Nearly four years after a narrow majority voted in favor of leaving the European Union, the UK is finally doing so. The success of Brexit not only took the world by surprise but it shocked much of the UK as well. I didn’t expect the Leave Campaign to win. My relatives in the UK, all of whom voted to leave, never expected to win. The British media establishment certainly didn’t expect Leave to win and their anguished reaction largely mirrored the reaction of their American counterparts when, a few months later, Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton.
One person who was probably not, in any way, shocked by Leave’s victory was Dominic Cummings, who was the lead political strategist for the Vote Leave campaign. At least that’s the impression that one gets from watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War.
This television film originally aired on Channel 4 and subsequently, it made its American premiere on HBO. Featuring sharp direction from Toby Hayes and an even sharper script by playwright James Graham, Brexit presents fictionalized accounts of both the Vote Leave Campaign and the Britain Stronger In Europe Campaign, which is led by Craig Oliver (Rory Kinnear). As the film shows, while the conventional wisdom was that Leave didn’t have a chance, Cummings instinctively grasped what others were missing. Cummings understood that people across the UK were angry because they felt that they had lost control of their own lives. They were sick of being told that a bureaucrat in Belgium knew what was better for the UK than the people who actually lived there and who took more pride in being British than in being European. While Oliver and the Remain campaign relied on the traditional politics that had always worked in the past, Cummings used new techniques (like social media databases) to reach out to people who might not have always voted but whose posts and tweets indicated that they might be open to Leave’s message.
Towards the end of the film, one of Oliver’s focus groups descends into chaos and a woman memorably cries, “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 the first time, Oliver realizes that Leave could win. By that point, it’s too late. With Leave’s strength growing every day, the British political establishment has descended into chaos. Boris Johnson (Richard Goulding) and Michael Grove (Oliver Maltman) both throw their support behind Leave. After the assassination of Jo Cox, Cummings and Oliver meet for a drink and, in a scene that ranks up there with the famous De Niro/Pacino meeting in Heat, they discuss what will happen if Leave wins.
The meeting between Oliver and Cummings never happened but the accuracy of the majority of the film has been verified by those who were involved in both campaigns. (Oliver himself served as a consultant to the filmmakers.) This is the film to see if you want to understand not only why Leave won but also why so many commentators were caught by surprise. Though it was written by a Remainer and, in one of the film’s few missteps, Nigel Farage is portrayed as being a cartoonishly vapid twit, Brexit is one of the few examinations of the vote to understand why Leave’s “Take Back Control” slogan resonated with so many voters. Though Brexit may be ultimately sympathetic to the Remain position, it refuses to dismiss the concerns of those who voted for Leave or to commit the sin of painting those voters as merely being uneducated or afraid of progress. If the Remain campaign had made as much of an effort to understand those voters as the film about the campaign does, the vote may have gone a different way.
(Instead, much of Remain’s supporters reacted to defeat by 1) demonizing the voters and 2) demanding a second referendum so that the same voters could presumably get it right the second time around. For four years, they said that the UK leaving the EU would be the end of western civilization and that the sky would fall. As of right now, the sky is exactly where it has always been.)
When this film was produced, Theresa May was still in Number 10 Downing Street and there were real doubts as to whether Brexit would ever happen. The film is book-ended by fictional scenes in which Cummings is interviewed during a public inquiry. In these scenes, which were meant to be taking place in what was then the near future of 2020, Cummings insinuates that Brexit is still on hold. In the real world, though, Brexit is finally happening and Dominic Cummings is currently the Chief Special Adviser to Prime Minister Boris Johnson.