10 January 2019
Originally published by Conservative Home.
Pundits keep averring that “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, the Channel 4 play shown earlier this week, was just a drama. But a well-crafted script is never “just” a drama. A fine playwright – and James Graham is unquestionably that – can imbue his characters with an immediacy and presence that their living-and-breathing counterparts lack.
If I mention Henry V (whom I was depicted – accurately – quoting at Vote Leave’s HQ when the news came through that we had won), what comes into your head? My guess is that you’re thinking of the dissolute princeling who grows into an inexorable warrior in Shakespeare’s plays. As far as we know, the historical Harry Monmouth was a pious and sober young man who fought bravely in his father’s Welsh campaigns; but the flesh-and-blood Hal has been almost wholly displaced in our minds by his ink-and-paper namesake.
For sheer entertainment, “Brexit: The Uncivil War” was terrific. The actors captured the tics and mannerisms of the characters – including, my daughters tell me, me – quite brilliantly. The film was cleverly paced, allowing the drama and suspense to swell even though we all knew how it would end. But it’s important to stress that fiction is not history, and that the author was not seeking to be either accurate or impartial.
When Shakespeare wrote Henry V, he was not setting out to explain why England declared war on France. Rather, he wanted to set a human drama against the background of vast events. In much the same way, Graham was not interested in the arguments for Leave or Remain – indeed, we never heard them. He was interested, rather, in the human drama and, when that meant altering the facts, he rightly prioritised his story over history.
Of course, like all human beings, Graham – a Centre-Left Remainer – has his assumptions. With the partial exception of Dom Cummings, every Leaver was presented unsympathetically. In other words, whenever there was a difference between fact and fiction, the fiction was unflattering (except in the case of Arron Banks, who really is a narcissistic and dishonest man-child).
Douglas Carswell was, in real life, the MP with the largest personal vote in the Commons, one based in no small measure on his readiness to spend a lot of time in parts of his constituency that had previously been neglected. In Jaywick – on some measures the most deprived place in England – his vote rose from 27 per cent when he first contested the seat in 2005 to 70 per cent in 2014 when he called a by-election to allow local people to endorse his change of party. Yet, in the drama, Douglas is ludicrously shown saying that he has never visited parts of his patch before.
Similarly, Matthew Elliot was the man who, even before he became Chief Executive of Vote Leave, had, through its predecessor organisation, Business for Britain, prepared the ground for the eventual victory. I know how vital he was, because it was I who convinced him to take the task on in 2012. He had carried out extensive focus group and polling research before the campaign began. (If we had relied on Dom chatting to customers in pubs, as was suggested here, we’d have lost badly.) Yet Matt, author of the most successful campaign in British politics, is presented as a gormless yes-man. So, indeed, are all the people involved in the campaign.
Now from a purely dramatic point of view, that makes sense. Shakespeare always surrounds his protagonists with a series of secondary supporting characters – the Salanios and Salarinos and Salerios. Sticking, for example, with Henry V, the Earls of Cambridge, Westmoreland, Salisbury and Warwick hang around on stage rather a lot without saying very much. (Warwick’s sole line in the play is “How now, how now! what’s the matter?”)
As drama, it makes sense. But as history, it creates a false impression, namely that Vote Leave somehow fluked the result because it happened to find an unscrupulous genius. Now Dom was certainly brilliant – that’s why he was hired – and his tactics may well have got us over the line. But, as he has written many times, we wouldn’t have had a prayer had there not already been a Eurosceptic mood in the country.
Which brings us to the real flaw in the programme, namely the implication that Vote Leave won by turning the European question into something else. The two key scenes were the focus group, in which an undecided voter comes out for Leave because she is fed up with being ignored; and the imagined meeting between Craig Oliver and Dom in which the former warns the latter against unleashing forces that he can’t control – and, significantly, is given the last word.
The idea that the campaign unleashed demons – a phrase of David Cameron’s that Oliver turned into the title of his recollections – is so deeply embedded in the media narrative that it is rarely questioned. But it is hard to reconcile with the data. As Fraser Nelson keeps explaining, quoting an unassailable mass of polling evidence, Britain has become significantly more positive about immigration since the referendum, and is now the most pro-immigration state in the EU. We are almost the only EU state with no populist anti-immigrant party in our legislature. It turns out – who’d have thunk it – that, when people feel that they are in control, they lose interest in angry nativism. Brexit, we might say, is already working.
Remainers, of course, will never accept this. They begin from the assumption that Leave was nostalgic and bigoted, and fit the facts to their prejudices. Show them polling data about Britain’s relative openness to immigration, or point to the fact that there are more EU nationals living here than ever, and they often fall back on incidental counter-examples (“Yeah, well, what about the morons shouting at Anna Soubry?”) Sure, there are some nasty people here, as there were before the poll. But the plural of anecdote is not data. The fact is that had Vote Leave run the kind of close-minded and protectionist campaign that, say, Donald Trump did, it would have lost. Without warmth and optimism, we’d never have got to 50 per cent plus one.
Incidentally, what the dickens was Robert Mercer doing in the film? The meeting depicted never happened, and served no dramatic function whatever. The sole purpose of including him seems to have been to signal, especially to the HBO audience that will watch in the United States later this month, that Brexit is, in some unspecified way, linked to Trump.
In the pub scene, Graham has Oliver ask Dom what his edge is. The audience is invited to assume that the answer is clever online campaigning. But the real answer is far simpler. In 1975, seen from a poor and declining Britain, Europe looked like the future. By 2016, the poles had switched. Britain was prosperous and confident while the eurozone was in crisis. The idea that we couldn’t flourish except as a subordinate part of a European state no longer carried any weight. Despite two-and-a-half years of almost hysterical pessimism from irreconcilable Remainers, it still doesn’t.
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