Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from Channel 4's Brexit: the uncivil war Benedict Cumberbatch in a scene from Channel 4's Brexit: the uncivil war

Channel 4’s feature-length drama on the EU referendum presents voters as dupes but also shows the cluelessness of the establishment, argues Martin Hall

Perhaps one lesson that last night’s drama, Brexit: the Uncivil War (Toby Haynes, 2019), attempted to give to its audience was that people are dupes, easily manipulated by a mixture of villainous individuals and nefarious software, particularly when no one else is listening to them. In taking this view, it could be argued that it aligned itself with a number of dominant or reactionary strains of thought:

  • a conservative, ‘great man’ view of history propagated by Thomas Carlyle in the 1840s, in which history is shaped by heroic (or unheroic, in this case) individuals
  • the hypodermic needle theory of media effects that sees people as unthinking vessels, waiting to be filled with whatever their leaders choose to put into them
  • a model of narrative causality common to mainstream film and television, which reduces complex events to the striving of the individual against the odds, which are overcome, leading to resolution and success

In doing this, it of course did not assume its audience were dupes, as the film was at pains to nod knowingly to its viewers in a variety of ways throughout, not least through its comic, satirical tone. The dupes, rather, were to be found in the three million lost non-voters (and presumably non-viewers) that Zack Massingham (Kyle Soller), head of AggregateIQ, finds for Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch), the Campaign Director and mastermind of the official Vote Leave campaign and, in the response of the ‘Hearts vs Heads’ section of the electorate, a designation given to predominantly female voters by the official Remain campaign Britain Stronger in Europe. The group contains voters who are assumed to be emotionally leaning towards Leave but who are worried by the consequences, represented in the film by a woman in a focus group having an emotional outburst when presented with ‘the facts’ regarding Britain and Europe.

What the film did well – and with some visual style on occasion – was present the battle between the old politics of triangulation, with its assumptions that people vote from the centre, and lean to safety, and a ‘new’ politics that was designed to appeal to something other than common sense; rather, to an emotional, inchoate sense of something taken away, of something lost. This is particularly shown in a scene in which Douglas Carswell (Simon Paisley Day), UKIP’s then MP, Matthew Elliott (John Heffernan), Chief Executive of Vote Leave, and Cummings visit a couple in a street of dilapidated seaside bungalows in Carswell’s Clacton constituency, in an area he admits he didn’t know existed. They are testing the usefulness of AggregateIQ’s software, which has suggested this house may be someone off the grid that they can get to vote. A long shot tracks the houses, showing a street left behind by the onward march of late capitalism, with the usual signifiers of such a picture: broken toys; peeling paint; old, perhaps unmoving, cars. They knock on a door and are invited in by a middle aged couple. Upon showing, or feigning, surprise that no one else has visited during the campaign, they are told that no political parties have visited at all since the 1980s. This allows the couple to function as a stand-in for all left behind in the turn to neoliberalism, in which the UK were the outriders, later followed by the EU overall. Just as the woman is getting upset about her children and employment having moved away, Cummings hears a hum, and goes outside and lies flat on the street to listen to it.

This rather ludicrous device is used on a number of occasions in the film to let the audience know that he has his ear to the ground – quite literally here – and, to paraphrase Humphrey Jennings and the war time spirit invoked by the Leave campaign, is listening to Britain. Still, what the scene does is bring into sharp relief the arrogance of Clintonite campaigning – earlier we see Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear), David Cameron’s Director of Communications praising Clinton’s 1992 as the ‘best campaign ever’ – and its assumption that people will vote based just on not wanting to lose what they have. The people that Cummings are targeting feel that they have nothing to lose, a point also made by the woman in the focus group.

Predictably enough, two things not to be found in the film are any sort of discussion of austerity or of the left wing case for leave. Regarding the latter, this is not a surprise, as both the official campaigns were at pains to exclude those arguments, with the result that the public were presented with two choices:  keep things as they are or ‘take back control’, the brilliant, if nebulous, slogan dreamt up by Cummings. While the slogan was open to a left nationalist case, if not an internationalist one, with the odd exception even that was expunged from the months of campaigning in 2016.

The film’s – and the campaign’s – exclusion of austerity, which really only started to figure in the various mea culpa responses from the centre after the result, is not a surprise. To allow austerity, which is never mentioned by name, to feature in the film would be to suggest that there was a base to the leave vote, and indeed a logic, seeing as austerity has been implemented throughout the bloc since the crisis began in 2008. This would be a problem for the film and indeed the worldview of Europhiles, as it would disavow the importance of the digital targeting of voters, of the Leave campaign’s overspend, and indeed of the hypodermic needle model, the great man view of history and the narrative model of much film and television, which seeks to distil macro issues into an individual battle.

Despite this, it is of interest that The Guardian’s review is critical of the film for not making it clear enough that everyone was lied to; specifically, the article suggests that it was incumbent upon the makers not ‘to add to the chaos’. There is a complaint about the working class characters’ descriptions of their alienated situation as being unrealistic, as apparently it’s not very likely that people can discuss something so ‘ineffable’. While there is a caveat that this isn’t because they’re working class, it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that the writer finds it difficult to accept that people may have voted out because of the opportunity to express their anger at an institution they associate with the politics that has seen their situation so reduced, rather than because they were targeted by an evil mastermind.

In terms of the other main players of the 2016 referendum, the film leans towards caricature. The first time we see Arron Banks (Lee Boardman), he is in shorts and a polo shirt at a formal party at his mansion, turning his nose up at the champagne being offered. Instead, a can of supermarket lager is presented to him on a silver platter. Nigel Farage (Paul Ryan) is seen as similarly comic (and toxic), and it is made clear in various scenes that Cummings wants nothing to do with them, but is happy for them to do the racist heavy lifting, allowing the Vote Leave campaign to keep its hands clean, at least prior to the concentration on the imaginary millions of Turks soon to arrive in Britain that it indulges in in the weeks before the vote. Daniel Hannon (Tim Steed), one of the long-time movers and shakers in the Eurosceptic wing of the Tories, is shown as a bit of a lapdog. David Cameron, other than some found footage of the actual campaign, is nothing but a voice on the phone in a conference call with Oliver and Peter Mandelson, in which the oft-repeated lines about Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of engagement in the remain campaign are trotted out, with of course the inference being that Corbyn’s nuanced approach to the question of EU membership wasn’t what was required to rally the troops. Michael Gove (Oliver Maltman) and Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) are presented as clueless chancers. Tory grandees such as Bernard Jenkins (Tim McMullen) and Bill Cash (Richard Durden) are represented in Blimp-ish terms.

The film is, of course, principally about Cummings, and in its concentration on him, mixed with the comedy caricatures of most MPs, the rather sympathetic portrayal of Oliver, the brief appearance of the alt-right backing Robert Mercer (Aden Gillet) and the ways in which we are encouraged to identify with Cummings as a sort of attractive oddball, does make for a strange mix. It is both comic, and attempting to be deadly serious, as seen most powerfully in the scene following the murder of Jo Cox, when Cummings and Oliver – sworn enemies – see each other on opposite platforms at Moorgate tube station and go for a beer. Oliver here voices the concerns of many people regarding the forces unleashed by the referendum campaign; essentially a case is made that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. However, such scenes are at odds with the almost Ealing-esque representations of much of the British establishment and the feeling during much of the film that what we are seeing is high jinks.

What does come across very strongly though is the sheer cluelessness of the British establishment, both in calling a referendum to heal divisions in its principal political party, and in its adherence to the political methods of the centre that had served it so well since the 1990s. However, the film begins and ends by showing Cummings at a European hearing in 2020. This is a framing device (something so very much lacking from the actual situation in which Britain finds itself politically) that is meant to be partially comforting for the viewer. While the film’s last lines are Cummings saying ‘I’m done. We’re all done’ in response to a question asking whether he has finished speaking, the nihilism present in that line is very much assuaged by the return in these scenes of ‘sensible’ politics: from the saviour that is the EU, of course, not the British establishment. This final scene, providing as it does some sort of potential future comfort for those wishing for a return to the past, also, if accidentally, alludes to one of the main political shibboleths of both extreme remainers and right wing leavers: the idea that one establishment is any better than the other.

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