A British film about the referendum portrays brilliantly the political currents that shocked the U.K.’s ruling class.
Brexit — or, in the U.K., Brexit: The Uncivil War — is now showing on HBO. I started watching it at 12:30 a.m. two nights ago and, inevitably, I continued doing so until well after 2:00 a.m. I strongly urge even those who think they are thoroughly bored with Brexit in the real world to search for it. My own amateur view — Kyle Smith, please stop reading here — is that it’s the best political movie since The Manchurian Candidate (1962).
Of course, it’s somewhat more realistic. It’s got a clever and witty screenplay by one of Britain’s best new playwrights, James Graham, who has made a specialty of plays and screenplays about politics and who, though neither a Tory nor a Brexiteer, isn’t possessed by the vitriolic hatred of both groups that disables most minds in theater and television. Its director, Toby Haynes, moves it along at a cracking pace that is nonetheless never confusing. And it contains mostly good and some outstanding performances, in particular Rory Kinnear (familiar from Bond movies) as the Remain campaign’s chief strategist, Craig Oliver, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the Leave campaign’s presiding genius, Dominic Cummings, now installed at 10 Downing Street as Boris Johnson’s main adviser.
Their rivalry is played out in several scenes that show how Cummings’s discovery through data mining of a new kind of voter — one alienated from politics who hasn’t voted before — gradually undermines Oliver’s strategy of appealing to blocs of regular voters with known preferences and more-predictable reactions. Cummings arouses the sleeping abstainers, who feel that political parties ignore and despise them, with a message that they can recover the democratic power they once had by bringing it back from Brussels to Westminster. His slogan is a brilliantly simple one: Take Back Control.
Two fictional scenes in particular show this. In one, Cummings is listening to voters tell of how their district has fallen into decay as its industries moved away when he hears their complaints in his head as if they were a loud subterranean sound growing in volume. Sensing something important and trying to grasp it, he gets up, leaves the house, walks into the street, and puts his head wonderingly to the roadside. It lacks only the proper soundtrack. In the second scene a frustrated Oliver intervenes in a focus group to explain to one of Cummings’s alienated voters that she doesn’t understand what’s really at stake, only for her to break down, experiencing his arguments as the familiar condescension of political elites deaf to her feelings and opinions.
As these scenes suggest, Brexit the television movie greatly (and necessarily) simplifies the ball of wool tangled with a spider’s web that was the Brexit campaign in real life. By narrowing its vision to the battle between the two official campaigns and their leading figures, it either ignores or downgrades the importance of the main political figures on both sides and the influence of the print and broadcast media. Among those who get short shrift from the movie are Prime Minister David Cameron (he’s there as a voice on the phone), Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan, and Nigel Farage — the last two in particular could sue for libel. Both played brave and important roles, first in getting a Brexit referendum called, then in pushing it over the finish line (or lines, since others were drawn after the result). In this telling they are reduced respectively to an amiable sidekick of the Cummings campaign and a loudmouthed and bigoted clown on the sidelines. But that’s less wounding than it might be, since all the characters play second or even third fiddle, either to Cummings or to Oliver.
Their relationship to each other is a more subtle one. Cummings is the winner of the referendum and the hero of the screenplay. Played by Cumberbatch as a flamboyantly autistic loner, he dominates the movie whenever he’s on the screen. The scene where he’s summoned by the Leave campaign board to be fired, only to reverse the coup and fire the campaign chairman instead, is a political anorak’s daydream (an anorak, named after the type’s favorite garment, is someone who is obsessive and anti-social). Oliver is played by Kinnear with a kind of decent but baffled charisma that reflects the screenplay’s own sympathies — not altogether surprisingly, since he was the film’s technical adviser. Oliver may lose the referendum, but he wins its interpretation here. In a fictional scene, the two men meet just before voting day over a drink. Both agree that Cummings has aroused spirits from the vasty deep that now rampage through the land with, as Oliver warns, dangerously unpredictable results. A final scene apparently endorses that warning: Appearing before an investigative committee of some kind, Cummings concedes that the referendum has unleashed political chaos, disorder, and irresponsibility but blames it on the failure of the politicians to make good use of the popular (and populist) energies now in politics.
Since I am about to argue that Brexit: The Uncivil War gets one very important thing wrong, let me begin by mentioning two things (missed by most political commentators at the time) it gets damn right, and one it gets half-right. First, it clearly identifies the essential clash in the referendum: Remain argued that Brexit would mean economic disaster; Leave argued that rejecting Brexit would definitively entrench Britain’s loss of sovereignty to Brussels. It was prosperity versus sovereignty — as simple as that — and sovereignty won. The voters took back control. That result was unexpected in part because the media shared the Remain view that sovereignty was a fake issue and were as slow as Oliver in reacting to it. Neither they nor Remain ever developed an effective counter to Take Back Control. It proved to be a crucial weakness. Second, the film realizes as it follows Cummings’s own voyage of discovery that the Brexit outcome was the result neither of an internal Tory maneuver to keep its Eurosceptic backbenchers happy nor of Russian cyber-warfare, nor even of mysterious data manipulation financed by American billionaires (though it flirts with the last temptation). That outcome had been gradually building for decades. When I looked at opinion-poll surveys from the first Euro-referendum onward, I found that voters who wanted to leave the EU had been a settled, substantial minority all the time from 1975 to 2016, rising in later years to a plurality. Cummings did not invent the alienated voter; he discovered how numerous that voter was and set out to contact him. Given the 52–48 split result between Leavers and Remainers, the millions of forgotten voters provided more than the winning margin.
But the third point — which is also the movie’s endpoint, where Cummings concedes that he has stirred up dangerous passions leading to irresponsible and unstable politics — is an accurate picture of the situation except in two respects: It misidentifies the impassioned mobs creating chaos and mistakes a short period of political realignment for a permanent political disorder.
It is, in a word, dated. That is not a sneer but a precise criticism. The film’s seemingly final outcome describes Britain’s politics from July 2017, when Theresa May lost the Tory majority in Parliament, to December 12, 2019, when Boris Johnson won a majority of 80. In those 29 months, the MPs in all parties who privately opposed Brexit — a shifting majority, larger or smaller depending on circumstance and how far party discipline had broken down — gradually came to think that they could dilute or defeat Brexit by parliamentary tactics and legal maneuvers. They were supported in these aims by a majority of the House of Lords and, outside Parliament, by the BBC, industry, the City of London, the labor unions, the universities, The Economist, the Financial Times, the Times, the Guardian, most pundits and political correspondents, and a large majority of the Great and Good in establishment bodies. And the expectation in all these circles — the Remainer narrative, you might say — was that this impressive coalition was likely to prevail and to restore a more civilized order to politics.
It was during these months that the film was written, produced, and in January 2019 released in the U.K.
But what happened as 2019 proceeded turned these expectations on their heads. Turmoil, instability, the breaking of rules, and a bonfire of precedents occurred almost daily, but it was on the Remainer side that these unruly passions held sway. The Commons speaker openly abandoned impartiality and issued rulings hostile to Brexit that his expert clerk advisers warned strongly against. With his connivance, a shifting cross-party coalition of backbenchers seized control of the parliamentary agenda to compel government actions for which they were not constitutionally accountable. Cabinet ministers voted against government measures, thereby violating the rule of collective responsibility, but remained in office. The House of Lords threw aside its deference to the democratic lower house and blocked Brexit legislation. If there was a mob to be seen, it was one clad in ermine robes and lawyers’ wigs. The net effect was a growing public dissatisfaction with a “Remainer Parliament” that seemed to promise parliamentary chicanery and political instability without end — or at least until an election, which most MPs fearfully opposed.
How did the sweaty masses on the Leave side respond to this? They remained impressively stable and responsible in their commitment to leaving the EU. The opinion polls registered only minor shifts between the two voting blocs. And their specifically political reactions were a model of democracy from Civics 101. On the Tory side, junior ministers resigned from office, 118 Tory backbenchers voted no confidence in Theresa May, and activists in the country responded to the May government’s proposed withdrawal agreement by passing resolutions calling on ministers to change policy. Labour’s Leave minority, mainly in blue-collar constituencies, had fewer effective means of protest in a party drifting toward Remain. They resisted the drift, resenting especially that their party was opposing a democratic mandate, but Labour was leaving them socially and ideologically.
Then Nigel Farage gave Brexiteers in all parties a vehicle for protest when he founded the Brexit party and won the largest vote share in the European elections, reducing the Tories to 8 percent and Labour to a hardly much better 17 percent. All these developments unsettled “tribal” party loyalties and speeded up what was starting to look like a realignment. Threatened by a national Tory vote of no confidence, May resigned. Boris Johnson then won the Tory leadership, formed a government united on a Brexit platform, expelled hardened anti-Brexit rebels, and demanded a general election to overcome the parliamentary stalemate. Jeremy Corbyn was dragged, equivocating heroically, into endorsing a second referendum and losing the workers. And, yielding in part to a public desire to get Brexit over (as much as done), Labour and the Lib-Dems capitulated to pressure from Boris and voted for an election that the Tories won handsomely.
All the events listed in the two paragraphs above happened after the Brexit film was released. They paint a slightly different picture from the film’s conclusion; for starters, rather than responding grumpily to a committee of political critics, Dominic Cummings is sitting in Downing Street drawing up plans for the reorganization of the civil service. Instead of an atmosphere of chaos and instability, there is a widespread sense (which may turn out to be illusory — we can’t foresee the future) that the period between the 2017 and 2019 elections was not turbulent without meaning but the start of a necessary political realignment: The new wine of Leave and Remain is being poured into the old bottles of Tory and Labour (where the old wine increasingly tasted complex but sour).
A strong democratic impulse, liberated by the Brexit surprise, has defeated a ruthless antidemocratic resistance without resorting to its opponents’ procedural trickeries. And the size of that victory has persuaded all but the most fanatical of those opponents to accept their defeat while seeking to make it as tolerable as possible for them and their causes. As a result, we have a very paradoxical situation: A stable Tory government with a strong majority presides with apparent comfort over a politics in ferment — workers going right, lawyers moving left, “Blue Labour” theorists seeing the Tories as the party of labor (which Labour has abandoned to embrace workless welfare instead), democracy ceasing to be everybody’s favorite goddess since we no longer agree on what she looks like, nationalists in Scotland demanding to be ruled from Brussels because London is too remote to care, bitter battles between “traditional” feminists and transgender activists . . . and any number of other novelties.
To these post-Brexit political trends I will return. But you can find a thorough discussion of Boris’s victory and its likely consequences between Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the website Conservative Home, and me here.
Meanwhile, as Wolcott Gibbs concluded his Time magazine parody in The New Yorker: Where it all will end, knows God.