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Brexit: The Uncivil War – Review

January 8, 2019

Back in 2013, I published an article with the British Politics Review about the rather niche subject of Eurosceptic crime fiction. Euroscepticism was gaining momentum in the UK as a political movement. But I was surprised there was so little cultural evidence of this growing force in comparison to, for instance, the many notable anti-Vietnam war movies that were made in the 1970s. Of course, the idea we’d ever vote to leave the EU seemed comically improbable back then, and only a few genre authors such as Michael Dobbs, Alan Judd and Adam Lebor had written thrillers which cast the EU in a villainous light. The fact that the British Politics Review is a Norwegian (outside the EU) publication suggested to me that Eurosceptic crime fiction would remain a specialist subject and not take off into its own Golden Age.

Things have changed. Brexit has upended the UK political order, just as the election of Donald Trump has in the US. None of us can say for certain what’s going to happen between now and March 29th (Brexit Day). That to me is the real political thriller.

It’s not surprising then that Brexit as a cultural phenomenon and publishing industry has finally taken off. There are scores of political textbooks, Brexit literature and dramas being churned out. Channel Four’s Brexit: The Uncivil War has a good claim to be the most direct and rewarding dramatisation of Brexit yet produced. Brexit tells the story of Dominic Cummings (played to quirky perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch), an unknown civil servant who becomes the brains behind the Eurosceptic Vote Leave campaign. When the audience first meet Cummings, he’s in something of a personal limbo. His wife Mary Wakefield is pregnant with their first child, but Cummings hasn’t been employed in a long time after growing disillusioned with the workings of government. Somewhat reluctantly, he’s pulled into the Leave campaign. He begins by radically harnessing the power of social media with its massive outreach and targeted ads. He knows the Remain campaign, led by his old nemesis Craig Oliver, has every possible advantage from its access to government data on the electorate to people’s natural tendency to support the status quo in referendums, but Cummings will exploit their weaknesses. The IN side are lazy and complacent, buoyed by flawed opinion polls that invariably give them the lead and overly reliant on celebrity endorsements which have little effect on the public.


Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings

Cumberbatch, a Remainer, was apparently adamant that the drama should not be a hatchet job on Cummings. Cummings has a brilliant, visionary mind but he is also anti-social and obstinate. In many ways this is what makes him such a compelling figure. He doesn’t think twice about browbeating higher-profile Eurosceptics such as Nigel Farage or Daniel Hannan. This gives you an insight into Cumming’s Brexiteer mindset. This guy’s not just taking on the might of the European Union, but also the UK establishment (the political parties, business, education and charity sectors, the English Church, large sections of the press, and the Civil Service) that support it. In addition, he cannily splits the Leave campaign into two groups. Sidelining Farage’s UKIP who are obsessed with immigration and winning official designation from the Electoral Commission for Vote Leave in order to run a more positive, internationalist campaign. There are some attempts by disgruntled Eurosceptics to replace him, leading to one of the best scenes in the film in which he survives a palace coup at Vote Leave HQ through some creative use of his beloved social media. By quietly tapping a message into his phone, Cummings soon has a whole army of campaigners threatening to walk out if he is replaced. If anyone thought this scene was implausible, then you should bear in mind that having the support of social media saved President Erdogan from an attempted military coup in Turkey. We live in interesting times.

By its close the drama is asking, without much optimism, where do we go from here? The difficulty is finding an answer that will satisfy both Leavers and Remainers alike, and help us move past these labels.

But, as the show’s writer James Graham has talked about the need for reconciliation, I’m going to try!

Most people I talk to love modern Britain with its multiculturalism and global economy. Citizens from Poland, Ireland, France, Spain are now a daily part of our lives as colleagues, friends, neighbours and family. I hope we can maintain and grow these things and also develop an immigration policy that allows Commonwealth and non-EU migrants the same freedom and generosity that EU citizens currently enjoy. In addition, I hope Brexit Britain can develop a trade policy which doesn’t discriminate against non-EU businesses as the Customs Union currently does. If future governments and generations rise to this challenge, then I’ve no doubt that Britain will thrive. Perhaps as a country we can move past the rancour shown in the drama. We could keep the more positive legacy of European Union membership, but cast aside the bloated, unaccountable institutions of the EU which have put the Eurozone economies through a disastrous programme of austerity far worse than anything the UK has endured.

This, I believe, is close to the enigmatic Cummings’ view of a post-EU Britain. And I hope it is the most positive and likely outcome of the historic referendum which irrevocably changed the UK.



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