The Uncivil Snore


On Monday 7 January 2019 the Brexit drama ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War” was broadcast on Channel 4. It is fair to say that it was a Remoaner version of history. History is often written by the victors. When it is written by the losers it carries an unmistakable edge of bitterness and self-pity. This drama was based on the premise that the referendum was won as a result of a vicious campaign by the Vote Leave organisation under the command of Dominic Cummings. Cummings was ably played by Benedict Cumberbatch as an arrogant, intellectual maverick who would stop at nothing to win. The drama cast Cummings and his Leave campaign as the baddies set against Craig Oliver and the Remain campaign’s embattled goodies.

There was nothing new in the complaints the programme made. They were the typical Remoaner fare: £350 Million on the side of a bus, the Leave campaign’s association with data analysts and targeted advertising. We have heard it all before. On one view it was a journal of how one campaign was simply better than another. At its heart though, there was a false premise. The programme proceeded on the basis that the referendum was won by a campaign. The programme ignored the fact that the EU had tangible faults that had been upsetting the British people for decades. It characterised the Leave campaign as ‘Europe blaming’ without recognising the fact that the EU had a lot to be blamed for. The programme ignored the fact that the EU was a vastly expensive project in terms of money and resources that had been heavily invested in despite the fact that it brought no tangible improvements to the lives of ordinary voters in the UK. The closest the programme came to be acknowledging there was a problem was when Craig Oliver said that the Leave campaign had been going for 20 years with drip drips of hate. It was stuck in the Remoaners paradox. Because it was unable to criticise the EU in any way it had to characterise the Leave campaign as hate filled and without merit.

In reality the EU was a huge drain on resources that could better have been spent improving ordinary people’s lives. This point was missed entirely by the programme. It is no wonder that ordinary people resented the EU and all it stood for. The Leave campaign certainly tapped into this resentment, but it didn’t create it. The programme showed Dominic Cummings concentrating on the cost of the EU and taking back control as the two central messages of the campaign. He left the question of immigration to the rival Leave.EU campaign fronted by the clownish Aaron Banks and Nigel Farage. The programme’s treatment of Farage and Banks as bully boys and two-dimensional fools was unfortunate. It left no doubt that the programme was written from the viewpoint of the Remoaners. It failed to deal with Farage’s popularity and communication skills except by the usual Remoaner tactic of imagining that the electorate is basically thick and racist.

The programme did recognise there was a new politics that had emerged from the referendum, but it was keen to characterise the new politics as something distasteful that could not be controlled by either campaign. The new engagement with politics that came about as a result of the referendum was largely ignored. Anything hopeful about the referendum was not to be mentioned. It was as if the referendum itself was a disaster that could only be seen in those terms.

As a drama it was well acted, entertaining and  well-paced. As a piece of contemporary history it was deeply flawed. It failed to engage with the flaws in the remain campaign’s approach beyond acknowledging that it was outpaced. The programme characterised ‘Project Fear’ as experts putting forward honest and independent views that were ignored by a public willing to show no respect for expertise. It ignored that fact that many of the expert views have already been shown to be wide of the mark and more designed to stir up fear than enlighten. The programme ignored the fact that the public were unwilling to be frightened by the establishment which meant the Remain campaign’s central theme came unstuck.

Overall it was an unsatisfactory attempt at recording a fabulously interesting period in contemporary history. It relied on too many Remoaner truisms too heavily to be insightful. It was as if the writer was still suffering from the sting of defeat and couldn’t bring himself to be objective. Perhaps I was foolish to expect more but it does seem a shame that a more intelligent drama wasn’t forthcoming.