Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff open their recent book, The Coddling of the American Mind: how good intentions and bad ideas are setting up a generation for failure, by listing three “Great Untruths” which they say have spread widely in recent years. The third of these is “The Untruth of Us Versus Them”. That is the belief that “Life is a battle between good people and evil people”. Not the least of the reasons why this great untruth needs to be tackled is that, as Haidt and Lukianoff put it, “It harms the individuals and communities who embrace it.”
Perhaps no country is in a greater state of ‘us versus them’ than Britain is at present. And few countries will be experience a harm such as Brexit is doing to individuals and communities here.
The effects of the prevalence of this great untruth can be seen all around. It can, obviously, be seen at any time by logging on to social media. But for some years it has also been seeping into people’s real-world behaviour, with crowds of Leavers and Remainers stalking College Green in Westminster in the seeming belief that they are only one holler away from persuading the world of their own point of view.
One place that would ordinarily be assumed to be capable of ameliorating or at least giving respite to such moments of division is that of the arts. But in recent decades, even the arts have become awash with – rather than immune from – politics. Whether it is Daniel Barenboim lecturing audiences about Brexit after his concerts, or the now annual row over whether there are more EU or Union flags at the last night of the Proms, nothing is safe from this great untruth which is penetrating everywhere.
Of course no sector in the arts is as repetitiously and predictably political as the world of the theatre and theatre people. I was recently struck by an observation made by a theatre critic. Discussing the strangely – and predictably – political nature of almost all new drama, he observed that the modern theatre doesn’t really think of its job as being to entertain. I asked what job it thinks it has. His perceptive reply was that most theatre companies that put on new plays think that their role is to be a kind of “think tank”.
This is probably why I, like many others, rolled my eyes and sighed when I first heard that Channel 4 were making a drama about Brexit starring Benedict Cumberbatch. But I take the eye roll back, as I should have realised that James Graham, who wrote Brexit: an Uncivil War, is far too good a writer to have merely pandered to his commissioners. Despite press stories suggesting that Cumberbatch had been trying to change the script to make Cummings a blackly evil figure, the writer and director clearly held out and produced a drama of considerable subtlety.
True, Graham’s script made every politician look like a walk-on nitwit. But there was almost no effort to veer into what we might call Cadwalladr-ism: that is, the belief that the Brexit vote of 2016 did not arise from decades of British discontent with the EU, but rather because Russian bots manipulated the British people into voting against an arrangement that anybody could see was in their own interests.
There was one scene in which the non-official Leave campaign, Leave.EU, is seen being told about a firm called Cambridge Analytica. But other than that, and the occasional suggestion that by employing a different data firm the official Vote Leave campaign had an unfair advantage, the drama did not veer into conspiracy territory.
Instead, it did that rarest thing of the last two and a half years. It took the views of people on both sides seriously. It presented Remain campaign chief Craig Oliver as being genuinely fearful of the toxic politics which he claimed the campaign had unleashed. It presented passionate and committed campaigners for the Remain side. And it presented Leave voters not in the derogatory light in which they have come to be presented (old, white, racist, poor, working class), but in the accurate light in which they deserve to be depicted.
It says a lot about the creators that they allowed the most passionate and moving scene to take place in a focus group in which one woman is accused by another of being “nervous about a person with a different colour skin and different accent”. This unsubtle accusation of racism provokes a superbly acted and passionate response. The woman responds with fury and eventually tears:
“You can sit there and say ‘I’ve had all my life’ coming from your big city. The past few years have been fucking awful! If you must know! And all I hear all the time is ‘Shut up! Don’t talk about it! Don’t mention it. Ever.’ Well I’m sick of it! I’m sick of feeling like nothing, like I have nothing! Like I know nothing. Like I am nothing. I’m sick of it!”
This is the moment when Craig Oliver realises his side may have lost: such is the depth of the feeling that Graham depicts here. And what is striking is that it is a depth of feeling which critics of those who voted Leave in 2016 have spent so little time attempting to address.
For the past two and a half years, there have been politicians and pundits who have simply doubled down and said that: yes, people like that woman are awful racists. There are those who have said that the voters may not be racists, but that they have failed adequately to understand the issues. The most benign treatment of these people since the vote has been to say that they themselves may not be evil racists but that they have certainly been led astray by evil racists, and that these lines of manipulation can be traced to a range of sinister figures ranging from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Vladimir Putin.
But it is thinking like this that has embedded the great untruth of ‘us versus them’ in British life. It is why people from both sides have been stomping around College Green and why people who used to be serious people have spent the last two years disgracing themselves on social media.
Nothing in Parliament or the press has been able to heal this divide. Most of what has happened has only deepened it. But this piece of drama – screening as it did to millions of people who will have very different views from each other – dared to do something different.
It dared to suggest to people that their fellow citizens are not illiterates or Nazis but people with views and concerns which deserve to be listened to. Whether or not there is a way out for Britain, one minor realisation from Graham’s work is that there is at least some way out from irrelevancy for the creative arts.