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Channel 4/Nick Wall

Brexit: The Uncivil War – what it told us, and what it didn’t

We are going to be making decisions based on science and data … no advertisers, no snake oil salesmen, or fucking Saatchis. We’re gonna follow algorithmic, statistical analysis.

One of the – many – highlights of Channel 4’s Brexit: The Uncivil War was this rather throwaway line delivered by Vote Leave strategist Dominic Cummings, played as an exuberant and impatient campaign mastermind by Benedict Cumberbatch. The quote throws into sharp relief the response to the weight of economic and legal opinion stacked against the Leave campaigners, when they famously dismissed and denigrated experts and urged voters to distrust evidence and listen to their gut.

Michael Gove, who resigned as the secretary of state for justice in 2016 in order to campaign for Vote Leave, stated that the public had “had enough of experts” and added: “I’m not asking the public to trust me. I am asking them to trust themselves.” The campaign traded on manipulated messages and seductively snake-oily promises – £350m a week for the NHS, for example – and abstract advertising rhetoric about striding into the light and striking out for freedom.

The programme makes clear that this appeal to the gut and disdain for evidence was all show. Ironically, behind the scenes it was a campaign run with ruthless adherence to “empirical evidence” and data as to how to get votes. It was a rigidly scientific anti-science movement.

All about the spin

The Uncivil War was an engaging story, thrillingly told, of how the “underdog” Leave campaign, driven by a group of backroom boys, not only caught up with the establishment-backed Remain side, but captured the discussion and went on to win the popular vote. It did this partly through “lobbing grenades” of incendiary but baseless argument – such as the suggestion that Turkish membership was imminent. Of course, it wasn’t – and Gove expressed regret in 2018 as to how this claim was made. This campaign of misinformation left the Remain camp constantly on the back foot.

But the Uncivil War was all about messaging – and the manipulation of messages. There was very little about the real reasons of campaigners for wanting to leave the EU. Similarly, Remain campaigners are shown to be going through the motions, complacently flinging out points to appeal “to the head”, (rather than the heart) and despairing when these don’t land with their focus group. It was a tale of spin, not of policy.

Accountability questions

The film showed politicians (mainly Gove and Boris Johnson) being co-opted into parroting soundbites and slogans – and gamely posing in front of the infamous red bus that (falsely) promised £350m a week for the NHS. It all gave the impression of amiable buffoons who were puppets to the master strategists behind the scenes. Pay close attention to the dialogue and you would be forgiven for thinking the politicians heading up the campaign had nothing to do with the result – if anything, they got in the way.

The writer, James Graham, the playwright behind Coalition (about the government formed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg in 2010), stated he was aiming for caricature with these characters. But that seems to relieve them of accountability and means we are not given any angle on their motivations.

These prominent, heavyweight politicians were key protagonists, each with an agency and agenda all their own – and their obfuscation on the subject of law-making and judicial processes promoted legal illiteracy in order to conjure up a sense of a system hijacked by Europe, bolstering the pivotal “Take Back Control” message.

And as the programme was unable to wade into ongoing legal investigations, it had to skim over the controversy of “how” the vote was won – who paid for what, who worked with whom, and the legitimacy of various campaign activities. Observer journalist Carole Cadwalladr, who has been investigating allegations of illegality in the Leave campaign, tweeted a series of “fact checks” on the programme, pointing out in particular what was missed out.

The programme tried to give the audience a sense of accountability by imagining Cummings giving evidence to a special inquiry in 2020 – but failed to mention his staunch refusal to appear before a select committee in 2018, leaving key questions about the activities of Vote Leave, and concerns about “fake news” unanswered.

The ‘what next’ question

There is such a wide spectrum of alternatives to EU membership that, from a legal perspective, “what next?” was almost the more pressing question for the film than “in or out?” Yet the programme did not show the Leave campaigners asking or answering the “what next” question – it left viewers with the impression that they did not think beyond getting over the referendum hurdle.

But there was a lot of comment on pro-Leave media outlets about alternatives to membership, all of which makes interpretation of the “will of the people” a rather more complex task than some would have us believe.

While speaking publicly, most Leavers avoided being too specific about their post-Brexit vision. David Davis, the first politician to be appointed Brexit secretary, resisted the idea of choosing from existing models, saying that would only result in trying to fit into models that would not suit the UK, while Gove confusingly referred to Albania, Bosnia and Ukraine as possible future models. Conservative MEP, Daniel Hannan – one of the leaders of the Leave campaign – meanwhile wrote that: “All the options involve remaining part of the European free-trade zone that stretches from non-EU Iceland to non-EU Turkey.”

This lack of coherence was most likely a strategic one – to avoid muddying the simple message to vote Leave. But it is inconceivable that proposals for new geopolitical arrangements were not being hotly discussed behind the scenes. It would have been helpful to see – at least an interpretation – of what the post-referendum game plans of the Leave camps were at the time, given that little has seemed to go to plan since.

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