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An analysis of the anti-immigration discourse during the official 2016 Brexit referendum campaign

Hélène Grinan-Moutinho
p. 65-87


During the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership, most political and media actors highly debated the issue of the regulation of European immigration in the United Kingdom.

The political salience of this issue led to attitudinal changes in public opinion regarding the European Union and its institutions. Brexiteers shaped the discourse on European immigration to influence how people chose to vote in the EU referendum. Their anti-immigration discourse had indeed a significant role in shaping beliefs among the public and, hence, in voters’ support for Brexit vote. This paper will assess the role of the Leavers’ rhetorical strategy, which consisted in portraying European immigrants as a threat to the British national community. Using official government speeches, parliamentary debates, press conferences, election manifestos, media interviews, social media and newspaper articles, the following paper will aim to highlight the discursive strategies of the prominent campaigners participating in the referendum debate. Analysing the hostile immigration stance through Critical Discourse Analysis, this article will examine how the Leavers’ anti-immigration discourse mobilised Welfare nationalistic values and beliefs to legitimise the referendum’s outcome.

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1During the June 2016 referendum campaign on the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), the question of European immigration became the cornerstone of the Leavers’ political strategy.

  • 1 Tournier-Sol, K., 2017
  • 2 Nigel Farage Facebook, 10 June 2016

2By the time of the official referendum campaign, the migration issue had already become highly politicised. Nigel Farage, the leader of the radical party, UKIP, who played an agenda-setting role during the campaign by focusing on EU immigration issues related to British EU membership1, considered immigration the “defining issue2” of the EU referendum debate. Thus, the Leavers’ anti-EU immigration discourse initially delivered by UKIP became gradually dominant, outshining the pro-European discourse, which was essentially centred on the potential economic consequences of a British withdrawal from the EU.

  • 3 Schmidt, V. A., 2022
  • 4 ibid
  • 5 Schmidt, V. A., 2010
  • 6 Fairclough, I., Fairclough, N., 2013
  • 7 Brubaker, R., 1992

3As Vivien Schmidt pointed out, discourses can build and legitimise a consensus for implementing institutional change3. In order to understand how the Leavers’ anti-immigration discourse “shaped public opinion by influencing voters’ beliefs4”, this study will seek to explore from an ideational approach5 how the anti-immigration discourse paved the way for an institutional change6. This consensus has cut across the left-right political divide since all political parties had politicians openly hostile to immigration in their ranks. Both camps have adopted a discursive strategy that mobilised populist and nationalist anti-immigration rhetoric, which praised the return of the plurinational state’s sovereignty and “social closure7” within British state borders.

4This article will focus more particularly on the period during the official referendum campaign, which began on April 15, 2016, when the Leave camp regained control of the debate by placing the question of European immigration at the centre of the debate and therefore marking a turning point of the campaign.

5Using a critical discourse analysis (CDA) approach, this article will present the discursive strategies mobilised by the main protagonists of the public debate to achieve a consensus on EU membership through a discourse centred on the European migration issue. This article will therefore explore the main characteristics of the anti-immigration discourse of the Remain campaign (Britain Stronger in Europe) and the Leave camp, namely Vote Leave, Leave.EU and the Eurosceptic media through newspaper articles, parliamentary speeches, press conferences, television and journalistic interviews, and social media such as official political websites and Facebook.

6The article will seek to shed light on the rhetorical strategies mobilised during the referendum campaign in order to build and legitimise a consensus on British membership. We will examine the role of anti-immigration discourse and analyse how the campaigns framed European immigrants and redefined their British social citizenship. We shall first focus on the fierce arguments displayed in the public debate, which were related to the issue of migrant overpopulation from EU member states. Then, we will assess how European economic immigration has been portrayed as a socio-economic threat to the British community. One of the most compelling arguments used during the Brexit campaign that might explain the Leavers’ political success focused on EU economic migration, which the Leave campaign regularly framed as a drain on British public budgets. We shall finally conclude with the study of the key referendum campaign theme focusing on the British welfare state sustainability that most campaigners linked to immigration.

The immigration issue and UK European Union Membership

Overcrowded Britain

  • 8 Mote, A., 2003
  • 9 Favell, A, Barbulescu, R., 2018, p. 125

7Most of the Leavers’ arguments targeted mass immigration from the new European member states. As Ashley Mote, former MEP and member of UKIP pointed out: “the current problems with immigration to the UK stems directly and almost entirely from our membership of the EU8”. The question of mass immigration was indeed the first and most prominent argument that prevailed throughout most of the Brexit campaign. 2004 and 2007 East and Central European Union enlargements have played a key role in the development of Euroscepticism. European immigration has indeed been considered a problem since then. Tony Blair’s open-door policy and the subsequent massive arrival of European immigrants9 from the then-new Member states raised a controversial debate on mass immigration, which led to a change in public attitude towards European immigration and the liberal immigration system promoted by the European institutions.

  • 10 Slack, J., 6 May 2016

8Faced with the emergence of unexpected and uncontrolled mass immigration from Central and Eastern European countries, many Britons came to consider EU immigration a threat to the national community. British membership of the EU was thus framed as a problem by Eurosceptics because of the principle of free movement of persons, which authorised EU citizens to work and live in other EU member states and led to the large-scale immigration of Eastern Europeans to the UK10.

  • 11 Barrett, D., 14 August 2013

9With the British economic recovery in 2013, the low unemployment rate, and the lifting of temporary control restrictions of free movement for Bulgarian and Romanian citizens in January 2014, the fear of a potential second wave of massive East European immigration gained rapidly more importance11.

10The negative and sensationalist Eurosceptic press coverage, such as the Sun, the Daily Mail or The Telegraph regularly criticising immigration, be it refugees or European immigrants, significantly influenced the framing of negative attitudes towards immigration.

  • 12 Daily Mail, 31 May 2016
  • 13 Slack, J., 15 June 2016.

11The long-term escalation of wildly exaggerated arguments has succeeded in giving credence to the theory of a migratory invasion. For example, according to the Daily Mail, EU membership represented “an open door to illegal migrants, terrorists and criminals12”. This manifested in the stance the newspaper took on the refugee crisis when talking about an influx of irregular migrants. Even though the Daily Mail has since then confirmed that the immigrants pictured in the article were not European but rather from Iraq and Kuwait, Eurosceptic newspapers, in June 2016, the newspaper conflated the 2015 refugee crisis with European immigration, stating that truckloads of European migrants were supposedly arriving illegally in Great Britain13.

12It should be noted the constant groundless assumption, in most anti-EU migrant rhetoric, of illegality associated with European immigrants exercising their right of free movement in most anti-EU migrant rhetoric. European citizens were depicted as illegal immigrants, although EU legislation legally allowed them to move within the European Union.

  • 14 Gietel-Basten, S, 2016
  • 15 O Becker, S., Fetzer, T., Novy, D., 2017

13Since 2004, the Eurosceptic press coverage of migration issues has contributed to the normalisation of anti-immigration rhetoric, arguing the negative consequences of large-scale European immigration and using wildly exaggerated or misleading arguments supporting the myth of invasion and accentuating the “narrative of overpopulation14”. As a result, the immigration narrative mobilised was instrumental in increasing the suspicion toward European immigration and, therefore, Euroscepticism. UKIP electoral success strongly correlated to low-skilled Eastern European migrants’ settlement in areas which were not used to receive EU migration15.

  • 16 Kuenssberg, L., 2016
  • 17 Office for National Statistics, 2016

14A similar narrative can be found in Boris Johnson’s discourse. The latter called a “scandal”16 the level of immigration reported by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in May 201617, thus, highlighting once more David Cameron’s Home secretary’s failure to reach her 2010 promise to “bring immigration down […] to the tens of thousands”. These figures came when tension, a few days before the referendum, reached its peak and marked a hardening of the discourse towards European immigration.

Criminality and terrorism in the context of the refugee crisis

  • 18 Slack, J. 6 May 2016
  • 19 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., 2019
  • 20 Daily Mail, 2 June 2016
  • 21 Goodhart, David, 2004

15The Leavers campaign also addressed the issue of the transformation of British society18 due to increased cultural diversity. In the Leavers’ discourse, as Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart noted, immigrants represented an identity threat19. As the Daily Mail also suggested, national identity was central to the Brexit vote; the newspaper was then worried about the fact that “white English-speakers” would “become a minority in Britain by the 2060s20”. The United Kingdom had actually found itself faced with the challenge of integrating European migrants newly-settled on British territory21.

  • 22 Eatwell, R., Goodwin, M., 2018, p. 56
  • 23 BBC News, 26 July 2018

16The invasion rhetoric strategy was therefore used to redefine the debate on British membership. In the context of growing anti-Muslimism after the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks of 2001 in the USA and the London Bombings of 2005, the Leavers focused on arguments such as the question of “ethnic change” due to immigration which was “threatening the Nation22”. Discourses focusing on the anticipation of further enlargements, in particular the potential accession of Turkey, contributed to accentuating public opinion concerns. The Leave camp exploited and instrumentalised these fears to mobilise the electorate and secure Leave votes. Brexiteers frequently used the threat of a so-called Turkish invasion, as shown in Vote Leave Facebook advertisements which alluded to a potential surge of immigration from EU accession candidate countries23.

  • 24 Holehouse, M., Dominiczak, P., 2016
  • 25 Stewart, H., Mason, R., 2016

17The Leave campaign used this recurring narrative of alleged links between Turkey’s potential accession and terrorism in order to change the perception of EU immigration. European immigrants were indeed frequently depicted by Leavers as security threats. The media participated in the anti-immigration campaign, thus reinforcing the statements made by the various political actors who supported the exit solution. The long-term media campaign was highly influential in relaying the Leave’s discourse and spreading these ideas. The Eurosceptic newspaper The Telegraph underlined the risk of terrorist attacks due to a European agreement which allowed Turkish nationals visa-free travel across Europe24. A week before the referendum, UKIP’s controversial campaign poster, Breaking Point, illustrated this desire to exploit fears linked to terrorism. Nigel Farage, the most vocal opponent of continued British EU membership, further suggested that refugees could be Islamic terrorists25.

  • 26 Vote Leave Facebook, 29 March 2016
  • 27 Farage, N., 2016
  • 28 Johnson, B., 2016
  • 29 Vote Leave Facebook, 8 June 2016

18This strategy of stigmatisation was prominent in the Leavers’ discourse. Political and media discourse stereotypically framed immigration, criminalizing European immigrants. Vote Leave explained that the EU’s right of free movement let European criminals enter the UK increased the insecurity in the country26. According to them, “EU law does not require other EU member states to inform the UK on a systematic basis of the criminal records of their nationals.” This argument echoed Nigel Farage’s statements that “open borders risk terrorism and sex attacks27”. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage adopted a similar stance and blamed the EU immigration system. According to the former London Mayor, “the EU’s immigration system makes the country less safe.” He considered it “immoral and unfair28”. As for the leader of UKIP, using the Leavers’ motto, he emphasized that “The EU prevents us from deporting dangerous criminals. It’s time to take back control of our legal system29”.

European economic immigration: a perceived socio-economic threat to the British community

19EU immigrants soon were designated as the scapegoats for the problems faced by the British population. The context of growing socio-economic insecurity following the post-2008 recession and the austerity policy implemented by the Conservatives in power since 2010 has enabled supporters of the exit to instrumentalise resentments expressed by a large part of the British population.

Competition for limited resources

  • 30 Gidron, N., Hall, P., 2017
  • 31 Patel, P., 2016
  • 32 Leave.EU Facebook, 8 June 2016, ibid; Doughty, S, 26 May 2016
  • 33 Leave.EU Facebook, 27 May 2016
  • 34 Johnson, B., 26 May 2016
  • 35 Patel, P., 18 April 2016

20The Leavers’ arguments developed during the campaign focused on the daily life problems of the population. For several decades British had been confronted with social and economic crises and felt strong resentment against neoliberal policies that have led to a “loss of social status30” for many of them. As one of the leading members of the Leavers’ group, Priti Patel put it: “The wealthy leaders of Remain will never know the devastating effect EU immigration has on ordinary people31”. In the Leave discourse, EU immigration was held responsible for unemployment, competition for jobs32, “GP waiting times33”, cuts in social benefits, overcrowded hospitals34 and difficulties in accessing housing and particularly social housing. Priti Patel also raised the spectre of massive immigration from potential new EU member countries that would put pressure on schools’ places35 , as the following quote shows.

Membership of the EU means we are completely unable to control EU migration, and that puts unsustainable pressure on school places. This will only get worse with five more countries - Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey - in the pipeline to join the EU.

  • 36 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., 2019

21Competition for limited resources in many areas, such as social benefits, employment and social housing, has also facilitated considerably increased hostility among certain sections of the population towards the impacts of globalisation and the deepening of neoliberal European integration on British society36. The opponents to EU membership exploited this ambient hostility to neoliberalism which turned into a protest vote against the social inequalities created by the various crises the UK has gone through. This rejection of neoliberal institutions, such as the EU, paved the way for the return to a nationalist anti-immigration narrative and nationalist values promoted by the Out campaign.

  • 37 Leave.EU Facebook, 1 June 2016

22One of the most prominent arguments of the Leave camp focused on the threat EU migration was supposed to represent to British workers. As stated by the Leave.EU campaign: “If we vote to remain in the EU then continued free movement for jobseekers will place considerable pressure on the wages of low-paid British workers37”.

  • 38 Leave.EU Facebook, 8 June 2016, ibid

23Leave.EU considered that EU immigration was “depressing wages”. According to them, the Eurozone crisis favoured an increase in economic migration, “an even greater flood of economic migration38” from the European states most affected by the crisis. This clearly helped them to promote a discourse based on fears of social dumping spreading.

EU economic migration: “a drain on public budgets”

24The supposed impact of the costs of European immigration on public budgets has also become a significant political issue in the UK.

25The dominant theory promoted by the Leave campaign was built upon the assumption that EU immigration represented “a drain on public budgets.” The threat frequently put forward by the Leave camp concerned the popular myth of the financial burden that European immigration represented on public budgets.

  • 39 Beckford, M., 28 February 2016

26Firstly, the issue of EU citizens’ access to social benefits an essential topic in the public debate leading up to the EU referendum in June 2016. Among the main themes developed by the Leave camp and the mainstream Eurosceptic media, the “benefit tourism” issue indeed dominated most of the debates for years notably in British tabloids such as The Sun and the Daily Mail, blaming Europeans for abusing the generous British welfare. One of the newspaper’s most substantial criticisms of Europeans residing in the country focused on jobless European immigrants who “were handed an astonishing £886 million in benefits over a single year39”.

  • 40 Boeri, T., 2009

27As the economist Tito Boeri points out, the debate on benefit tourism stemmed mainly from the widespread perception among the British public of massive uncontrolled immigration that gave rise to a debate centered on “benefit tourism” or the “abuse of social benefits”40. This issue became even more significant over the years, reaching its climax during the debate of the official referendum campaign. This expression was first used in the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet bloc by Eurosceptics that feared a massive influx of immigrants from Eastern European countries who were supposedly attracted by the social benefits offered by the Western Member states. Still, it was only popularised in 2004 during the enlargement to the East. This benefit tourism discourse subsequently resumed with renewed vigour in 2013 on the eve of lifting restrictions on free movement for Bulgarian and Romanian nationals. It then steadily gained momentum during the 2014 European elections campaign that saw the electoral success of UKIP.

  • 41 Giulietti, C., 2014

28The narrative of “benefit tourism” was also a regular theme of the Leave campaign. In their populist propaganda, Brexiteers considered that European Union citizens were likely to benefit from Britain’s advantageous universalist social system. Indeed, the main fear was that European immigrants would come to the UK to take advantage of the British social protection system considered generous. According to this thesis, European immigrants went to the United Kingdom intending to take advantage of the social protection system, which acted as a “magnet”41 and attracted, in particular, a low-skilled and low-paid workforce who were potentially social benefits recipients.

  • 42 Ruist, J., 2015

29Although studies have regularly demonstrated that these perceptions were largely unfounded42, these claims of ‘benefit tourism’ have nevertheless had a substantial impact on public opinion. The predominantly hostile discourse on the “benefit tourism” and the supposed impact of European immigration on public budgets had not only become a major political issue in the UK but has most probably borne fruit and gained ground, gradually contributing to changing public attitudes.

  • 43 Leave.EU Facebook, 18 April 2016
  • 44 The Daily Mail, 22 June 2016

30The alleged costs of EU citizens on the state budget and British public services were thereby a key argument of the referendum campaign43. As outlined by the Daily Mail, this was a question of “protecting public services44”. According to the newspaper, it has “led to intense pressures for anyone trying to get a school place for their child or a GP appointment”.

  • 45 Farage, N., 6 June 2016
  • 46 BBC News, 26 July 2018
  • 47 Barrett, D, 17 May 2016

31In the official Vote Leave propaganda clip, European immigration was seen as an additional financial charge for British public budgets and a risk for the sustainability of British public services. As Nigel Farage pointed out: “sheer numbers of people who are coming are putting intolerable strain on our public services45”. Taking advantage of the potential arrival of “more than 88 million people from new countries joining the EU”46, in a Facebook advertisement, Vote Leave brandished it as a threat to public services and state resources. Furthermore, in May 2016, The Telegraph pretended that “Immigration from Europe ‘cost the British taxpayer £3m a day’ last year47”. These arguments appealed to the social downgrading felt by a part of the British population. The Leave campaign exacerbated this feeling of competition between British and European immigrants regarding redistributing limited state resources.

  • 48 Slack, J., 19 May 2016
  • 49 UKIP Facebook, 10 June 2016
  • 50 UKIP Facebook, 4 March 2016
  • 51 Giulietti, C., Kahanec, M., 2013

32In addition, another decisive argument used by the Leave camp was the housing crisis, which made many headlines in the Daily Mail48 that pointed to immigration as the culprit for the housing shortage. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage advocated stricter immigration controls, arguing furthermore that a reduction in immigration was needed “to ease the strain on housing, or future generations will never be homeowners49. He furthermore declared that “a new house had to be built every four minutes just to cope with European migration flows50”. He thus exploited the resentments of many Britons, which were based on the feeling that there was a phenomenon of positive discrimination vis-à-vis European nationals concerning the allocation of social housing51.

European mass immigration and the sustainability of the British welfare state

The Remain camp

  • 52 Cameron, D., 2016

33European mass immigration was also united with an increase of the number of recipients of social benefits. Although the emblematic leader of the Remain camp, David Cameron, was officially committed to the Remain campaign, he also participated in the legitimisation of this anti-immigration discourse when he renegotiated the terms of British membership. In February 2016, he indeed obtained a new opt-out from the European Council concerning the implementation of an “emergency brake” in the event of saturation of public services, namely the possibility of stopping the access of European immigrants to public services for four years52. In the wake of his renegotiation, David Cameron declared:

  • 53 ibid

Our third aim in these negotiations was to reduce the very high level of migration from within the EU by preventing the abuse of free movement and preventing our welfare system acting as a magnet for people to come to our country53.

  • 54 Glencross, A., 2016

34This not only constituted a challenge to the principles of free movement and non-discrimination but also participated in the normalisation of the ‘benefit tourism’ rhetoric. Furthermore, Cameron’s renegotiation of UK membership of the European Union has been viewed as a failure by most of the Leavers. It only demonstrated that the free movement of people could not be challenged as long as the UK was committed “to a single market that includes labour mobility54”. Cameron’s renegotiation only contributed to comfort Leavers’ position and their support for the British withdrawal from the EU.

  • 55 Schnapper, P., 2017

35As noted by Pauline Schnapper, the Remain campaign failed to convey a clear message about the immigration issue55. Moreover, they made no attempts to demystify the opposing camp’s anti-immigration arguments, and their presenting immigration in a positive light has remained relatively modest. Jeremy Corbyn notably admitted that it was impossible to limit European immigration because of the UK’s membership of the EU, thus giving an element of confirmation to the Brexit campaign.

  • 56 Robinson, J., 8 May 2016

36The popular Eurosceptic press was not left out on this issue. In recent decades, the tabloids such as the Daily Mail have regularly denounced the supposed cost of the presence of immigrants for the British health system or public schools56.

EU citizens’ fundamental rights protected by European legislation

37Social rights allocated to European immigrants became increasingly contested in the UK. The question of equality of treatment for European immigrants with nationals was a key question for Brexiteers. As we noticed, Leavers’ arguments were centered on EU citizens’ fundamental rights protected by European legislation, in particular the principle of freedom of movement of people, which is one of the founding principles of the European Union. It is this principle, that made possible massive flows of EU migration to the United Kingdom, as well as the automatic access of EU migrants to the right of residence, which led to the definitive establishment of many European immigrants.

38However, the issue of “benefit tourism” was not born from the establishment of the principle of free movement, but rather from the gradual extension of equal treatment to all European citizens. The Leavers’ discourse indeed focused on protecting the British welfare state, which was supposedly undermined by mass immigration and the egalitarian community treatment implemented by EU institutions. By conferring social rights, including the freedom of mobility, European social citizenship has enabled any European citizen not only to settle permanently in any other Member state of the European Union but also to access the resources of the host state’s welfare state. The granting of European citizenship allows European migrants residing in the United Kingdom to benefit from the same rights as British nationals.

  • 57 Seeleib-Kaiser, M., 2018

39European immigrants and their access to social rights on British territory were indeed at the heart of the controversies concerning the British membership of the EU. European immigrants exercising their right of free movement are protected by legislation against discrimination because of their nationality, letting them acquire a resident status57 which gives them post-national social rights in the host country on equal terms as nationals. The principle of non-discrimination, therefore, abolished protectionist measures in favour of nationals.

  • 58 Johnson, B, 2016

40Boris Johnson’s discourse is symbolic of that issue when he blamed the EU in particular for its management of legal migration flows, which did not make it possible to distinguish between the British community and EU nationals and which had led, according to him, to a deficit of 2.4 billion pounds sterling from the NHS for the 2015-2016 financial year58.

Nationalist Welfare values and beliefs

41The welfare state derives its legitimacy from historical and political values and beliefs shared by the members of the British national community. They are enshrined in institutions such as the British National Health Service (NHS). The Leave campaign exploited the NHS’s rhetoric, whose core message was centred on recovering control of the scale of immigration. The preservation of the NHS was a compelling argument that the Leave camp mobilised throughout the campaign. It was about accusing European immigrants of taking advantage of the National Health Service, to which, again, the British public ascribe considerable symbolic and emotional significance.

  • 59 Baumberg Geiger, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D., Deacon, R., Hood, C., Sage, D., 2012, p. 7
  • 60 Crossley, L., 2 February 2014
  • 61 ibid, p.8

42The Leavers’ Populist arguments consisted of a promise of reducing access to social protection for immigrants presented as “undeserving citizens59”. In the aftermath of the global economic crisis of 2008, the tabloid coverage focused mainly on what they called “benefit fraud60” and the alleged “lack of reciprocity and effort on the part of claimants61”.

43The anti-immigration discourse thus appealed to the nationalist feelings of the British electorate, particularly in terms of social solidarity.

  • 62 Alesina, A., Glaeser, E. L., 2004; Geddes, A., 2010, Goodhart, D., 2013

44Several analysts have highlighted that a multicultural society questions the ability of the welfare state to maintain a redistributive policy based on bonds of social solidarity62. The persistence of the anti-immigration rhetoric has contributed to a new consensus, presenting immigration as a threat to social solidarity. The discourse of the Out campaign focused on the principle of shared social solidarity at the foundation of the system of redistribution of resources.

  • 63 Ferrera, M., 2005, p. 75
  • 64 Walzer, 1983
  • 65 Miller, D., 1995
  • 66 Kassem, L. M. and al, 2012

45As Maurizio Ferrera points out, several conditions must be met to create a solidarity bonding allowing the sharing of resources in the national community: the concept of closure (bounding) linked to the existence of the borders of the Nation-state (boundaries) are essential in this process63. Thus, in the Leavers’ discourse, several conditions had to be met to benefit from British social citizenship. The beneficiary of social rights had to be part of the national community. As David Miller has shown, the community member also had to abide by the principle of reciprocity between rights and duties, which is also a prerequisite for distributive justice64 based on solidarity65. The rights for minority groups protected by EU legislation, namely European immigrants, were therefore challenging the shared national identity of the British majority group. According to the Leavers, this asked for the return of the boundaries for the state and nation to coincide66.

  • 67 Fée, D., 2016

46According to the Leavers, the social contract that binds community members was, therefore, essential to ensure the sustainability of the welfare state. This discourse is undoubtedly not new. Indeed, the official discourse in terms of public policy already alluded to it, particularly concerning the allocation of social housing. As David Fée points out, since the coming to power of the Coalition government in 2010, immigrants must “demonstrate long-term integration (through work and residence) in the community” before being entitled to social housing67.

47The anti-EU immigration discourse is characterized by an ideological dimension aimed at reinforcing their nationalist central values, which argues that the British welfare state should be reserved for community members. European citizens had first to prove they were not a financial burden on state resources. They should have contributed to British society before having rights. Newly arrived migrants were therefore deemed unfit to be part of the British receiving benefits community.

  • 68 Andersen, J.G., Bjørklund, T., 2000

48This chauvinistic discourse is therefore based on the assumption that faced with ethnically diverse mass immigration, support for redistribution policies would decline. The very hostile rhetoric toward Eastern European immigration aimed at justifying Brexit has been implemented on ideological grounds. Arguments about social tourism and the question of equal treatment that might challenge the British welfare state, reveal the underlying logic of Social Chauvinism, also known as Welfare state Nationalism68, that induces a desire to reduce or eliminate access to social rights for immigrants. The Brexiteers thus advocated national preference for the granting of social rights.

  • 69 Leave.EU Facebook, 20 May 2016
  • 70 The Conservative Party’s General Election Manifesto, 2005

49Even though racism was trivialized during the referendum campaign, most Leave supporters claimed not to be racist. They clearly rejected the idea. They affirmed they were only opting for national preference. As Nigel Farage puts it when defending himself against the accusation of racism. “This is what Remainers fail to understand. It is not ‘racist’ to love your country and its culture69”. This argument was not new ; in the 2005 Conservative Party Manifesto, it could be read that “it was not being racist to control immigration70”.

Distinguishing good immigrants from undeserving ones

50We can see here a desire of the supporters of Leave to give a positive image of themselves, considering themselves to be tolerant and welcoming towards immigrants, especially those from the Commonwealth. The Leave camp, notably Michael Gove, also wanted to prioritise the national community and Commonwealth immigrants, who he suddenly considered as members of the national community. This indeed was not the case of the legal citizens of the ‘Windrush’ generation, who were at the time still threatened with detention, deportation and denial of legal rights due to the discriminatory immigration system implemented in 2012 by the then Home Secretary Theresa May, which aimed at creating “a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”.

  • 71 Michael Gove, Vote Leave Facebook, 16 June 2016
  • 72 Vote Leave, 22 June 2016

51The then Secretary of State for Justice “revolted” against the unequal treatment suffered by historical immigration from Commonwealth countries compared to the treatment of European immigrants71. Therefore, Vote Leave advocated establishing a points-based immigration system inspired by the Australian model, which they considered fairer because, according to them, immigrants of whatever origin could benefit from equal treatment72.

The role of the state and social closure

52As we have suggested, the main criticisms levelled against the EU were the difficulties of limiting European immigration and the limited leeway afforded to the United Kingdom to restrict rights associated with European citizenship, particularly access to social rights. The debate focused on the British Nation-state’s weakening competence to decide who could be granted social rights on its territory. The creation of a new European framework of post-national rights implied a weakening of the role of the state regarding the EU Member states’ competencies of granting social benefits. As a result, the United Kingdom no longer had control over access to its territory or the granting of social benefits.

  • 73 Johnson, B., 2016
  • 74 Quermonne, J. L., 1992
  • 75 Bailleux, A., 2017
  • 76 London Borough of Harrow v Nimco Hassan Ibrahim and Secretary of State for the Home Department Case (...)

53As stated by Boris Johnson, British authorities could not distinguish between European immigrants and natives because of the erosion of the competencies of the state73. Since the crisis related to the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, Eurosceptics considered that the European construction undermined the sovereignty of the Member States74. The increasing role of the Court of Justice of the European Union and its case law was at the centre of the British claims. The right to move and reside within a Member State, and more particularly, the right to equal treatment, have been legally attacked by the United Kingdom75, such as in the London Borough of Harrow v Nimco Hassan Ibrahim judgment76 in 2010, which allowed the European immigrants’ children to live in the Member State where the latter works.

  • 77 Geddes, A., 2010
  • 78 Patel, P., ibid

54The challenge consisted more particularly in determining whether the British Nation-state could keep its role of defining the borders delimiting its national political community as well as the beneficiaries of its social system. As Andrew Geddes77 puts it, it was about delimiting the “conceptual borders” of who “belongs,” who “deserves,” who is “legitimate,” and who is not. As Priti Patel, one of the leading Brexiteers, declared: “The ability to control our borders stands at the heart of the debate78”.

  • 79 Johnson, B., 2016
  • 80 ibid
  • 81 Brubaker, 1992, ibid

55The status that EU citizenship confers was then at the heart of the issues related to British membership. As Boris Johnson asserted: “If we vote to remain, EU judges will take control of British citizenship79”. According to him, the European Court of justice (ECJ) has used this fundamental status to undermine the country’s sovereignty, taking “more and more powers from the UK” and “requiring social security to be paid to EU migrants80”. The solution therefore proposed by the Leave campaign was to advocate a policy of national preference, namely a policy of “social closure81”, to reaffirm the role of the Nation-state. The Leave campaign’s main aim was to “take back control” of the social frontiers of the British state.

56This nationalist anti-immigrant rhetoric adopted by the Leave campaign helped them justify the exclusion of European nationals residing in the UK by claiming that they posed a threat to safeguarding the British welfare state and British social citizenship. The widespread hostility to EU immigration the Leavers’ discourse generated played a significant role in the Referendum outcome; it indeed favoured the establishment of a consensus regarding European immigration aimed at delegitimising British membership of the EU.


  • 82 Johnson, B., 26 June 2016

57This article has sought to show how the Leave campaign shaped an anti-immigration narrative that focused on defending the British national community against European mass immigration. Even though Boris Johnson refuted the role of the anti-immigration discourse in the Leave victory82, we suggest that the rhetorical arguments examined in this article were part of their political strategy, which was designed to reach a consensus on the British membership and proved to be efficient. As a result, the Leave campaign has achieved its objective: challenging British membership of the EU, and therefore regaining the country’s parliamentary sovereignty, at least in terms of immigration and border control. This has also resulted in the renationalisation of social and immigration policies, the main demands at the heart of the Leavers' discursive strategy.

58This paper highlights the discursive choices implemented by the main referendum campaign actors that influenced the referendum result. It also shows the importance of ideological values in the anti-immigrant Leavers’ discourse which led to the Leave victory.

  • 83 Andersen, J.G., Bjørklund, T., 2000
  • 84 Favell, A, Barbulescu, R., p. 125

59Examining the Remain (“The In Campaign” led by the then Prime minister David Cameron) and the Leave camps’ discourses, we have thus observed an identical tendency to construct the European migrant as a threat to the British community. Against this backdrop, the anti-immigrant discourse exploiting resentments linked to feelings of economic and social insecurity became the majority discourse. Immigration was portrayed as endangering the UK’s national security and finances. This narrative also consisted in designating European immigrants as undeserving citizens in order to delegitimise their status and to question the granting of social rights linked to their European citizenship. The anti-migrants discourse advocated protectionist policies and the granting of social rights based on national preference. Perceptions of immigration have thus been shaped by a discourse that justifies exclusion. This decrease in support for the principle of social solidarity shared between natives and foreigners can lead to the establishment of a “restrictive” welfare state83 for European immigrants with the reinstatement of discrimination based on nationality84. With the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union, free movement of people between the UK and the European Union ended. Mobile European citizens are now experiencing the ‘hostile environment’ initially created for irregular immigration and minority groups.

  • 85 ibid

60EU citizens must apply for a visa to come to the UK to work, live or study. They now are subject to “the same […] unfair regime as non-EU nationals85”. On 1 January 2021, they acquired a new status designed by the new nativist post-Brexit migration policy, which applies to both EU and non-EU citizens and contributes to their exclusion of the dominant British national community.

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1 Tournier-Sol, K., 2017

2 Nigel Farage Facebook, 10 June 2016

3 Schmidt, V. A., 2022

4 ibid

5 Schmidt, V. A., 2010

6 Fairclough, I., Fairclough, N., 2013

7 Brubaker, R., 1992

8 Mote, A., 2003

9 Favell, A, Barbulescu, R., 2018, p. 125

10 Slack, J., 6 May 2016

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14 Gietel-Basten, S, 2016

15 O Becker, S., Fetzer, T., Novy, D., 2017

16 Kuenssberg, L., 2016

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18 Slack, J. 6 May 2016

19 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., 2019

20 Daily Mail, 2 June 2016

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22 Eatwell, R., Goodwin, M., 2018, p. 56

23 BBC News, 26 July 2018

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25 Stewart, H., Mason, R., 2016

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28 Johnson, B., 2016

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30 Gidron, N., Hall, P., 2017

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33 Leave.EU Facebook, 27 May 2016

34 Johnson, B., 26 May 2016

35 Patel, P., 18 April 2016

36 Norris, P., Inglehart, R., 2019

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38 Leave.EU Facebook, 8 June 2016, ibid

39 Beckford, M., 28 February 2016

40 Boeri, T., 2009

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50 UKIP Facebook, 4 March 2016

51 Giulietti, C., Kahanec, M., 2013

52 Cameron, D., 2016

53 ibid

54 Glencross, A., 2016

55 Schnapper, P., 2017

56 Robinson, J., 8 May 2016

57 Seeleib-Kaiser, M., 2018

58 Johnson, B, 2016

59 Baumberg Geiger, B., Bell, K., Gaffney, D., Deacon, R., Hood, C., Sage, D., 2012, p. 7

60 Crossley, L., 2 February 2014

61 ibid, p.8

62 Alesina, A., Glaeser, E. L., 2004; Geddes, A., 2010, Goodhart, D., 2013

63 Ferrera, M., 2005, p. 75

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84 Favell, A, Barbulescu, R., p. 125

85 ibid

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Hélène Grinan-Moutinho, « An analysis of the anti-immigration discourse during the official 2016 Brexit referendum campaign »Observatoire de la société britannique, 29 | 2022, 65-87.

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Hélène Grinan-Moutinho, « An analysis of the anti-immigration discourse during the official 2016 Brexit referendum campaign »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 29 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2023, consulté le 24 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Hélène Grinan-Moutinho

Doctorante en civilisation britannique à l’Université Sorbonne Nouvelle

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