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National symbols and emotions in the Brexit Leave campaign

Brexit in a nutshell

'National identity matters and there is no better way of demonstrating this today than by bringing back this much-loved national symbol when travelling overseas.'

Andrew Richard Rosindell (2017).

Talking about the return of blue passports after Brexit, the British Conservative and director of the European Foundation Andrew Rosindell brought up several topics.

'Brexit', designated political word of 2016, actually appeared in 2012. Its creation is unclear, but it may have been first used by Peter Welding, the founder and director of the independent think tank British Influence. It is the result of a blend of 'Britain' or 'British' and 'exit'. The correct neologism should be 'UKexit' but in the common practice 'Britain' can be used for 'UK'. In concrete terms, this word appeared in the United Kingdom because of the rise of calls to leave the European Union. In 2013, this new movement led David Cameron, then Prime Minister, to promise a referendum to let the people decide if the UK should remain in the European Union if he was re-elected in 2015. This divorce had been discussed for several years but it remained hypothetical until June 23rd, 2016, date of the referendum. When the latter finally took place, it turned out that most of the voters were in favour of leaving the EU. The main reasons for this choice include economic issues - the EU was thought to cost the country too much, but also the fact that some people believed that the union encroached too much on the sovereignty of the country - particularly on its capacity to make its laws. However, since the vote that took place over two years ago, things seem to have moved very little.

David Cameron who, although having been the instigator of this referendum, was pro-European. He consequently lost his legitimacy in governing the country, leading to his resignation on June 24, 2016. After a period of uncertainty, during which everyone wondered who was going to lead these difficult negotiations, the figure of Theresa May emerged. Nevertheless, she made several mistakes, few things happening as she expected or wanted.

There is a proverb often attributed to Einstein: 'insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results. In June 2017, Theresa May decided to call an early general election to strengthen her position. Far from the expected result, she lost her absolute majority. By asking the people's opinion, Theresa May might have reproduced David Cameron's failure, that exposed the internal divisions of the party. Although she has a time managed to bring her party together - thanks to an unclear position, the togetherness did not last. Indeed, she had not foreseen the consumers' dissatisfaction linked to the rise in prices due to the fall of the pound's exchange rate. Neither had she planned for the Labour Party being such an oppositional force. Worse, she had not measured the extent to which she would repel voters by centring her campaign on the migratory crisis. In brief, the division of her party between Europhiles, Eurosceptics and Europhobes has not been helpful, and time is not in her side. 

The Conservatives have to cope with big issues and factional conflicts, but they are not the only ones. All the other political parties have been shaken. The Labour Party, for example, has been more affected than was anticipated. It seemed unable to position correctly on the Brexit question. The image of unity and conviction that the party tried to send might have arrived too late and was not convincing enough. The party's leader Jeremy Corbyn remained ambiguous regarding the party's official position, leading certain voters not to know what the Labour's stance really was before the referendum. This general lack of consistency, of clarity and of transparency will be studied in further detail later. By the way, several important members of the party decided to resign - which has weakened the party even more.

On the other hand, Europe could also lose a lot and see further signs of erosion. That is why Michel Barnier and his team did not plan to offer a good deal easily to the UK. An agreement  has been ratified by the twenty-seven European countries and Theresa May in November 2018 ending in failure after an adjournment. The Parliament indeed rejected the withdrawal several times. The deadline of March 2019 even required to be extended since no solution could be reached, making all stakeholders more and more anxious about this uncertain future. Populations, companies and politicians, British as well as European, must consider all the options - including a no deal Brexit.

Because this decision is going to have a huge impact all around the world but especially in the United Kingdom, it seems essential to return to what led it there and the key period before the referendum during which the pro and anti-Brexit campaigns dominated the public debate.

v The interest of this topic

Brexit is not only a completely topical event but also something that concerns the whole world.

The European Union is an alliance that has its origins in a deep desire to promote values of peace. This seemed to work to some extent because since 1945 there has been no global open war in Europe, nothing comparable the two world wars that the continent suffered in the twentieth century. This union has kept growing and moving towards a greater integration since its creation. Indeed, more and more countries have decided to join, and treaties transferring more and more competencies to this supranational entity have been signed. The number of summits, negotiations and exchanges between countries leaders have increased continuously and many international and transnational programmes have been launched. To sum up, there were very few movements and actions that could be said to be 'backtracking'.

The choice made by the British during the referendum was therefore very surprising, but it was also questioning and even frightening for some people. This is a first in the history of Europe: it is taking its first step in the direction of disintegration. But the results of the referendum refer to the entire campaign that took place before the vote. Has the decision made been influenced by the campaigns and to what extent?

Two camps faced each other for several weeks, with speeches and debates, advertising and marketing, but also with images and elements that refer to British identity. On the one hand, we find those who defended the Leave side, including many political figures and supporters of the Conservatives but also the UK Independence Party - a party created specially to advocate for an exit from the EU. Between the bus advertising campaigns, the many arguments sometimes false but often highly-charged and the politicians who did not hesitate to put themselves on stage, they did not fail to get themselves talked about. On the other side, we find the Remain side whose campaign was punctuated with far fewer stunts. Contrary to the Better Together campaign prior to the referendum on Scottish independence, the campaign to defend the Remain stand proved somewhat disappointing. In fact, there was no strong unifying movement, very few convincing arguments or particularly prominent personalities. The campaign seemed a little blurred.

The Leave side campaign was particularly interesting, not only for the original forms it took, but also and especially for its content. The people who led this campaign have in fact made a great deal of use of the concept of British identity and the symbols attached to it.

v Defining the subject

I will now define some terms I have used in previous parts of my dissertation and that will be central in my analysis.

To start with 'identity', there is no unified definition of this concept as shown by James Fearon (1999), Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. Identity, or identities, are not just innate and natural but constructed over the time, through the people we meet, and consequently evolving over the time. Moreover, 'others' play a big role in defining identities because people, companies, states and so on define themselves in opposition to or in line with others. They spot similarities and differences. Fearon distinguished two types of identity: social identity and personal identity. The former is linked to social categorisation, awareness of social identity, social comparison but also a search for psychological distinctiveness. It means that you belong to groups where all individuals share common values and codes. The latter is a matter of personal code, a set of moral principles, goals that a person uses as a normative framework and a guide to action in the everyday life. I think that the second kind leads to the first one since groups of people are a collection of individuals. A common identity is made possible because several people share the same moral code, the same view of things, the same values - or at least a certain number of them. I will consequently use the latter to analyse the Leave Campaign that took place before the Brexit referendum.

Indeed, the whole question of leaving the EU was about a common identity. A lot of people felt British but not European and were against sharing their resources or paying for other countries' people. They were also unhappy about obeying laws that are supposed to be uniform in all EU countries. The same things could be said regarding immigration: some Britons were saying that too many European people had entered the country since the Schengen Agreement, leaving less work and less wealth to the 'true' citizens of the United Kingdom. Many other reasons that will not be discussed now have been deliberately left out. The important point to focus on is that various to vote to leave were very diverse but generally in opposition to 'others'. Some of them thought they were defending their needs and rights in the name of the nation. They were consequently making categories bringing into opposition their population and the others, reinforced by the idea that they have common values and codes, consequently sharing things that others are not.

The Vote Leave campaign group was founded in October 2015 by Matthew Elliot and Dominic Cummings as a cross-party campaign. Quickly, members of the Parliament from diverse parties joined the movement. Several prominent politicians supported the campaign - among whom Boris Johnson became a fundamental character, allowing it to keep growing and ending up in a victory over the opposition group Britain stronger in Europe.

Another interesting idea brought by Fearon is that an identity can also be defined as self-esteem. When people feel that they have something they are proud about, something making them who they are and worth being who they are, they can be ready to protect it at any cost. When they feel threatened and in danger of losing part of who they deeply are, in their very identity, powerful emotional reactions may be produced. Losing an identity is possible only in certain conditions and to a certain extent. But if people lose what makes them who they are, they therefore have no more reason to be. As a result, it may not end up another way than one expressing how important it is to them. Fearon explains the rise of nationalism nowadays is due to identity issues. Globalisation might threaten certain people's self-esteem and pride. This phenomenon participated in creating more extreme inequalities between people and an inaccessible social status. Plus, it is difficult to face the whole world and to defend a specific identity, particularly for minorities or less powerful groups. The American leadership can be taken as an example: many countries are afraid of their influence and particularly of their soft-power and are ready to do anything to protect their traditions. When no balance is found, unpredictable and sometimes violent responses may thus arise.

While I was wondering about what identity - or most probably identities, had been debated throughout the whole Brexit debate I realised several things. It was not just Brexit that was about a matter of identities - I mean not just the decision in itself. The whole campaigns that took place beforehand, and the countless debates, speeches and actions that took place afterwards were all about that. While I was focusing more and more on the time before the vote, I noticed people campaigning to leave where using a lot of national symbols. After this, I became aware of other elements such as the way the media was used to convey ideas, the texts going along with the pictures and posters or sentences made to accompany movies, adverts and video clips.

Needless to say that all these elements were influencing not only the form but also the content of the messages because people were perceiving this a certain way. Convincing and persuading people are two sides of the same coin. When you want to make people understand your message, follow you and go in your direction, you need to touch on several aspects. You may not only want to show them you are right because your arguments are good and because you know the truth but also to work on people's emotions and feelings. It is generally a lot more powerful. Facts and figures can be manipulated because there is not always one unique and obvious truth but several ways to take a problem and to solve it. Furthermore, it can change according to the trends, to the context, to new information we get. It is not only about bad faith, interests and manipulation but just that there is not one rigid line of conduct to adopt in any situation, not one fixed choice to make. Therefore, using people's sentiments and feelings can help a lot to make them adhere to what your say, to your ideas, to what you promote or defend.

The readers can access the full dissertation here: 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335504994_National_symbols_and_emotions_in_the_Brexit_Leave_campaign

CM

 

Topics brexit