Last night at 9 PM, as almost all of you will know, Channel 4 broadcast a drama based on the events leading up to the EU referendum in June 2016, written by James Graham and starring Benedict Cumberbatch. I’m going to break this review up into two separate pieces: one, reviewing “The Uncivil War” as a drama; two, examining the politics of the piece and more interestingly, the politics of the reaction to the programme.
I liked it much more than I thought I would. I wasn’t a big fan of “Coalition” and I was weary of “The Uncivil War” coming into it because, superficially, the same elements that were personal to me in “Coalition” were also present here: it was depicting people I know and events I was close enough to that I’d had a ringside seat. In “Coalition”, some of the details worked for me, but way too many were just off, so much so I couldn’t get into the drama. Perhaps had I not known many of the main characters in real life the whole thing might have gelled for me – but there is no way to know. All I can say is “The Uncivil War” presented the same potential problem and I was worried I’d feel the same way for the same reason.
Although I felt some of the details were off on occasion (a big one was the depiction of Dominic Cummings as the genius and Matthew Elliot as some sort of pencil pusher type, which is massively exaggerated in the programme for dramatic effect) for the most part, a lot of it rang true. It managed to depict the dysfunction of the Remain campaign in a fair-minded way, and the tension between Craig Oliver on one side and Cummings on the other worked in the programme, mostly because both parts were very well cast.
Of course, given where we are as a country right now, viewing this simply as a drama is impossible. The reaction on social media while the programme was on air was interesting. Both Remainers and Leavers had complaints – that was a good sign from the perspective of Graham and the makers of the production. That it was reasonably fair in that respect without seeming forced is a huge achievement. I could spent the rest of today trying to sort through the politics of the programme and the reaction to it, so in the name of brevity I’m going to focus on two things only. One, the complaint made against “The Uncivil War” that it placed too much emphasis on an unknown apparatchik while letting MPs off the hook for their part in everything on both sides; two, the notion that making a drama about the campaigns is misleading anyhow since they made no appreciable difference. That History had ordained Leave as the winner from the moment the referendum was called and everything else was just going through the motions.
For the layperson out there, and by that I mean anyone who doesn’t work in Westminster, I can understand why the drama’s emphasis on Dominic Cummings, a man most of them will never have heard of, as the main driving force of the Leave campaign will seem weird and possibly false. What seems really strange to me is that I am hearing such things from some seasoned political journalists, which makes me realise that a few of them must have never had any real exposure to the heart of a political campaign before and have possibly been faking it. In any modern political campaign, non-politician advisors such as Dominic Cummings play a huge, arguably outsized role. This is doubly true of referendum campaigns for several reasons: they are cross-party, which means MPs have to accommodate MPs from other parties and none of them can really be the true leader of the whole thing as a result. Political campaigning has morphed more and more into a science and it is accepted wisdom that it needs to be left to the “experts” (this could be seen as ironic in the case of Vote Leave, but I digress). I have no doubt whatsoever that all of the ideas that are presented as being from the mind of Dominic Cummings in the drama came from him or his staff and not any of the MPs. In fact, the drama’s depiction of the MPs as generally bumbling, ineffective and founts of terrible ideas will ring true to anyone who has ever worked reasonably close to the centre of a national political campaign. There are massive exceptions – some MPs are indeed brilliant at political strategy, or at the very least, understand their limitations in this regard and stay out of it – but for the most part, MPs are wanted as mouthpieces on television, sticking as close to script as possible, and out of the way the rest of the time. They are rarely involved in any big campaign decision unless it directly involves them or their constituency.
A lot of Remainers have complained about the part of the drama when a woman hands Boris a leaflet claiming 70 million people from Turkey are going to come to the UK unless we leave the EU, and Boris then acts shocked as if he’d never previously seen the leaflet. The idea is that this is some bogus device to let BoJo off the hook. In response, I’d say it’s incredibly likely that Boris had absolutely no idea what was on most of the Leave leaflets before they went out and could easily have been surprised by a stray piece of messaging (particularly one that those actually running the campaign thought he might not like). This is mere speculation on my part – I have no idea what Boris Johnson knew or didn’t know about the Leave campaign while it was in full swing – I just know from past experience that it is very, very likely Boris wouldn’t have known all that much about the day to day operation of Vote Leave in any sort of remotely granular sense. This doesn’t let him off the hook morally, incidentally; it’s akin to a celebrity endorsing a faulty product. Just because they didn’t bother to do due diligence into the product they were fronting doesn’t mean they don’t bear a responsibility for popularising it.
Finally, the idea that the campaigns made no difference and Leave was always fated to win. Again, I have heard this from some political journos and even some academics. This is a very, very silly notion. In the age of social media and 24 hour news, political campaigns make more of a difference than ever before. Take the 2017 general election as the best example in recent times. The Tories huge lead at the start of the campaign was real – the local election results bear this out – it’s just that Theresa May ran a terrible campaign while Corbyn ran a good one. Voila, Labour actually gained seats in an election in which he was expected to get decimated. The campaigns on either side of the GE made a huge difference – of course they did. It might suit Corbynistas to claim that the relative strengths of each campaign was immaterial and it was just that the country was always destined to partly fall for Jezza, but the smarter ones must know this to be false (particularly as they spend most of their lives campaigning. Why bother if it doesn’t do any good?).
I have no doubt whatsoever that if Leave.EU had got the official designation and instead of Dominic Cummings running what was a brilliant campaign (put aside any of your arguments about legality or morality for a moment here), Farage and Banks ran their laddish “get the foreign muck out of here” routine as the main campaign, Remain would have won, and probably something like 55-45. It seems to trouble a lot of people that a small band of mostly publicly unknown yet politically astute individuals who were willing to do what it took to win managed to change the fate of the country – but sorry, people, that’s almost certainly the reality.