Aisha Iqbal: We’re rewriting our European story

PARTY LIKE IT'S 2023: But are our city leaders doing enough to get everyone behind the bid?
PARTY LIKE IT'S 2023: But are our city leaders doing enough to get everyone behind the bid?
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This week, we at the YEP have been getting behind the bid for Leeds to become the European Capital of Culture in 2023.

I remember the moment the idea went from a vague suggestion to a genuine vision that could potentially bring lasting benefits to our beloved city.

This was at a lively meeting at Leeds Town Hall in January 2014, when the EU referendum was still just a twinkle in David Cameron’s eye – or perhaps rather a rod which the ex PM was still forging for his own back, having pledged almost exactly a year earlier that he would order an In/Out vote if the Conservatives won the 2015 election. The pledge would prove fateful for his own political career, of course.

But back to Leeds Town Hall in 2014, and there was a genuine buzz around the idea of the city opening its doors to Europe and engaging in the ultimate cultural exchange. Looking back on an article I wrote at the time, the council’s chief executive Tom Riordan was quoted as saying that it was “a bit of a Yorkshire trait” to not be seen to be “showing off”. “We have got to change that a bit,” he told me at the time. “We have got to project the great things that we have got in Leeds. We have got to shout about the sum of all that.”

We have certainly learnt to shout a bit better since then, haven’t we? As the 100 day countdown to the submission of Leeds’s bid was marked this week, there was a definite sense that the idea has gathered real grass roots momentum beyond the press releases, photocalls and soundbites.

I really do hope the enthusiasm continues to filter down to all communities and more and more ordinary Loiners get on board. The job is far from done, of course, and there are plenty of naysayers expressing fears that it’s another ‘vanity project’ for the usual suited-up suspects. There’s clearly still a lot of work for our city leaders to do to get everyone ‘on message’. I guess that’s always the difficulty with big ideas – getting people to engage and help turn the words into action.

But my own personal feeling is that post-Brexit, there is an even more pressing need for our city to play its part in re-writing the story of our relationship with Europe.

Leeds being picked as the European Capital of Culture in 2023 would be the perfect way to do that.

I’m an ardent remainer, by the way, but I’m certainly not a ‘remoaner’. The country has decided and we must move on with the divorce proceedings. But we can be mature enough to view it as a ‘conscious uncoupling’ rather than a messy break-up with all the bitterness and tears that inevitably brings.

That’s where #Leeds2023 could play a crucial part.

There can be no denying that the result of the EU referendum has had a devastating effect on our national consciousness. We are a nation - and indeed a continent - increasingly divided.

But throughout history, art and culture has often proved a healing and uniting force when we have been dealing collectively with big, often traumatic, political and socio-economic changes. And, if Leeds becomes the European Capital of Culture, it will be a unique opportunity for us to be central to that absolutely essential, two-way post-Brexit healing process.

There is something about the power of storytelling that no amount of political rhetoric and frenzied debate can compete with.

And this particular story is far from over – it’s only just begun.

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