On 23 June 2018, the second anniversary of the British vote to leave the European Union, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of London to demand a second referendum to decide whether the public should accept the final deal. 400 miles away, the Edinburgh International Film Festival hosted the world premiere of David Wilkinson’s ‘talking heads’ documentary Postcards from the 48% in which the director tours the country to canvas the opinion of ‘remainers’, some of the 16,141,241 who voted for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union.
Wilkinson re-runs the debate that many voters are tired of, preaching to the converted. The interviewees include such divisive figures as Sir Vince Cable and Nick Clegg, both of whom opposed university tuition fees in the 2010 Liberal Democrat election manifesto but allowed the coalition government to triple them as members of the Coalition Government, and Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor behind former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’ that influenced the decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein in 2003. As the expression goes, with friends like these …
He visits Miriam Margoyles, whose house is the closest in the UK to France. He takes us to The Convention, a two day conference on ‘broken politics’ held in London prior to the June 2017 snap election in which speakers included the novelist Ian McEwan and economist Will Hutton. You’d think from the film that the Convention was about Brexit rather than a failure to grow political engagement.
When Wilkinson interviews historian A C Grayling and ‘New European’ editor Matt Kelly, the arguments are erudite and succinct. Yes, the referendum was advisory and the decision to trigger Article 50 unnecessary. Yes, the impact on UK business will be severe. However, Wilkinson’s range of interviewees doesn’t reflect his audience. Too many people on screen are white, middle-aged or older and middle class. By not showing the other side, he is effectively refusing to engage with working families and socially marginalised, the very groups who need to be persuaded that the decision to leave the European Union is not in the UK’s best long-term interests.
Wilkinson’s tour includes Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. He visits Lush Cosmetics, which sells products made in the UK by European Union workers to Europe.
Political documentaries need human stories to persuade audiences that the status quo – remaining subject to the European Court of Justice and enjoying the freedom of movement, goods and capital – is preferable to the alternative. However, Wilkinson uses the tired technique of interviewing celebrities and experts, who lack the authenticity to influence the opinion of his audience.
Running at almost two hours, Postcards from the 48% is a cry from the heart of sorts, but aligns the Remain argument with politically toxic figures and outright eccentricity. I almost applauded when Wilkinson interviewed some young people, two members of OFOC – ‘Our Future Our Choice’ – though the pressure group speaks mainly to the student group and has, to date, only 6,700 Facebook likes compared with the anti-EU UK Independence Party’s 580,824.
Wilkinson reminds us that the UK has strong ties with other European countries, taking us to the Polish War Memorial and reflecting on the part Polish pilots paid in the Battle of Britain in World War Two. This is the closest he gets to an emotional appeal, arguing that the UK is at its best when it works within a wide coalition of the righteous.
Can a documentary make a difference, allowing the UK electorate to accept that its decision to leave the European Union is wrong? Maybe not this documentary, but there are other stories to be told.
Postcards from the 48% received its Edinburgh premiere on 23 June 2018 and will be screened across the UK on 6 July