8 January 2019

The Brexit film was good television. But was it accurate?


As a piece of television entertainment, Brexit: The Uncivil War was first class. I really enjoyed watching it last night, and – if I’m honest – felt rather flattered to see myself feature in a film (even if I would rather have been played by Jason Statham). It might have worked as drama, but was it historically accurate?

Channel Four’s film about the campaign to get Britain out of the European Union was never meant to be a documentary. It was always going to be liberal with the facts. That aside, the film did capture accurately much of what went on.

James Graham, who clearly drew heavily from Tim Shipman’s All Out War, as an account of what went on, was right to emphasise the battle to decide who spoke for the Eurosceptic cause. Long before we were even sure that there would be a referendum, we fretted over how to ensure that the Eurosceptic case was made by effective advocates, armed with compelling arguments, aimed at those we needed to win over.

We knew it would be a struggle to ensure that our side at least got a fair hearing, and if anything the film under emphasised what we had to go through.

Throughout the referendum campaign, Downing Street – aided by pro-Remain TV journalists – tried to decide who should speak for the Leave side. They did this in defiance of what Vote Leave, the official campaign side wanted, in the knowledge that if they could give maximum airtime to the worst kind of Leaver advocates, it would damage our campaign. They very nearly succeeded.

The film was right to focus on the role played by the three indispensables at the core of the campaign; Dominic Cummings, Matthew Elliott and Dan Hannan. Of course, when Boris Johnson, Giesela Stuart, Michael Gove and the rest finally joined the campaign a few weeks before the vote, we cheered. It really did feel as if the cavalry had arrived. But the point is that this trio — Dom, Matt and Dan — had by then put in place the formidable campaign machine for these more high profile figures to front.

The film was wrong to reduce Matt and Dan to being little more than Dom’s sidekicks during the campaign. The three of them really were a trio, and central to our success as such – as indeed were others, such as Jon Moynihan, Paul Stephenson and Rob Oxley – who barely got a mention.

But my real beef with Brexit: The Uncivil War was its insistence that the referendum has somehow made us a less pleasant, nastier kind of country. James Graham seems to have taken at face value the claim made by the Remain campaign loser-in-chief, Craig Oliver — and repeated by broadcasters and pundits ever since — that the poll “unleashed demons”.

There is simply no evidence for this claim at all. In fact, there is good polling evidence to show that since we voted to Leave the EU, support for managed immigration has grown, and Britons are have become more positive towards globalisation. Unlike most other EU countries, Britain today does not have any extreme anti-immigrant parties represented in our national legislature.

There is nothing extreme about wanting democratic self-government, and yet the film constantly implied there was something outlandish about it. That perhaps says more about how playwrights in London think, than it does about the country.

Does any of this matter? Actually, I think it rather does. Telling a good yarn about which campaigner in SW1 thought up which particular wheeze is of little consequence. But what we as a country need right now is a sense of optimism. That Britain can be made even better. Instead, this film played on the pessimism narrative.

Since June 23rd 2016, a small but influential group of pundits and commentators, who deeply disapprove of the way most people voted, have constantly tried to undermine the legitimacy of the result. They have scanned ever bit of economic data, and sought to interpret all kinds of incidents, pressing any facts that they can to fit with a narrative of a country set on the wrong course. I could not but help feel that Channel Four’s film ended up doing much the same.

We were presented with a narrative that saw the referendum as some sort of error, in need of explaining away. Mercifully, the film avoided making some of the more loopy Remainer claims, such as that it was all down to Russians. Yet Graham’s script still seemed to be searching for an explanation other than the most simple one: the majority of British voters had had enough of EU membership. Some clearly find that as hard to accept today as they did on June 24th 2016.

Douglas Carswell is a former MP. He was a member of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum.