Channel 4 spent a lot of money on Brexit the movie, but broadcast it late at night and early in the week. Was Channel 4 ashamed?
It should be. Pre-emptive spin pretended this was drama without agenda. The script-writer was placed in the Daily Mail to insist that he is “not blaming one side or the other.” The star (Benedict Cumberbatch) agreed a rare interview to claim that, although he is a Remainer, the role was just a dramatic challenge. Elsewhere, Cumberbatch claimed that the film isn’t about “wrong or right” and “doesn’t lecture.”
If only any of that were true. Unfortunately, drama – particularly visual drama – tends to anchor popular cultural understanding – increasingly so, given the increasing superficiality, divisiveness, and subjectivity of the social media age. Increasingly, people get their understanding of the real world from fiction.
Thus, dramatists have a responsibility to portray real events accurately and fairly. They cannot get away with the irresponsibility of saying it’s just a drama. Well, if it were just drama, then don’t use real people and real events.
These dramatists didn’t just choose real people and real events, they came with a Remain agenda, which emerges as irresponsible myth-making. Let’s look at the six most outrageous of this drama’s myths.
BREXITEERS HAVE NO REASON
This drama focuses on the real people who led the campaign to vote leave, yet the characters are given no reason. They are just introduced as members of UKIP, or professional campaigners, who inexplicably choose Leave.
The main character (Dominic Cummings, the Campaign Director of Vote Leave), at first, is given some authentic lines as to why he would refuse to take the job (such as the sordidness of politics at the best of times, particularly given the intractability of conventional wisdom). Yet Cummings is given no line to explain his choice of Brexit over Remain. The drama suggests that he’s just a professional opportunist – he could have directed the other side given a better offer.
Similarly, the Brexiteer politicians in the script are just vacuous or opportunist. Douglas Carswell (then a UKIP MP, having crossed from the Conservatives) is the first character to appear, but is given few lines except to acknowledge other characters. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove eye each other across an opera house, with the text-over explanation that they are undecided, then suddenly they are in the Vote Leave campaign office. Both are portrayed as regretful when they win.
That’s before the script introduces Nigel Farage (former leader of UKIP) and Aaron Banks (a donor) as two lager-swilling foul-mouthed egomaniacs. Both have articulated well their reasons, but the script gives them none, except implicitly bloody-mindedness and racism.
BREXITEERS ARE A RIGHT-WING MINORITY
Few of the Brexiteer politicians are admitted into the script, which dwells on the Conservatives and UKIPers who can be portrayed as right-wing dinosaurs.
In one rant, the other side’s campaign director pleads with a focus group to realise that his opponents are just privileged Tories who wouldn’t be affected by the economic horrors of Brexit. (Hypocritically, he was working for the Etonian, inherited-millionaire David Cameron.)
At several points, Cummings is forced to explain himself to a board composed entirely of four aged, life-long Tory Eurosceptics, such as Bill Cash.
In fact, both the campaign committee and the board were founded by dozens of Labour, Liberal, DUP, and Conservative supporters, as well as non-partisans.
Gisela Stuart (then a Labour MP) is given a passing introduction, presumably for “balance” (of the BBC kind). She was actually key – she was Chair of Vote Leave, and articulated the cross-party left-right case for Brexit. After all, to get 52 percent of the electorate on a single issue, the campaign actually needed more Labour and Liberal partisans than Tories.
In the script, the Eurosceptics are Tory dinosaurs, who don’t understand social media, and hate foreigners. In fact, the Tory dinosaurs were overwhelmingly Remainers, backed by the Party’s and government’s spin machines. Cummings has explained that “We won despite the net effect of Conservative MPs.” He highlighted Steve Baker, George Eustice, Dominic Raab, Graham Stringer, and Anne-Marie Trevelyan as rare hard-working MPs for Leave – after Gove, Johnson, and Stuart, but none of them appear in the script.
BREXITEERS INVENTED “PROJECT FEAR”
The line in the script that most literally and hypocritically misrepresents the truth is given to the other side’s campaign director (Craig Oliver, then chief spin doctor simultaneously for both David Cameron and “Britain Stronger in Europe”), when he rants that the “Vote Leave” are peddling “Project Fear.”
Oh dear (pause to lower blood pressure): even before the referendum campaigns officially kicked off – before “Vote Leave” even existed – Craig Oliver was spinning David Cameron’s many oh-dark-thirty trips to Brussels in early 2016 as re-negotiations for special privileges. These special privileges were spun, at most reductionist, as vital to Britain’s jobs, economy, and security – this was the same line that headlined “Britain Stronger in Europe.”
Yet Cameron achieved no practical renegotiation. Can you even remember what he gained from the EU in spring 2016? Nobody can, because his campaigners did not draw attention to them. They just kept saying that if we vote Brexit we would kill “jobs, economy, security.”
These were lies then: I don’t have space here to point out more refutations than: most of Britain’s trade was then and is now non-EU; non-EU trade was and is growing at the expense of EU trade; and EU protectionism and regulations kill jobs, discourage entrepreneurship, and deny consumers cheaper and more diverse goods and services from outside the EU.
These points are not retrospective – they were obvious at the time. Their objectivity, and Project Fear’s hysterical attempts to tar them rather than discuss them, contributed to the popular realization that yes, really, the populace is the victim of the elite’s lies and bluff.
The most obvious lie to me then was the claim that Cameron had negotiated more security. In fact, as I wrote and voiced at the time, because he was stepping most directly on my expertise, his re-negotiations with the EU never addressed security. Moreover, if anything, the EU’s attempts to duplicate our security institutions had already damaged our security, before we even admit the incompetence and indecisiveness of the EU’s policies and practices in responding to international events.
In the midst of all that, Cameron paraded US President Barack Obama to say that if Britons voted Brexit they could expect to be at the back of the queue for trade with America. This was nauseatingly clumsy – it backfired, but this isn’t in the script.
Cameron is not portrayed. Chancellor (George Osborne) also doesn’t feature in the script. He said Britain would enter recession the day after a Brexit vote. His Treasury released forecasts that Britain would enter a recession lasting at least two years, by when 500,000 more Britons would be unemployed. (In fact, the economy and employment grew steadily through June 2018.) None of this is in the script.
Instead, the visual highpoint of the drama is the Vote Leave bus, painted with the legend that hundreds of millions of pounds go to the EU each week but could be spent on the NHS. It’s a triumph for communicating political choices and consequences, but the drama portrays it as a knowing lie. Craig Oliver is portrayed explaining to a focus group that it’s a lie, because no check is ever written for that amount! I laughed, but it wasn’t intended to be funny.
Governments don’t write checks. The script just misses the point of the bus: The EU costs us hundreds of millions per year; it’s not worth it; we have better priorities.
The script doesn’t even explain the only valid argument for the claim that the figure is a lie: it is a gross payment – but a gross payment is still a fact. and a working problem if you’re an accountant and a negotiator. Even the net figure (after rebates), even excluding the contribution to EU international aid, is worth hundreds of millions per week (more than 280 million per week in 2015). Remainers don’t want to confront the ridiculous costs of the EU, so pretend that using the gross figure is a lie. Cummings has stated that Remainer complaints just helped to draw attention to the message. Before that bus, nobody would have guessed that the EU costs us hundreds of millions per week. Now it is common knowledge.
BREXITEERS ARE RACIST
Another hypocrisy in the script is to portray a focus group with all Brexiteers as white, Remainers as of colour. In the final portrayal of this focus group (half-a-dozen people meant to represent more than 30 million voters!) they just denigrate into a shouting match about racism.
This portrayal restores a key element of Project Fear – that opposition to the EU is racism or at best nativism, that complaints about shortage of housing, rising prices, the free movement of terrorists, etc., are just prejudices.
This portrayal ignores the cross-ethnic appeal of UKIP (in contrast to the all-white anti-fa protesters), and the multi-cultural arguments for leaving the EU, whose principle of free movement privileges low-skilled eastern European immigrants over more meritorious (and less white) immigrants from the rest of the world.
NEW TECHNOLOGY WON THE VOTE
The script has no plot, except that Dominic Cummings would win the vote by using new technologies to mobilize non-voters.
The script keeps telling us that the foreign techies hired by Cummings arrive with 3 million untapped potential voters, found by micro-targeting via their Facebook preferences. At the end, a text-over reminds us of the name of the tech company hired by Cummings, and the other hired by Aaron Banks (Cambridge Analytica), and concludes that they are all linked to Donald Trump’s win of the US Presidency in the same year. This is as clumsy as prejudice-linkage gets.
Two hours of drama end without giving any reason for voters to vote Brexit, except to do what an algorithm tells them.
The script gives no admission to the fact that both sides were micro-targeting – it’s just advertising via social media. It’s not the magic that the script pretends. Nothing in the script admits that advertising doesn’t work unless you’ve got something to sell. Vote Leave worked because it advertised the facts that the other side was hiding.
In addition to micro-targeting, Vote Leave needed old-fashioned debate and engagement, from TV studios to newspapers to doorsteps. Vote Leave alone mailed ads to more than 10 million people. Carswell grew his constituency mandate in the by-election (2014) that following his switch to UKIP, after which he had the largest personal vote in the Commons. He was well known already as a rare Tory who would walk the least attended parts of his district, yet the drama portrays his ignorance and discomfort in a caravan park, where Cummings tests their appeal to the dispossessed.
In the script, Craig Oliver complains to the BBC that its policy of “balance” is giving airtime to every Brexit nutjob to drown out the Nobel economists that he was putting on the air. This was the part where I thought the script had swerved into satire. In fact, the BBC favoured pro-EU speakers at a rate of about 30 to 1, and had done so for decades.
BREXIT POISONED OUR DISCOURSE
As if this drama could not get more irresponsible, its final half-hour is a tedious, chaotic tragedy, where Brexiteers are shown to incite hate and violence.
The murder of Jo Cox is explicitly blamed on Brexit discourse. Documentary footage shows both sides arguing in public spaces, but only Brexiteers are blamed.
Again, no content of Brexiteer argument is allowed into the script. Cummings and his team are shown silently uncomfortable; at one point, he sits down to a drink with Craig Oliver, who asks him if he understands that he has opened a pandora’s box, to which Cummings has no effective answer (in reality, he would have pointed out Oliver’s hypocrisy); eventually, Cummings is shown repudiating his part and literally walking away from politics (again, not true).
A current version of this Remainer hypocrisy is the hysteria about Anna Soubry’s safety, when confronted by loud opponents outside Parliament this week, angry at her long campaign to overturn the referendum and her party manifesto. Soubry has made an issue of the safety of Remainer MPs. The Speaker (John Bercow) agreed with her, and called her opponents “fascists” (oh the irony). Yet nobody – not even the police – entertained prior pleas from Nadine Dorries (a Brexiteer) for protection from opponents who have forced to leave her home, office, Parliament Square, and social media accounts.
Dramatic fiction has the nasty habit of resuscitating a false consensus. Project Fear is back, and dramatists have as much responsibility as spin doctors.