Tuesday 8 January 2019


Inevitably, we have the farce of Brexit reflected back to us in the form of a farce. (Albeit one presented as a “drama”.) Perhaps equally inevitably, in an era where mainstream political choices are confined to a choice between neoliberalism and aggressive right-wing nationalism, the long discredited Great Man theory of history is back. With the provisio that instead of being some speechifying Shakespearian type reducing us all to cheering adulation with his RP tones, he has to be some awkward but visionary outsider.

So here leave campaign director Dominic Cummings is the focus. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Cummings is remarkably close to his Sherlock, the same arrogance if less aristocratic. But more notably still, he’s a virtual duplicate of Mark Zuckerberg in ‘The Social Network’ - the virtually sociopathic outsider who creates algorithms to reduce other people to data, the only way he can manage them, and in so doing puts himself in a position of power over the supposedly well-connected and well-adjusted.

While Cummings is scarcely portrayed with anything approaching psychological depths, his tics are what make it onto the screen. While the characters at further and further remove from him are portrayed in broader and broader strokes. Banks and Farage in particular are such bumptious clowns they could have strolled in from the Commedia dell’arte.

Even as his personality disorders are laid out he’s heroised. His scrawling on the walls, endlessly contrasted with the snazzy Powerpoint sideshows of his smooth opposite number Craig Oliver, makes him the exciting underdog railing against a self-serving system. And as his prickly personality continually bursts the bubble of pompous Tory MPs he soon becomes someone to root for. (Because those smug twats really do have it coming.) He takes control of the narrative.

But Brexit isn’t about one man. It didn’t happen because Cummings was clever (if ranting endless spiel about “meritocratic technopolises” counts as clever), or because there’s Facebook nowadays. As he even admits himself at one stage, he was merely riding a wave he sensed but didn’t create. 

Brexit was very much not the sound of things going to plan, whoever’s plan you might pick. Brexit was the sound of things falling apart, of a centre that can no longer hold. The campaign manager cannot hear the focus group.

Hence Britain is currently hurtling precariously towards Article 50 without a clue over how even the transition period is supposed to work. To the point where not having any idea has to be reframed as a good idea, the non-option of ‘No Deal” absurdly being relabelled as an option. (And the extent of this certainly took me by surprise. I’d assumed political consensus around some variation of the Norway model.) Just as with first the Tea Party and then Trump in the States, the political establishment have let loose a tiger they have proven unable to ride.

One of the few moments when you start to sense the people beneath the algorithms was Oliver’s belated realisation that the real campaign had begun twenty years before. For twenty years (if not more) they’d squeezed working people harder and harder, all the while trying to stir up xenophobia in order to divide the poor from the poorer. For twenty years (if not more) they’d abandoned even talk of class to the far right, who inevitably enough always wrapped it up in talk of race.

They made their bed of the driest straw, then casually lobbed lit matches whenever they wanted people to look over to something bright and shiny. As Oliver says of Cummings “anyone can start a fire”. Particularly in those circumstances.

To understand the Leave vote you’d need to spend more time with the old Harwich couple who’ve not had a political canvasser knock on their door since the Eighties, who barely recognise their own MP when he’s sitting in their lounge.

Which doesn’t mean that if we had Cummings’ database, if we somehow gained access to the right people and came out with the right soundbites or correct data neatly displayed in incisive whizzy graphics, they’d immediately switch over to our side. Such notions are just a tweak to the idea it’s all about algorithms, not an antidote to it. Actual people don’t work that way. And besides, hatred can be as hard to kick as any other intoxicant. But it does mean the start of the solution lies there.

Cummings walks out midway through talking to them. As viewers, we follow him. We should have stayed in the room.

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