This blog was written on Sunday Jan 13, 2019
I don’t know how many of you saw last Monday’s Channel 4 drama: Brexit, The Uncivil War. I will leave it for others to judge its merits as a drama, and for good reason too.
I am, sadly,one of those curious individual who genuinely enjoy the dublinese patois of Mrs Brown’s Boys. This tells you all you need to know about my artistic judgement – and so goes any “street cred” I have managed to build up over recent years.
Then again, I am originally from Dublin so maybe it’s just the dublinese calling out to me, like Colin Farrell’s opening lines in the great In Bruges. But a Dubliner, is a Dubliner is a Dubliner. Once and for always.
However, I do know about politics and, unfortunately, too much about Brexit – so, as I see it, when it came to attempting to explain Brexit and why the UK voted for it The Uncivil War fell well short of the mark.
The nearest it came to the actual raw and ugly politics of Brexit was the focus-group scene which, as the playwright Sarah Helm noted in the Guardian, better portrayed …how the poison of Brexit has set ordinary people against each other, or exposed how easily our feeble leaders were led by opportunistic apparatchiks… than any newspaper article
Apart from that, The Uncivil War was little more than a US-style “caper” movie. If you knew nothing about Brexit, and this drama was your introduction to the issue, then you would be left with the impression that Brexit was all down to one man. Never mind the “will of the people”, Brexit resulted from the “iron will of Dom”, Dominic Cummins.
The opening shot of the UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, and the right-wing lobbyist, Matthew Elliott, meeting clandestinely in the National Gallery, had echoes of Pierse Brosnan in the Thomas Crowne Affair sitting in front of a painting contemplating the complex game he was about to play. It then morphed into The Magnificent Seven as Carswell and Elliott went in search of Dominic “Chris”, Cummins, to put a team together to head “South” to fight the good fight against the pro-EU banditos.
The Magnificent Seven soon then became Ocean’s 11 (Cummins’ 11, even) as the team worked out, in the manner of Clooney and Pitt (Or, Sinatra and Martn for the older among you) planning the robbery of Terry Benedict’s casinos, how to outwit the combined forces of the government and the opposition Labour and LibDem parties, all working together for a yes vote, not to mention the side-lining of the other leave campaign, Leave.EU run by Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks.
In what can only have been a nod to London gangster movies, one scene has Farage and Banks turn up to talk to Elliott and Cummins about working together. It played for all the world like the two head honchos of an East End gang complaining to the bosses of a rival gang that they had had their eye on this “blag” for years and they weren’t going to let it be taken from under their noses.
At the epicentre of all of this is Cummins, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch as an obsessive eccentric, who, singlehandedly, works out in the manner of one of those mathematical geniuses in a code-breaking film the “eureka” formula that will win the referendum – Take Back Control. Not so much, in Helm’s words, one of the “opportunistic apparatchiks” as a latter-day Alan Turing.
In the teeth of opposition from the old fogies who make up the board of Vote Leave, men, and it is all men, who have devoted their lives to pulling the UK out of the EU, Cummins drives through the decision to put most of the campaign spend into social media, rather than traditional election advertising.
Of course, The Uncivil War made no mention of the dark money involved in the leave campaign, including the half-million euro secretly bunged to Northern Ireland’s DUP, not to mention the illegal harvesting and use of personal data, or the possibility of Russian involvement to further Putin’ agenda of weakening the EU.
Why let the facts stand in the way of a good story… especially there are so many omitted as Carole Cadwalladr itemised in her comprehensive fact checking thread here.
There can be no doubt that Cummins played a key role in delivering Brexit. The slogan Take Back Control was a work of art and he was the one who came up with it. The Vote Leave campaign was tight and well organised compared to the somewhat shambolic campaign run by the Remain side. It should be remembered that while Leave had no compunctions about personal attacks on Remain politicians, David Cameron, then Prime Minister, vetoed counter attacks on Tory politicians on the Leave side to make it easier for the Tory party to come back together after he won the referendum.
Further, for the most part of the campaign the lifelong Eurosceptic leader of Labour, Jeremy Corbyn, nominally campaigning for Remain, went missing, in spirit if not in body. “Jezzer” certainly felt the pull of the Eurosceptic “dark side”.
But great historical events are never down to just one person. They are driven by social and political forces that have deep roots. As Jan Techau notes:
A mix of fear of globalization, economic pressure, threatened identity, government incompetence, ultra-fast technological change, a global changing of the guard, an irredentist Russia, and by now more than a decade of de facto American absence does not fail to instil fear and loathing in the Old World. Link here
In the UK itself, the destruction of manufacturing and mining jobs played a part. As did years of stagnant wages and depressed living standards, as much the fruit of UK government “austerity” policy as anything that could be laid at the door of the EU.
Needless to say, a sense of English exceptionalism, the “Dunkerque spirit” and “end of empire” nostalgia fed into the narrative that the UK would return to the swashbuckling days of yore, if only freed from chains of the EU. It will take the cooling of passions and the perspective on events that only time can bring for us to fully understand what gave birth to Brexit
But the “great man” theory still has a deep purchase among Brexiteers and the Uncivil War gave the theory a boost with Benedict “Sherlock Holmes” Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Cummins.
How often have we come across brexiteer speeches or articles, arguing that if someone with “guts”, “character” or “backbone” had been negotiating with Brussels instead of Theresa May then everything would have turned out differently.
If only a “True Brit with True Grit” had turned up in the Berlaymont and told those “Johnny foreigners” to “know their place” the EU would have folded and given the UK its Brexit cake, with a bowl full of cherries on the side. It would have been over in an afternoon. Indeed, it would have been a “Brief Encounter”…but one where Laura does not end up going back home to Fred and the children?
It was “great man” thinking along these lines that was clearly behind remarks made by Boris Johnson, at a private dinner in London for Tory donors, but which were recorded and leaked. Johnson said
“I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump. I have become more and more convinced that there is method in his madness.”
“Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson added. “He’d go in bloody hard … There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
It is a cast-iron rule of Brexit Briefing to stay strictly focused on Brexit and not to comment on non-Brexit political issues. But, given the movie motif of this issue, as Michael Corleone says to his wife Kay at the end of The Godfather: “This one time, this one time….”. When you see how President Trump is conducting the current U.S. government shutdown negotiations, Johnson’s remarks send a shudder down the spine when I think of how things would be were he ever to be in a position to take charge of the Brexit process.
Instead of the backstop, designed to safeguard the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement by ensuring that never again will there be a hard border on the island of Ireland, Johnson would probably demand the building of an Irish border wall, and insist that Dublin pays for it.
Those of you who are old enough will remember the 1972 movie starring Robert Redford: The Candidate. Against all the odds, Redford’s character, a Democrat, becomes the unlikely winner of a US Senate race in California, knocking out the sitting Republican senator. (Those were the days when there were still Republicans in California. I know, I know… but I am still covered by the “just one time” exemption…)
As the campaign unfolded, Redford’s character, Bill McKay, who started as an idealistic environmental activist, had become increasingly nebulous and non-committal at the insistence of Marvin Lucas, his political consultant, so that he could reach increasingly diverse groups of voters, alienating as few as possible along the way. In the end he said nothing and stood for nothing.
In the final scene, McKay, slips out of the victory party and pulls Lucas into a room while journalists outside are demanding he talk to them. McKay asks Lucas, “What do we do now?” The media bursts in, Lucas steps aside and McKay never gets an answer.
While the The Uncivil War did not quite end that way, it did end with Cummins making rambling, end-of-days comments to a parliamentary committee (a totally fictional scene, as there has been no such openness). Yet, in real life, the Brexit campaign did end with McKay’s question to Lucas: “What do we do now?”
As we argued last week, at no time did the Brexiteers spell out what leaving the EU would mean in practice. Sure, it was about taking back control of “our of money, laws and borders” which is about as useful as “Brexit mean Brexit” when it comes to working out what that would mean in practice.
In fact, Brexiteers went out of their way to avoid getting into specifics during the referendum for fear, like Bill McKay, that they alienate some voters. Like the personalised Facebook ads which Cummins used, every voter could have their own personal Brexit.
But, when that happens, when you get 17 million individual Brexits, then it becomes impossible to reach a consensus among Brexiteers as to how Brexit is to be executed.
“Brexit Maximus”, understood as having as little as possible to do with the EU in the future, save for what is absolutely essential? You can see Johnson, denied the job of Prime Minister by the backstabbing Gove, standing in the middle of Brussels shouting: “I will have my revenge, in this life or the next”.
Or “Brexit Minimus”, staying in the EU’s custom union and single market, while leaving the EU’s political and other structures, and all and any points in between. What is it to be? None of which, of course, takes into account the views of the 48% of the electorate who voted to stay in the EU “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels”.
Brexit mirrors populism everywhere. It knows what it is against with a passion but has little idea as to what it is for. As Techau again notes:
Brexit is not alone, but it stands out as the wildly improbable unforced error it is. Hungarian niche nationalism, Austrian provincial narrowness, Le Pen’s revolt against the centralized system of the republican Sun Kings, the religiously infused particularism of Poland, True Finns up north, xenophobes in sunny Italy—they are all explicable, in their own way.
Brexit is a process, not something that will simply happen on March 29th next, if indeed it does happen. Years of negotiations between the UK and the EU beckon. My friend Denis McShane calls it: Brexeternity (From Here to Brexiternity?). It will go on for long as to make the Star Wars saga look like a mere curtain raiser.
In years to come, screenwriters will begin scripts: “In an EU far, far away….” as the hull of one of the Seaborne Freight ferries, The Millennium Grayling, finally launched in 3020, a thousand years after the contract was awarded, heaves into view. To mix the sci-fi sagas: “It will be life Jean-Claude, but not as we know it.”
One last movie reference. Maybe it was just me, but the Boris Johnson and Michael Gove characters in The Uncivil War looked remarkably like they were auditioning for roles as Hobbits in the next Lord of the Rings movie… my precious Brexit?
Then again, maybe it was just that last glass of red wine kicking in.