Brexit: the Movie
Directed and narrated by Martin Durkin, reviewed by Robert Henderson
As an instrument to rally the leave vote this film is severely flawed. It starts promisingly by stressing the loss of sovereignty, the lack of democracy in the EU and the corrupt greed of its servants (my favourite abuse was a shopping mall for EU politicians and bureaucrats only – eat your heart out Soviet Union) and the ways in which Brussels spends British taxpayers money and sabotages industries such as fishing. Then it all begins to go sour.
The film’s audience should have been the British electorate as a whole. That means making a film which appeals to all who might vote to leave using arguments which are not nakedly ideological. Sadly, that is precisely not what has happened here because Brexit the movie has as a director and narrator Martin Durkin, a card carrying disciple of the neo-liberal creed. Here are a couple of snatches from his website:
Capitalism is the free exchange of services voluntarily rendered and received. It is a relationship between people, characterized by freedom. Adding ‘global’ merely indicates that governments have been less than successful at hindering the free exchange of people’s services across national boundaries.
Well it’s time to think the unthinkable again, and to privatise the biggest State monopoly of all … the monopoly which is so ubiquitous it usually goes unnoticed, but which has impoverished us more than any other and is the cause of the current world banking and financial crisis. It is time to privatise money.
Unsurprisingly Durkin has filled the film with people who with varying degrees of fervour share his ideological beliefs. These include John Redwood, James Delingpole, Janet Daley, Matt Ridley, Mark Littlewood, Daniel Hannon, Patrick Minford, Melanie Phillips, Simon Heffer, Michael Howard and Douglas Carswell all supporting the leave side but doing so in a way which would alienate those who have not bought into the free market free trade ideology. The only people interviewed in the film who were from the left of the political spectrum are Labour’s biggest donor John Wells and Labour MPs Kate Hoey and Steve Baker.
There is also a hefty segment of the film (20.50 minutes – 30 minutes) devoted to a palpably false description of Britain’s economic history from the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution to the position of Britain in the 1970s. In it Durkin claims that the nineteenth century was a time of a unregulated British economy, both domestically and with regard to international trade, which allowed Britain to grow and flourish wondrously. In fact, the first century and half or so of the Industrial Revolution up to around 1860 was conducted under what was known as the Old Colonial System that was a very wide-ranging form of protectionism. In addition, the nineteenth century saw the introduction of many Acts which regulated the employment of children and the conditions of work for employees in general and for much of the century magistrates had much wider powers than they do today such as setting the price of basic foodstuffs and wages and enforcing apprenticeships.
Durkin then goes on to praise Britain’s continued economic expansion up until the Great War which he ascribes to Britain’s rejection of protectionism. The problem with this is that concerning Britain’s adherence to free trade – the situation is complicated by Britain’s huge Empire – between 1860 and 1914 is a period of comparative industrial decline with highly protectionist countries such as the USA and Germany making massive advances.
Durkin then paints a picture of a Britain regulated half to death in the Great War, regulation which often continued into the peacetime inter-war years before a further dose of war in 1939 brought with it even more state control. The period of 1945 to the coming of Thatcher is then represented as a time of a British economy over-regulated and protected falling headlong into an abyss of uncompetitive economic failure before Thatcher rescued the country.
The reality is that Britain came out of the Great Depression faster than any other large economy aided by a mixture of removal from the Gold Bullion Standard, Keynsian pump priming and re-armament, all of these being state measures. As for the period 1945 until the oil shock of 1973, British economic growth was higher than it has been overall in the forty years since.
The legacy of Thatcher is problematic. Revered by true believers in the neo-liberal credo she is still hated by millions in the country who detest what she stood for and for who people spouting the same kind of rhetoric she used in support of Brexit is a complete turn off. To them can be added many others who instinctively feel that globalisation is wrong and threatening and consider talk of economics in which human beings are treated as pawns deeply repulsive.
Even if the film had given a truthful account of Britain’s economic history over the past few centuries there would have been a problem. Having speaker after speaker putting forward the laissez faire position, saying that Britain would be so much more prosperous if they could trade more with the rest of the world by having much less regulation, being open to unrestricted foreign investment and, most devastatingly, that it would allow people to be recruited from around the world rather than just the EU or EEA (with the implication that it is racist to privilege Europeans over people from Africa and Asia) is not the way to win people to the leave side.
There is also a truly astonishing omission in the film. Immigration is one of the major concerns of British electors (and probably the greatest concern when the fear of being called a racist if one opposes immigration is factored in), yet the film avoids the subject. There is a point towards the end of the film (go in at 61 minutes) when it briefly looks as though it might be raised when the commentary poses the question “Ah, what if the EU proposes a trade deal which forces upon us open borders and other stuff we don’t like?” But that leads to no discussion about immigration but merely the statement of the pedantically true claim that Britain does not have to sign a treaty if its terms are not acceptable. This of course begs the question of who will decide what is acceptable. There a has been no suggestion that there are any lines in the sand which will not be crossed in negotiations with the EU and there is no promise of a second referendum after terms have been negotiated with the EU or indeed any other part of the world. Consequently, electors can have no confidence those who conduct negotiations will not give away vital things such as control of our borders.
As immigration is such a core part of what British voters worry about most, both in the EU context and generally, it is difficult to come up with a an explanation for this startling omission which is not negative. It can only have been done for one of two reasons: either the maker of the film did not want the issue addressed or many of those appearing in the film would not have appeared if the anti – immigration drum had been beaten. In view of both Durkin’s ideological position and the general tenor of the film, the most plausible reason is that Durkin did not want the subject discussed because the idea of free movement of labour is a central part of the neo-liberal ideology. He sees labour as simply a factor of production along with land and capital. He even managed to include interviews conducted in Switzerland (go in at 52 minutes) which painted the country as a land of milk and honey without mentioning the fact that the Swiss had a citizen initiated referendum on restricting immigration earlier in the year.
The point at issue is not whether neo-liberalism is a good or a bad thing, but the fact that an argument for leaving the EU which is primarily based on this ideology is bound to alienate many who do not think kindly of the EU, but who do not share the neo-liberal’s enthusiasm for an unregulated or under-regulated economy and a commitment to globalism, which frequently means jobs are either off-shored or taken by immigrants who undercut wages and place a great strain on public services and in entails mass immigration, which apart from competition for jobs, houses and services, fundamentally alters the nature of the areas of Britain in which immigrants settle and, in the longer term, the nature of Britain itself .
The excessive concentration on economic matters is itself a major flaw because most of the electorate will either not be able to understand, be bored by the detail or simply disregard the claims made as being by their nature unknowable in reality. The difficulty of incomprehension and boredom is compounded by there being too many talking heads, often speaking for a matter of seconds at a time. I also found the use of Monty Python-style graphics irritating shallow and a sequence lampooning European workers compared with the Chinese risible (go in at 37 minutes).
What the film should have done was rest the arguments for leaving on the question of sovereignty. That is what this vote is all about: do you want Britain to be a sovereign nation? Everything flows from the question of sovereignty: can we control our borders? can we make our own laws? Once sovereignty is seen as the only real question, then what we may or may not do after regaining our sovereignty is in our hands. If the British people wish to have a more regulated market they can vote for it. If they want a neo-liberal economy they can vote for it. The point is that at present we cannot vote for either. As I mentioned in my introduction the sovereignty issue is raised many times in the film. The problem is that it was so often tied into the idea of free trade and unregulated markets that the sovereignty message raises the question in many minds of what will those with power – who overwhelmingly have bought into globalism and neo-liberal economics – do with sovereignty rather than the value of sovereignty itself.
Will the film help the leave cause? I think it is the toss of a coin whether it will persuade more people to vote leave or alienate as many with its neo-liberal message.