Immigration, Alienation and Brazen Lies: The Political Warfare of James Graham’s Brexit – Uncivil War

brexit - uncivil war

So I found Brexit: Uncivil War to be a surprisingly compelling piece of television on the Leave campaign of the 2016 EU Referendum.  While at times I wish it would have delved into further details on certain areas, it did a great job at underlining both the incredibly facile nature of the Leave campaign’s manifesto and the sinister wells of anxiety and hatred it playfully dabbled with, as well as the Remain camp’s tired, uninspiring campaign style that secured its loss.

What made Graham’s work so compelling was in how it portrayed a Leave campaign managed by Dominic Cummings (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) as so devoid of any meaningful, fact-based analysis.  For Cummings, who is presented as both an uncomfortable social butterfly and potent data and campaign maestro, he repeatedly reminds his team that the data will lead what campaign promises and adverts they decide to promote, much to the chagrin of Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks who want the campaign to focus predominantly on the immigration question.  For Cummings, as soon as (the highly-questionable) data showed that soft-Leave or undecided voters found the fear of Turkey joining the EU, or the figure of £350 million supposedly given to the bloc on a weekly basis particularly abhorrent, it took centre-stage in the campaign.  In one scene, Cummings stands in front of his activists, reminding them to hammer the Turkey / £350 million talking points as much as possible. 

Whether or not the idea of Turkey joining the EU is relatively fantastical, or that the £350 million figure has now been painfully debunked, if they resonated with voters, they were deployed right away.  And this, as David Cameron’s Director of Communications and Remain strategist Craig Oliver (played brilliantly by Rory Kinnear) reminds Cummings in the final scenes of the movie, was his biggest sin.  As Oliver comments, there were ethical lines of debate being held by the Remain camp (however uninspiring these may have been), so to see Leave being dominated by such corruptible, and so easily dismissed, forms of argument, and ones that often wholly embraced forms of racist and xenophobic rhetoric, was in Oliver’s eyes a form of political crime.  This is one of the major achievements of Graham’s work, and demonstrates the enduring, worrying tones that the Leave campaign left in the waters of British discourse.

However, my absolute favourite scene, and one that in a strange, awkward way, seems a little redemptive to the cruel and fantastical machinations of the Leave campaign, was in the movie’s final focus group session held by the Remain camp.  And this is where Graham’s work really resonates.  As Oliver intervenes in the focus group, his pleas to reactionary remarks about immigration are articulate; he reminds the voters that the same people who are leading the Leave camp are a bastion of millionaires, ex-stock brokers and career politicians, many of whom treat the EU referendum question as a form of political sport.  But Oliver’s complicity in being unable to tap into the core of so many voter’s pain is a symptom of his own luxuried position within the confines of London, and by extension, the Remain camp overall.  For a young, likely well-educated Scottish girl involved in the focus group, the question of remaining in the EU goes without saying, but for another woman, describing herself as far from the privileges and benefits of the big city, the desolation of daily life holds no further risk that the Remain can caution against.  As she notes earlier in the focus group, “There’s no risk!  Come to where I’m from, there’s nothing to lose!”  The Scottish woman says that Leave voters don’t mind taking a risk because they’ve already lived their lives, to which an elderly leave voter responds angrily that he has lost everything as a former metalworker.  The group quickly turns against each other, and after a heated debate on immigration, the Scottish woman accuses the other of being racist.  The woman, angrily standing up, responds, saying:

You can sit there all you like and say ‘I’ve had my life’, [with you] coming from your big city, but the past few years have been fucking awful!  And all I hear is, ‘Shut up, don’t talk about it, don’t mention it, ever!’ Well, I’m sick of it!  I’m sick of feeling like nothing, like I have nothing, like I know nothing, like I am nothing, I’m sick of it!

And for me, this is the real achievement of Uncivil War.  Without making a Greek chorus out of it, this woman’s monologue demonstrated the inutterable pain of so many Britons who, for decades, have felt humiliated and abandoned by a transforming society that makes it quite clear they no longer matter.  The Leave campaign may be lying through its teeth, but a theme that resonates in Graham’s work is they are at least communicating at some level with these types of voters; this basic acknowledgement to whole swathes of the population is one that has been painfully dismissed by so many campaigners and strategists on the British left, seeing these voters as not worth the time, irrational and reactionary, and essentially beyond remedy.  Furthermore, whether or not immigration is really such a substantially negative issue is not really the point (I personally don’t think it is).  It has been the kind of poor, decades-long national non-debate on issues like immigration, both ignored and decried by the British left, that has reduced and marginalised voices such as this woman – sometimes fumbling in their articulation, and problematic in their denunciations – and demonstrably led to a Leave victory in the end.  The woman’s pained, unignorable alienation from what Britain has deemed progressive and modern, her own tragic sense of nothingness, could have included her, but the standard left-wing response she has undeniably heard her whole life is a reactionary stigmatisation of the “R” word, which she blisteringly calls out in this segment before collapsing into tears.  Having been reduced to a national sideshow for decades for their inability to really register the reason why Britain has left them behind, their revenge is within their grasp, and the Leave camp played these sentiments masterfully with painful, cartoonish lies and spending promises.  For these people, much like many who voted for Trump that following November, are shown to be far beyond the Remain camp’s reach, which is in some ways the real crime of the referendum.  And Oliver realises shortly after that his own camp’s painful inability to register this national anxiety has doomed their campaign.  Graham’s capturing of both of these elements is brilliant.

I felt the show’s handling of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove was a bit hammy, reducing them to muppet-like comic figures that make up a section of the third act.  Aware of the power of representing himself as a form of competent, comic buffoon, (Johnson’s highly successful appearances on Have I Got News For You comes to mind) it would have been nice to see a more incisive take on his character in Brexit: Uncivil War.  This is where, sadly, Graham’s work falls short.  However, one brilliant element of the movie is its masterful, classical music soundtrack, which gave a raw, dramatic energy to its scenes.   But for all of the points mentioned above, it’s absolutely worth watching, and contains a very compelling, entertaining energy throughout its two hour running time.

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