Gilbey on Film: election special

Our critic's verdict on the party political broadcasts.

What's surprising about the election broadcasts of the main parties is that time has stood still. While this election may be won or lost on the modern battlegrounds of Twitter, YouTube or Mumsnet, the parties have all passed up the chance in their broadcasts to slam-dunk the basketball of politics through the hoop marked "zeitgeist" -- by which I mean that none of them have gone for 3D. That said, I did catch a sulphurous whiff during the Conservative film, and the aroma of something stagnant during the Labour and Lib Dem contributions, so perhaps Odorama is making a comeback.

Only one of the main parties elects not to show its leader on camera (can you guess which one it is?) while only one does not feature as its central image a sombre-faced man striding purposefully toward the camera while telling us, more or less, that it's all going to be OK and this won't hurt a bit. The films themselves, on the other hand, make for painful viewing...

The Conservatives

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"How many people do you need to change a country?" asks David Cameron, forehead gleaming in the sun. As any corporate speaker will tell you, it's vital to kick off with a joke. But, nervous that we'll anticipate his punchline, Dave comes in a little too abruptly. "Answer: all of them." Did he get that one out of a cracker?

This is all delivered from a back garden on a pleasant afternoon. Whether or not it's Dave's back garden, the surroundings have been chosen to communicate some subtle messages. There are rows of houses backing on to the garden, which equals community. A shed is visible behind Dave, as is a ladder, signalling that while the garden shows promise, there is still work to be done.

One raised end of a see-saw can be glimpsed screen-left: this symbolises children and play. Its positioning also makes it appear that Dave is sitting on the other seat, weighing it down. My first reaction is that he resembles that big kid with a glandular condition, hogging the apparatus in the under-7s play area. But the thrust of the broadcast -- he wants us to join him in governing the country, you see -- renders implicit the suggestion that we should all pile onto the other end of the see-saw, thereby catapulting him into the plane-less blue sky.

After Cameron's ice-breaker, we are treated to the familiar sound of a jangling guitar -- track 2, if I'm not mistaken, of the popular K-Tel compilation Now That's What I Call MOR Indie On A Major Label, Vol III. Accompanying it is the even more familiar sight of Hardworking Mum Who Wants the Best For Her Kids. Julie of Llandudno is shown larking around with her children and tidying up after they've gone to school, all while pretending not to notice a camera crew in her house.

She's decked out in a coat of perfect Tory Blue, and her kids are in red rain-macs; so while she is decided about her political allegiances, she wouldn't presume to indoctrinate or influence her offspring (aside, that is, from signing them up to plug a party and ideology about which they know nothing and care even less).

Julie volunteers for a charity which helps disabled children. Call me twitchy, but I always get nervous when I hear information like that in a film. After all, we knew from the moment Gwyneth Paltrow's character in Seven was introduced as a primary school teacher that she would end up with her head in a box. Altruistic occupation, grisly end -- that's the rule. Isn't it obvious what wretched fate will befall poor Julie? A Conservative government, if she gets her way.

We then meet two other hardworking types. Ian has his own hydraulics business, and his own mirthless laugh. Danielle works in a hostel with people who've previously been homeless. Whether or not her clients lost their homes during the recent recession, or the early-1990s wave of Tory repossessions, is unspecified. Anyway, Danielle thinks that the important qualities in her line of work are to be a people person, to have empathy and understanding, and to insert an upward inflection that turns her every statement into a question. Is there a place in Dave's Big Society for such equivocation?

Back in the garden, Dave isn't saying. He does warn us, however, that if the Tories are elected on May 6th, we'll all be in power on May 7th, which is bad news for those of us who have dental appointments on that day.

Liberal Democrats

 

Were the Lib Dems to have made their film after Nick Clegg's recent fillip, they would have chosen a more bombastic style, perhaps incorporating the Rocky theme music, a shot of Clegg shadow-boxing outside Parliament, and a stirring slogan -- "If you liked him in the election debate, you'll LOVE him as PM!" But their party election broadcast was filmed before everyone started agreeing with Nick, which explains the half-defeated, half-badgering tone.

As sheets of paper, emblazoned with news of promises made and broken by the other parties, swirl around him and carpet the South Bank, Clegg stalks toward us. The camera retreats. The viewer may feel like doing the same.

Clegg leaves London and pops up in various locations around the country. Wherever he goes, the sheets of paper remain. This has the unfortunate effect of making Clegg into a kind of waste magnet. The final shot has particularly damaging resonances for anyone who has seen Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. As Clegg walks through a mini-tornado of litter, it's impossible not to recall Robert De Niro besieged by sheets of paper sticking to his limbs and body. When the film's hero rushes to his rescue, furiously tearing the paper away, he discovers that there is no one underneath.

Labour

 

The logic of keeping an unpopular leader off-camera is clear, which makes it even stranger that Labour has chosen as Gordon Brown's on-screen avatar a dour and hunted-looking middle-aged man trudging through the wilderness in inclement weather. On the plus side, Sean Pertwee is an actor with whom most people will be unfamiliar, so no off-putting associations there.

The disadvantage is that those of us who know his work -- well, do we really want to take advice on the country's future from a man who willingly appeared in London Kills Me, Goal! and Shopping? If you don't trust Sean, you might heed instead the words of his father, whom he quotes here as telling him: "Don't give up. Show resolve." (Which at least explains Goal! 2: Living the Dream.)

Sean's father was Jon Pertwee, star of Dr Who from 1970 to 1974. The Dr Who link continues with David Tennant, who provides the film's final flourish of narration. Rumour has it that Davros was considered for a cameo part until UKIP snapped him up in a bid to bring some sex-appeal to their anti-Europe campaign.

If election broadcasts had a taste, this one would smack of bran: it may be drab but it's supposed to be good for you. Sam Wollaston in the Guardian has already noted the film's resemblance to The Road -- there's even a shot peering at Sean from behind the trees, like one of the marauding cannibals from that film preparing to pounce. But the actor makes it out with body parts intact. And hope is hinted at as the camera rises majestically over the sight of him plodding onwards to a Labour future: not so much an 'eye of God' shot as 'eye of Gordon.'

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He blogs on film for Cultural Capital every Tuesday

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.