetoric is of resistance to migrant workers, but the reality is a yearning for the self-respect of a lost economy and the community pride that went with it.
So what next for Wales? According to new research from think tank Demos, Wales is more vulnerable to Brexit uncertainty than any other region of the UK, as a result of our high dependency on exports to the EU; of automotive and aerospace components, shellfish and especially primary agricultural produce; most notably lamb.
This sentiment is echoed by respected Welsh economist Prof. Calvin Jones, who points out that non-tariff barriers and the time taken to negotiate trade deals present a real threat to Wales in the post-Brexit era.
Our own work for Welsh Government, moderating agri-food sector and other workshops on the implications of Brexit, has brought home to us the extensive interconnections between our systems and those of the EU after 44 years of collaboration and co-creation of legislation and the complexity facing trade negotiations. Wales is in the unenviable position of having voted to leave the EU, but not having a place at the negotiating table to secure a deal to meet our particular needs.
What is clear is that we face two years of roller-coaster uncertainty during the divorce period and the potential for an economic hiatus after that.
Fritz Lang’s message in Metropolis was the need for a mediator to bring together the head, or intellect of the ruling elite with the hands of the workers, in order to create a consensus and way forward. He expressed this as a role for the heart. In 2017 we perhaps need to learn from this and introduce a little compromise and empathy into the entrenched positions of both sides on the Brexit debate. We need to negotiate a settlement that takes note of the economic seriousness of our situation, whilst acknowledging the inequality that got us here and the emotional factors that drove the referendum result. We should strive to create a collaborative, forward-looking solution that brings people and countries together. In Lang’s words. we need a heart.