Daniel Hannan: That Brexit film works as drama. But it doesn’t as history. I should know. I was there.

The real flaw in Graham’s film was the implication that Vote Leave won by turning the European question into something else.

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.

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 may 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.

Brexit: The Uncivil War. Graham gives us Cummings Agonistes – and a Tory work of art.

The noise that he picks up, with an almost clairvoyant sense, is not that of a queue waiting to vote but of a mob pitching the mighty from their seats.

“Coming to a television set near you: Farage the movie,” the Daily Telegraph reported in August 2017.  “A major Hollywood studio is poised to sign a deal with Nigel Farage and Arron Banks to make a £60million, six-part film of Mr Banks’ best-selling diary of the referendum campaign “The Bad Boys of Brexit”.  The script is nearly finished and shooting will start in the New Year. The series will air in April, once the deal is signed next month at a meeting in Los Angeles.”

Eighteen months on, there’s no sign of the film.  Instead, we have one centred on the man who has a better claim to have swung the EU referendum – Dominic Cummings.  There really is a God after all.  Or, if there isn’t, at least there is James Graham, who wrote Brexit: The Uncivil War, shown yesterday evening on Channel 4.

A virtue of his film is that it gets Banks’ measure, nailing him as a comic sideshow. An even bigger one is that it gets the referendum campaign’s too, correctly fingering Cummings as the man who made the difference.  Had he not been appointed, Vote Leave would almost certainly have missed official designation.  Had he been fired from it – there was a coup to oust him – the organisation would have collapsed.  There would have been no Take Back Control.  And, like it or not, that’s what the British people were persuaded to vote to do.

Banks has complained about the drama.  So has the woman who has done so much to project him – Carole Cadwalladr.  He doesn’t like being played for laughs and she doesn’t like it side-stepping her conspiracy theories.  These were nodded to in the closing credits, but otherwise mostly avoided.

In a sense, though, one sympathises with both of them – at least, if hoping for documentary rather than drama.  We could offer a list of corrections and clarifications.  Douglas Carswell didn’t avoid parts of his former constituency as the local MP.  Michael Gove made his mind up far earlier than the film suggests (though he kept quiet about it).  Cummings himself uses focus groups to test voter opinion, not random visits to pubs.  But all that would be beside the point – like expecting a piece of poetry to be a chunk of prose.

No, a more substantial problem for Brexit: the Uncivil War emerges from its greatest strength – that’s to say, putting Cummings, portrayed with eerie verisimilitude by Benedict Cumberbatch, at the centre of the film. Graham balances out Cummings with Craig Oliver, then David Cameron’s Director of Communications.  This neat piece of parallelism sets them up as the contending antagonists of the drama.

But Oliver wasn’t Cummings’ real-life equivalent.  George Osborne was Remain’s chief strategist, if anyone.  And he is missing from the film altogether in fictional form.  So for that matter is Jeremy Corbyn.  Indeed, the film’s fire is largely blue-on-blue.  Back in the real world of the referendum campaign, Corbyn’s lethargy depressed Remain’s Labour vote, just as Farage’s energy, over a longer period, helped to deliver Leave’s core support.  Graham’s palette is striking for the absence of red.

Again, it’s worth stressing that art isn’t fact.  None the less, a structural flaw in a drama’s foundation can collapse it – especially, perhaps, if it looks back to recent events.  Some will say that the film doesn’t work because it scarcely strays from SW1 (which will also have provided the core of its audience), and is shy of probing the cases for and against the EU itself: that it’s real title should be Vote Leave: the Uncivil War.

Others will claim, we think with justice, that the campaign didn’t pit head, in the form of rational Oliver, against heart, in that of romantic Cummings, as Graham seems to suggest.  Rather, two different emotions went head to head: fear and anger.  The drama shows a lot of the stoking of one but very little of that of the other – Project Fear.  The balance between data and message on the Leave side is better, but it was the latter that counted most (at least, if you agree with Oliver which, in part, we do).

None the less, Brexit: the Uncivil War has an emotional strength at the heart of it: it gets why so many people voted Leave.  The focus group scene in which a woman protests in tears that she feels, ignored, by-passed, and treated as if she has no value – and will back Brexit in consequence – has the raw power of truth.

It’s a force that drives the progress of the plot, from Cummings stumbling upon “Take back control”  as a winning slogan through the failed coup to depose him through the campaigning switch to immigration to the very end.  A mention in dispatches, and then some, for Rory Kinnear, whose Oliver is a sleek fictional foil for Cumberbatch’s angular Cummings.  Graham may at heart be a man of the Left, but a more primal politics comes out of the near-final scene in which his protagonists square off against each other over a pint.

“You won’t be able to control it either,” says Oliver of the energies that Cummings has helped to unleash.  In the film, the latter can almost hear them, so finely-tuned are his sensibilities.  The drama begins with him picking up noise like a wireless picking up a signal – straining for it with a concentration that is almost clairvoyant.

Later in the film, he lies down, his ear pressed to the ground, in order to hear it better.  The noise is voices.  What are they saying?  Cummings may not be sure, but Graham seems to be.  Surly, turbulent, angry, swelling to a roar – this is the clamour not of a queue waiting to vote, but of a mob pitching the mighty from their seats.  We have before us not so much the ballot box as Pandora’s box.

Graham is not a Conservative, but this sensibility – this fear of riot, of disorder from below, of revolt – has been linked to the Right of politics for longer than the Left.  He might not thank us for saying so, but he has produced a Tory work of art, in tone as well as personnel.  There are worse ways of sketching a first draft of history.

My take on Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War

When I, as a Brexiteer, heard that Channel Four had commissioned a film about the EU referendum campaign, my heart sank: this was surely going to be an account designed to appeal to the Remain-voting liberal, metropolitan elite. But when I heard that it had been written by James Graham – whose excellent This House […]

The post My take on Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War appeared first on BrexitCentral.

When I, as a Brexiteer, heard that Channel Four had commissioned a film about the EU referendum campaign, my heart sank: this was surely going to be an account designed to appeal to the Remain-voting liberal, metropolitan elite.

But when I heard that it had been written by James Graham – whose excellent This House about how the 1970s Labour Government clinged to power I had seen at the Garrick Theatre in 2016 – I held out some hope that it would be a fair and reasonable representation of events.

The result – Brexit: The Uncivil War (which airs on Channel Four tonight, Monday 7th January at 9pm) – was certainly based on considerable research by Graham into the events of the campaign and by the actors into the protagonists they are playing; and it draws heavily on the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman’s authoritative All Out War as well as Unleashing Demons: The Inside Story of Brexit, the memoir of David Cameron’s former spin doctor, Sir Craig Oliver.

But if the film does end up confirming the prejudices of the anti-Brexit #FBPE crowd, it is by virtue of what it doesn’t cover as much as what it does.

Graham has revealed, for example, that the initial draft of the script included David Cameron and George Osborne as characters; that would have opened up the possibility of including scenes which would have helped to expose how the Remain side exploited government resources, the Whitehall machine and taxpayers’ money to the tune of millions to skew the vote in their favour and promote their Project Fear narrative.

But those characters were dropped and the focus is instead far more on the work of the non-politicians at the helm of the campaigns: by far most extensively the victorious Vote Leave campaign, but also the official Stronger In campaign and Arron Banks’ renegade Leave.EU outfit.

The film reminds us that Vote Leave was established by Matthew Elliott (full disclosure: he is of course our Editor-at-Large) and John Heffernan portrays how his calm but constant presence as CEO kept the show on the road during what would be at times a very bumpy ride (and alas the script fails to give a nod to his vital prior experience in running the successful 2011 No2AV national referendum campaign and Business for Britain as a precursor to Vote Leave).

It is, however, Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Dominic Cummings – the Vote Leave Campaign Director – on which the film focuses more than anything. Cummings doesn’t especially care for politicians of any hue – and they don’t care for him either – and that clash is shown as central to his running an insurgency against the establishment. He is shown to hold in contempt even most of the politicians backing the Leave campaign in some notably tense scenes.

The intensity of Cummings’ mission comes through as his campaign theme morphs from “Take Control” to “Take Back Control” and his disregard for politicians and their traditional campaign methods leads him to expend considerable energy and money on state-of-the-art technology to identify potential Leave voters and persuade them of the case with targeted online advertising.

This is doubtless where the recalcitrant Remainers will cry foul and claim that it vindicates all manner of conspiracy theories, but what the film fails to make clear is that the Remain campaign had an equally ambitious (though ultimately less successful) digital operation of their own. It was run by Jim Messina, who had overseen the micro-targeting of voters for Barack Obama, yet for some reason while the campaign methods he embraced for the former US President were viewed as a positively ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘revolutionary’ development, when they were aped by Brexiteers even more successfully here, they are somehow deemed to be dubious or inappropriate.    

And while the internal divisions within the Leave camp are on full display, we only get a relatively brief glimpse of the chaos and tensions within the Remain camp: there is, however, one glorious scene featuring a conference call (taking place while Oliver, played by Rory Kinnear, is attempting to dish up dinner to his children) in which its leading lights complain about Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to throw his full weight behind their efforts and Downing Street’s failure to sanction “blue on blue” attacks on Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

Johnson and Gove are portrayed on screen, although without any substantial scenes, while Vote Leave Chair Gisela Stuart’s appearances are even more fleeting. As I noted above, the politicians are not the focus of the film, so there are some key players whose efforts go unrecognised as most of the leading political figures are instead shown through occasional video montages of genuine TV footage from the campaign trail.

The depiction of events covered is for the most part, I think, extremely historically accurate (although pedants will point out that Gisela Stuart was not in London but in Manchester with Matthew Elliott on referendum night); the one definite concession to artistic licence is when Cummings and Oliver go for a drink on the eve of the vote to mull over the campaign.

But while the resulting dramatic spectacle is extremely well executed, I can’t help feeling that the inevitably selective focus required for a TV film lasting barely 90 minutes has resulted in significant aspects of the story being left untold.

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