The Uncivil War made for good drama—but where were the women?

The Channel 4 drama exposed an ongoing problem in the Brexit debate: the lack of women's voices

January 09, 2019
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings. Photo: Channel 4 still
Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings. Photo: Channel 4 still

On Monday 7 January, Channel 4 screened its joint production with HBO Brexit: The Uncivil War. Written by James Graham and starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Dominic Cummings, it tells the story of how the Vote Leave campaign won the 2016 Referendum. 

The drama was gripping and the acting excellent. But where were the women?

Even women prominent in the Leave campaign barely got a look-in alongside the macho posturing of Banks, Farage, Cummings and Johnson. Prominent Labour Brexiteer Gisela Stuart was granted only one line, while her colleague Kate Hoey wasn’t portrayed at all. PM Theresa May had a cameo, but she was a rare female political voice.

This lack of women in last night’s TV drama reflects a troubling issue with Brexit. Because women aren’t just missing from fictionalised portrayals. They’re missing from the entire debate.

Of course, there are some notable women involved in Brexit procedures. Both Theresa May and DUP leader Arlene Foster have been at the forefront of negotiations, while the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and the Greens’ Caroline Lucas have voiced strong opposition to leaving the EU. Former Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has also been active, tabling a cross-party amendment to prevent a No Deal.

But research published by the Women For A People’s Vote campaign found that men have spoken for nearly 90 per cent of the time given to debating the EU in Parliament. Male MPs have spoken for more than 12 hours in the EU debates, compared to the 2.4 hours for women MPs.

This is deeply troubling—not least because leaving the EU is set to have a negative impact on women’s rights.

The major issues that dominate the Brexit news cycle are coded “male.” The big three—trade, manufacturing and defence are generally seen as “masculine concerns”—something argued by Gender EU Studies academics Professor Roberta Guerinna and Dr Toni Haastrup.

This has led to an absence of women’s voices during Brexit discussion—ignoring the employment prospects of women in the manufacturing sector, and the economic impact on women if Brexit leads to weaker trading potential and shrinking GDP.

A report published by the Women’s Budget Group offered grave warnings about the impact on women’s financial stability in the result of Brexit. Their findings suggested Brexit could turn back the clock on women’s economic equality.

The report showed how industries with a majority women workforce such as textiles (55 per cent female workforce), health (77 per cent female workforce) and social care (80 per cent female workforce) faced cuts and job losses if the economy shrinks after Brexit, as is predicted. 

The threat of Brexit is already causing a staff shortage in the NHS, with EU workers leaving the sector. However, this does not necessarily mean more jobs for UK-based workers. The Women’s Budget Group argued that “while this [shortage] may lead to increased employment opportunities for UK women, these may be short-lived if the projected negative impact of Brexit on the economy leads to reduced spending on public services.”

Many of our employment rights are underpinned by EU Directives—specifically those which benefit women such as maternity pay and equal pay legislation.

Leading Brexiteers, including former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, have spoken about their desires to cut workers’ rights. In 2011, Raab advocated excluding some businesses from the minimum wage, as well as abolishing the Agency Workers Regulations and the Working Time Regulations. With women more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work (80 per cent of workers in the UK’s lowest paid sector—social care—are women) any such cuts will hurt women hardest.

Meanwhile, Raab’s former colleague in the Brexit Department Martin Callanan criticised the pregnant workers directive as a “barrier to employment” which could be “scrapped.”

It’s not just women’s safety and financial security in the workplace. Every Brexit scenario will lead to a negative impact on GDP and any economic squeeze is set to disproportionately harm women.

You just have to look at how over the last nine years, women have borne 86 per cent of the austerity burden to see what will happen to women’s financial security if decreased GDP leads to more cuts.

Any future cuts to public services will have a greater impact on women—both because women are more likely to be users of, and employees in, the public sector. 

And while you rarely hear “defence” and “gender” in the same sentence, women have an important part to play in the UK’s security. In recent years, terrorist attacks in the UK have been closely linked to gender-based violence—making it even more vital to include women’s perspectives on security.

It cannot be ignored that leaving the EU is going to have a huge economic and social impact on women. And yet, despite the fact Brexit risks turning back the clock on women’s financial security and equality, Parliament has failed to have a debate on how Brexit will affect women.  

Women aren’t even being heard in the existing debates. 

Brexit: The Uncivil War served as a chilling reminder of just how much women’s voices are being sidelined over Brexit, while the voices of men desirous of slashing women’s rights are promoted. As we move ever closer to 29 March 2019, it’s time we start listening to women.