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HomeIssues XXVII-2The December 2019 General Electio...The Populist Dimension of Brexit

The December 2019 General Election: Brexit, Political Identity and Policy

The Populist Dimension of Brexit

La dimension populiste du Brexit
Youssef Ferdjani

Abstracts

In June 2016 the victory of the Leave campaign in the European referendum of June 2016 was completely unexpected. The referendum had been organized to please the Eurosceptic members of the Conservative Party, fearful of the rise of UKIP, fears which were confirmed one year after the referendum was announced, because this party obtained the best results at the European Parliament election. The referendum put an end to David Cameron’s political career. This paper contends that Brexit was made possible because of a number of factors: the populist wave in the world which allowed charismatic politicians with effective communication skills to reach power, the emphasis put on immigration as well as the effective spin and use made of the media by both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. But above all, Brexit was the means chosen by British voters to express anger and frustration caused by decades of social and economic crises. The context was favourable to the Leave campaign as it was easy to blame Europe and the migrant crisis for everything that went wrong in the country. Five years after the referendum, the situation is more complex than ever because the Union is at risk and the future is very uncertain.

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Introduction

1Is Brexit the expression of the people's will? In that case, which people? Or is it the victory of a group of anti-EU politicians, often described as populists, who used the media to reach their goal? In other words, was there, before the decision to organize a referendum was taken, a strong anti-European feeling within the British population? Or, was this feeling that resulted in Brexit created and fuelled by a few charismatic political leaders? Before answering these questions, we have to analyse Brexit in a larger context. As a matter of fact, Western democracies have had to face a crisis in recent years as citizens have increasingly questioned their legitimacy. In many countries, the consequence was the election of candidates who did not belong to traditional mainstream parties.

2In this paper, we will try to show that Brexit is the result of a process which started a long time before David Cameron decided to organize the referendum. The last decades have not been very good for Britain’s working and middle classes, thus creating anger and frustration. The 1970s were a period of economic crisis characterized by high unemployment and inflation. In the 1980s and 1990s the liberal economic policies implemented by Margaret Thatcher and John Major made things even worse for British workers. And the situation did not improve when New Labour reached power in 1997. We shall endeavour to explain why this led to a rejection of the European Union and how this issue was used by two English political figures, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. This paper seeks to discuss the populist dimension of Brexit through an analysis of the role played by both figures in securing the victory of the Leave Campaign in the European referendum of 2016.

3We will define the concept of populism which is often regarded as a negative phenomenon linked to the basest human instincts. This needs to be qualified because it is often the result of political inefficiency and therefore caused by politicians themselves, not by the people. As a matter of fact, populism rises when the social order is regarded as unfair and when a new political figure, usually an outsider, criticizes and questions the existing system. In other words, populism appears when does not function correctly. Having done that, we will attempt to measure the extent to which Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson used populist methods during the Brexit campaign. They did not hesitate to lie to attract voters and their campaigns were characterized by the widespread use of post-truths. We shall finally endeavour to answer the following question: is Brexit the victory of populism or does it reveal deeper problems? Brexit will be discussed as a consequence of deep-rooted issues rather than a cause and as the result of a long process which started with the neo-liberal turn of the 1980s.

Definition of populism

  • 1 Respectively prime minister of the UK, former president of the United States, leader of the Rassemb (...)

4The concept is so wide that it can bring together fascists, Marxists, nationalists, and also people who admire the philosophers of the Enlightenment period. This explains why the adjective “populist” is used to describe very different political leaders such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán, Matteo Salvini, Pablo Iglesias, Hugo Chavez, and Aléxis Tsipras.1 Populism is generally associated to authoritarian and xenophobic leaders but the reality is more complex than that. Paul Taggart, in his book Populism, said:

  • 2 Paul Taggart, Populism, Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2000, p. 2.

Populism is a difficult, slippery concept. It lacks features that would make it more tangible…It is profoundly difficult to construct a universal and comprehensive definition of populism as an idea or as a political movement.2

5In all -isms in the vocabulary of political science it is probably the most slippery. This is confirmed by the fact that populism does not have any manifesto: communism has Karl Marx, socialism has Jean Jaurès, anarchy has Mikhaïl Bakounine and liberalism has Adam Smith. Populism was neither formalized nor developed, therefore the electors who vote for populist parties or leaders are not sensitive to theoretical arguments. For the same reason, populism can be linked to very different political movements. Paul Taggart justifies it this way:

  • 3 Ibid., p. 4.

Unlike other ideologies, populism doesn’t contain a focus on one or more values such as equality, liberty and social justice. It explains why it is ‘appropriated’ by such a wide range of political positions…Populism’s natural position is as an adjective attached to other ideas that fill the space at the empty heart of populism.3

6In an article written in 1969 and entitled “A syndrome, not a doctrine: some elementary theses on populism”, Peter Wiles listed 24 features of populism as a syndrome. As a matter of fact, populism is more of a political style than an ideology. This style consists in speaking in the name of the people in opposition to the elites. But what the populist leader says depends on each specific context.

  • 4 Vincent Coussedière, Éloge du populisme (Seyssinet-Pariset, Élya, 2012), p. 61.
  • 5 Martin Breaugh, « Démocratie ou oligarchie ? Quelques réflexions sur notre situation politique actu (...)
  • 6 Paul Hirst, Representative Democracy and its Limits (Oxford, Polity Press), 1990.
  • 7 Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, Entre peuple et élite, le populisme de droite (Montréal, PUM), 2021.

7Generally, populism appears when the social order is perceived as essentially unfair and when a new protagonist in collective action emerges to question the foundations of that specific social order. If you add anger and fear to the equation, the result is often the victory of populist ideas. Populism is often associated to nationalism, and sometimes racism, but this assertion must be qualified. Indeed, what a people wants to keep most of the time is not its identity but its ability to maintain a tradition and the freedom to keep imitating this tradition.4 In this context, it is possible to say that populism is one of the symptoms of the crisis of liberal and representative democracy. In many countries democracy does not function because citizens see that they are not represented by politicians, which leads to populism. As a matter of fact, in spite of political diversity and political alternation things do not really change for the population. Politicians make promises during campaigns but once in power, they work for the Establishment. Usually, governments do not increase the taxes of the upper class and give multinational corporations what they want. Many democratic regimes today are democratic oligarchies5 where political power is always in the same hands. In this context, the population can have the impression that it is not really represented by the politicians it has elected.6 Today, many voters, especially in the working class, turn to populist leaders, a problem for traditional parties which have been in power or in the opposition for decades. As a matter of fact, populism erases the artificial distinction between left and right and replaces it by a tension between the elites and the people.7 Electors have noticed that even if the discourses are not the same the policies implemented by right wing and left wing parties are almost similar. And so have populist leaders, who describe themselves as outsiders ready to defend the people against the elites, a vague term used for traditional politicians and the economic establishment.

  • 8 Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, tome 1 (Paris, Flammarion, 1981), p. 230.
  • 9 Pierre Rosanvallon, Le siècle du populisme (Paris, Seuil, 2020), p. 23.
  • 10 Vincent Coussedière, Éloge du populisme, p. 21.
  • 11 Paul Taggart, Populism (Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2000), p. 75.

8Alexis de Tocqueville said that democracy was an invincible historic trend which contained an inner risk, the tyranny of the majority.8 If we apply this to today’s context, we could say that Tocqueville’s views are still forceful. Indeed, all political leaders who are described as populist and dangerous all around the world were elected democratically. In this context, abstention, which is officially a concern for traditional political parties, is actually one of the conditions of the survival of the system because popular vote is always dangerous, especially in a time of crisis. For example, in many European countries, populist leaders focus their campaigns on immigration, presenting it as a risk for local populations. However, the real risk is to have a divided society with no connection between its different communities. Therefore, popular vote is dangerous if it brings to power candidates who do not introduce real solutions to the population’s problems. And yet, the theory according to which populism is a “pathology of democracy”, an expression used by Pierre Rosanvallon, is wrong because it is based on the idea that existing democracies are the norm whereas populist regimes are a deviation from that norm. This theory is wrong because it does not take into account the fact that democracy is fundamentally unstable and constantly evolving.9 In some cases, when certain conditions make it possible, democracy leads to populism through a traditional electoral process. Nevertheless, populism always appears for a reason. As a matter of fact: “A people has never produced its own political ideology by itself. And yet the word populism describes that impossibility.10 In that context, populism is the name given to the moment when politicians say that they are going to take power from the elites and give it back to the people: “Placing themselves ideologically outside the centre of the existing party system, new populists stress their links to the common sense of the common people.”11

9Ernesto Laclau claimed that populism could have a democratic aspect and be regarded as a way to question the system when it denounces the appropriation of democracy by an oligarchy or the elite. But unfortunately, giving back power to the majority does not necessarily mean that things will change for those who elected a populist candidate according to Ivan Krastev:

  • 12 Ivan Krastev, After Europe (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), p.35.

New populist leaders don’t fantasize about changing their societies. They don’t imagine people in terms of what they might become; they like them just the way they are. Empowering people without any common project is the ambition of the new populism. In this sense, the new populism is perfectly suited to societies where citizens are consumers above all else and view their leaders as waiters who are expected to move quickly in fulfilling their wishes.12

10Populist leaders are successful because they have understood that people worry about all the changes taking place in modern society. The challenges linked to employment, immigration and globalization are numerous and have not really been addressed by traditional parties who tend to give the impression that all these changes are linked to an unstoppable process sometimes called TINA (There Is No Alternative, a slogan often used by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister), by advocates of economic liberalism such as David Cameron who used the phrase in 2013 in a speech about austerity. In the United Kingdom, the neoliberal measures in the economy implemented by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and John Major in the 1990s did not disappear with Tony Blair and his New Labour Party when he became Prime Minister. The living conditions have not ceased to worsen, which explains why populist leaders appear as a reassuring presence in a hostile environment:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 91.

They don’t promise to save the people but to stay with them. They promise to re-establish the national and ideological constraints that were removed by globalization. They praise the people for not speaking foreign languages and for having nowhere to go. In short, what populists promise their voters is not competence but intimacy.13

  • 14 Alexandre Dorna, “Le néopopulisme et le charisme”, La tentation populiste au cœur de l’Europe (Pari (...)

11One of the criteria of populism is charismatic leadership and the ability to convince voters that they are understood. In a society which is characterized by individualism, political power is perceived as distant and cold. Consequently, there is a real need in the population to have a more direct relationship with political leaders.14 This is why populism is more and more successful and present in democratic countries. Because communication is omnipresent, it has become more important for politicians than real action. Besides, social networks and tabloid newspapers heavily rely on conflictual issues. One of the specificities of populism is to provide simple answers to complex problems and in this context the immediacy of social networks, with its focus on emotions rather than reflection is perfectly adapted to the communication strategy of populist leaders. Using the new media allows them to be closer to voters whereas other politicians use more traditional methods such as radio, television, or newspapers. This explains why tabloids and social media were so important for the Leave Campaign. For example, as early as 2015, a viral video showed that with the £350 million weekly EU cost the country could build a new NHS hospital every week. In 2016, some media tried to prove that such a claim was wrong, but the explanations were perceived as complex and boring. The Remain campaign mainly used statistics whereas their opponents, through the use of social networks and tabloids, appealed to the voters’ instincts and emotions. Besides, after the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal in 2018, it was revealed that personal data had been collected without consent and used for political advertising by the Leave Campaign.

12Today, democracy is founded on what candidates say, not on what they do once they are elected. But the qualities required to be a good candidate and those needed to govern are not the same:

  • 15 Paul Taggart, Populism, p. 88.

Achievement of government can raise a fundamental difficulty for populists. Having achieved power on the basis of their appeal as outsiders and opponents of politicians, they have to struggle to sustain that support while at the same time becoming insiders and professional politicians themselves.15

  • 16 The New Republic, April 4th 1985.

13When it faces reality, populism changes. Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York presented this with a very telling metaphor: “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose.”16

  • 17 Paul Taggart, Populism, p. 5.

14When we try to find out how populism functions in the political landscape, we discover that it can be a movement, a leader, a regime, or an idea. Very often, it is a combination of these elements, but it is never all of them at the same time.17 For this reason, populism is condemned to be short-lived:

  • 18 Ibid., p. 4.

Eschewing the institutions forms and patterns of representative politics, populism deliberately tries to translate the simplicity and plain-talking of ordinary people into structures that are simple and direct. Locking on to leaders or bypassing parties altogether, however, has its problems, and these mean that populism is invariably a passing phenomenon. It limits itself because of its attitude towards institutions.18

15We have seen that the concept of populism could take various forms and be used for politicians with completely different ideas. The characteristics that are always present and that we will use in our presentation are the presence of a charismatic leader, the tension between the people and the elite and the promise to give back power to the silent majority.

16Considering the role played by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage during the Brexit campaign is it possible to consider them as populist leaders? Indeed, the referendum is at the centre of populist culture and corresponds to a simplified and polarized version of democracy. In this case, pro-Brexit campaigners took advantage of the fact that the EU is the symbol of the confiscation of popular power by experts and technocrats to obtain an unexpected victory.

The Brexit campaign: are Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson populist leaders?

  • 19 Ibid., p. 8.
  • 20 Jon Stone, “Boris Johnson rejects ‘populist’ label”, The Independent, February 25th 2021.
  • 21 Paul Lewis, Rage, rapture and pure populism: on the road with Nigel Farage, The Guardian, May 19th (...)

17In his book Populism Paul Taggart wrote: “It is a necessary part of being a populist to not see the label as negative.”19 We know that Boris Johnson rejects the label20 whereas Nigel Farage does not.21 In what measure can the word populist be used to describe these two politicians in relation to the Brexit campaign?

  • 22 Martin Fletcher, Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lea (...)
  • 23 Jennifer Rankin and Jim Waterson, “How Boris Johnson’s Brussels-bashing stories shaped British poli (...)

18Before entering politics, Boris Johnson was a journalist and after being fired by the Times for making up a quotation was correspondent for the Daily Telegraph in Brussels from 1989 to 1994. In his articles, he kept attacking the European Union, its institutions and mocking its decisions. One commentator said that Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign was a series of “lies and Soviet-style propaganda about the European Union”.22 Another one claimed that his articles had a tremendous influence on British Euroscepticism.23

  • 24 Boris Johnson, “Delors plans to rule Europe”, The Sunday Telegraph, May 3rd 1992.
  • 25 James Tapsfield, “Have you gone bananas? Boris splits opinion with bizarre claims about EU rules on (...)
  • 26 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate just as Hitler did”, The Sunday Telegraph, May (...)

19During that period in Brussels, he criticized Jacques Delors, the European Commission president at the time, and claimed the French politician had a plan to rule Europe.24 During the campaign preceding the referendum he used the same strategy claiming that Brexit would allow the UK to dump lots of useless European rules including that bananas could only be sold in bunches of 2 or 3 and then if they were sufficiently straight.25 But the tone of his comments was not always as light as he once said that in European history there had been several attempts to rediscover the “golden age of peace and prosperity under the Romans” and he added that Napoleon, Hitler and other people had tried it but it ended tragically and that the EU was an attempt to do this by different methods.26

  • 27 Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, James Treadwell: The Rise of the Right, English nationalism and the trans (...)
  • 28 Roger Martelli, L’identité c’est la guerre (Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2016).
  • 29 Denis Staunton, “Boris Johnson accused of racism over Barack Obama remarks”, The Irish Times, April (...)
  • 30 Dan Sabbagh and Jennifer Rankin, “Boris Johnson wrongly denies stirring Turkey fears in Brexit camp (...)

20In the countries where populism developed, it was made possible because the economic situation was not good. Instead of blaming the capitalist system, populist leaders claim that there is too much immigration and that Europe is threatened by Islam.27 In Europe, all right-wing populist movements have a racist dimension.28 For example, in April 2016, in an article for The Sun, in response to a comment by President Barack Obama that Britain should remain in the European Union, Johnson said an "ancestral dislike" of Britain owing to his "part-Kenyan" background may have shaped Obama's views.29 These comments were criticized by politicians from all parties, some even accusing him of dog whistle racism and a King's College London student society revoked a speaking invitation it had extended to him. Conversely, Nigel Farage defended his comments. Boris Johnson also said it would be dangerous if Turkey joined the EU, an argument also used by UKIP. He insisted on the terrorist threat of ISIS entering Europe via Turkey. And yet, a few years earlier he had supported Turkey’s project to join the EU. He supported Vote Leave's statement that the government was committed to Turkish accession to the EU at the earliest possible opportunity, contradicting the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign's view that Turkey was not an issue in the referendum and should not be one. His objective was to scare the British population and have them think that if Turkey joined the European Union, Britain would not be able to refuse Turkish immigrants.30

  • 31 Nigel Farage, in Simon Walters: “I’ll back Boris as PM if Britain leaves the EU”, Daily Mail, May 1 (...)
  • 32 Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, “Nigel’s Farage anti-migrant poster reported to police”, The Guar (...)
  • 33 Christian Dustmann, Tommaso Frattini, “The Fiscal effects of Immigration to the UK”, The Economic J (...)
  • 34 Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, tome 1 (Paris, Gallimard, 1992), p. 185.

21It is possible to compare Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage during the Brexit campaign because their objectives and methods were not really different and the UKIP leader described himself as a Boris fan who would back him to succeed David Cameron if the Leave camp won the referendum.31 He added that if it happened, he was ready to work for Boris Johnson in the government. Nigel Farage focused his communication on the risks linked to immigration for the United Kingdom. His views were relayed by the pro-Brexit press and dominated the campaign. The most controversial part of his communication strategy was the breaking point poster showing hundreds of migrants on a road.32 The slogan “we must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders” implied that the migrants on the photograph were arriving in the United Kingdom, which was not the case. Actually, the people on the photograph were migrants crossing the border between Croatia and Slovenia in 2015. Once more, the objective was to frighten people into voting to leave the EU. In fact, the whole Brexit campaign was placed under the sign of “post-truth”. It was the word of the year for the Oxford English Dictionary in 2016. Post-truth politics, also called post-factual politics and post-reality politics, is a political culture in which debate is framed largely by appeals to emotion disconnected from the details of policy, and by the repeated assertion of arguments which are not valid. In this context, facts are not important while divisive claims are used to create an emotional response in voters. There is a disconnection between immigration in the media and reality because immigrants contribute more to the economy than they cost in social help. European immigrants who arrived in the UK since 2000 have contributed more than £20bn to UK public finances between 2001 and 2011. Over the period from 2001 to 2011, European immigrants from the EU-15 countries contributed 64% more in taxes than they received in benefits. Immigrants from the Central and East European 'accession' countries, who joined the EU in 2004, contributed 12% more than they received.33 And yet, the Leave camp managed to convince millions of voters of the opposite. Tocqueville wrote that a wrong idea which was clear and precise would always be more powerful than a true idea which is complex.34 This is what happened during the Brexit campaign.

  • 35 Alexandre Dorna, “Le néopopulisme et le charisme”, La tentation populiste au cœur de l’Europe (Pari (...)

22Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage were also helped by the fact that disappointment with democracy leads to the personalization of politics and in this context a charismatic presence is more appealing than an abstract political agenda.35 Among the features selected by Peter Wiles in his description of populism, several correspond to these two leaders but three of them are particularly relevant: they are anti-intellectuals, anti-establishment and they are supported by those of limited wealth.

  • 36 Duncan Mc Donnell, Stefano Ondelli, “The Language of Right-Wing Populist Leaders: Not So Simple”, P (...)

23For both politicians, appearing close to the people was very important and it is another characteristic of populist leaders. They speak simply, in a direct and humorous style and like being seen with ordinary British people in everyday situations.36 And yet, they do not have a lot in common with their voters:

  • 37 Steve Buckledee, The Language of Brexit (London, Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 54-55.

Throughout the referendum campaign the leader of UKIP presented the central issue as one of honest, hardworking people wrestling back control from a self-serving elite in the worlds of finance and business whose path to ever greater wealth and privilege was favoured by the political establishment in Brussels. To cultivate his personal image as an ordinary bloke he frequently had himself photographed in a pub, holding a pint of real ale (never Eurofizz lager) and chatting amicably with fellow customers. Farage’s CV, however, is hardly that of a typical Occupy Wall Street protester. The son of a stockbroker, he chose not to go to university but went directly from his independent school, Dulwich College, to the City of London, where he had a moderately successful career as a commodities broker until he became a full-time politician.37

24It shows that the image projected by populist leaders is as important as the messages they deliver. By imitating the average man, they encourage voters to identify with them even if they come from very different backgrounds. And the tabloid press played an important part in the way Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson were perceived by the public:

  • 38 Ibid., p. 56.

It is nevertheless extraordinary that certain newspapers managed to present such obvious establishment figures as those described above as tough little Davids with the spunk to take on the Goliaths of the banks, the multinationals and the Brussels bureaucracy. This was achieved in various ways, but the most basic linguistic technique is the clever use of the word we.38

25In June 2014, Nigel Farage and his party won the European parliamentary election on an explicitly anti-immigration ticket and in its quest for visibility, the party could count on the Daily Express, a tabloid characterized by a hard Euroscepticism. As a matter of fact, Patrick O’Flynn, political editor of the paper, gave up journalism in 2014 when he was elected as a UKIP Member of the European Parliament. That year the Express had effectively become UKIP’s voice in the media and its owner, Richard Desmond, donated significant amounts of money to the party (£ 300,000 in December 2014 and £ 1 million in April 2015). It seems that there was a formal and informal collaboration between the party and the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic press. According to some research made by Loughborough University, during the referendum campaign 80% of print coverage was in favour of Brexit.39 Tabloids such as the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Star and The Sun but also, quality papers like The Daily Telegraph were in favour of Brexit, with four times as many readers and anti-EU stories as their pro remain rivals.

26In his campaign, Boris Johnson was helped by members of the Conservative Party who used populist themes such as nationalism, sovereignty, immigration, social and economic problems, rejection of intellectuals’ and experts’ advice in order to win. For these politicians, populist arguments were acceptable as long as they were efficient.

27With financial crises and terrorism, the world is more and more unpredictable. Besides, globalization has created a world ruled by anonymous markets and unelected authorities, which means that it is not easy to know who is responsible for the world’s situation.

28New Labour reforms, the 2008 subprime crisis and austerity policies implemented by David Cameron’s government made it possible for populist ideas to develop and become successful, which explains why traditional parties are more and more rejected. In this context, it is possible to say that the 2016 referendum victory was just another symptom of the same problem as we shall see in the third and last part of our paper.

Is Brexit the victory of populism or does it reveal deeper problems?

  • 40 John A. Tures, “Thanks to Brexit, America Could Now Colonize Great Britain”, The Observer, May 23rd(...)
  • 41 Jon Henley, “Why Vote Leave £350m weekly EU cost is wrong”, The Guardian, June 10th 2016.
  • 42 Elise Uberoi and Neil Johnston, “Political disengagement in the UK: who is disengaged?”, House of C (...)
  • 43 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, The Populist revolt and the future of politics (London, Hurs (...)

29For decades, British citizens have heard Eurosceptic politicians say that Germany takes a revenge on the 1945 defeat through European administration and finance. It is the idea that the United Kingdom won the war but lost the peace. People are told that the United Kingdom used to be an empire and it has now become a colony. The British Empire has disappeared which means that the United Kingdom no longer rules the world as it had in the 19th century. Instead, many people have the impression that they have been colonized, first by Asian, African and West Indian immigrants and now by people from Eastern Europe. But Brexit could make things worse with the economic fallout and the possible breakup of the United Kingdom.40 Besides, the Brexit campaign managed to convince millions of voters that their situation would improve if the United Kingdom left the European Union. The Leave camp claimed that after Brexit the £350 million a week sent to the European Union would “fund our NHS instead.”41 And of course, the slogan “let’s take back control” implied that once the country was free from the decisions taken by bureaucrats in Brussels the situation would improve for everyone. However, we can say that Brexit is the result of a process which started a long time before the referendum campaign. Many citizens had no more confidence in politics and believed the Brexit storytelling promoted by populist leaders because it gave them the impression that things could change for them. Voters were ready to believe Nigel Farage because they did not trust traditional parties anymore and this trend was still visible after the referendum. As a matter of fact, although turnout has gone up in some recent elections and the EU referendum of 2016 saw the highest UK-wide turnout since 1992, the lack of faith in political parties persists. A research report on the 2019 General Election showed that of the voters it surveyed 76% thought that voters were being misled by false and dishonest claims from both main parties in the 2019 election campaign.42 Over the years voters have seen a growing similarity between the programmes and personnel of the main political parties, the shrinking role of elected government and a succession of political and economic crises. In the past, there were real differences between the Conservative Party and the Labour Party so that electors related more to a party or the other. For example, a majority of people in the former industrial regions voted for the Labour Party. But things changed with the Brexit referendum, when some traditional supporters of the left-wing Labour Party first considered switching. Industrial heartlands with long traditions of trade unionism and manual, low-skilled work — places most affected by Conservative cuts to public services — either abandoned Labour or seriously considered it, something which would have been unthinkable before. Many of those who voted Labour before 2016 were doing that largely on a legacy basis, without actually believing a lot of the values that today’s party upholds. Now the party is widely seen to be home to college graduates with socially liberal views, while the Conservatives have transformed themselves into a home for many with relatively less education and less of a global outlook.43 There are significant numbers of people in the UK, whose lives have been disrupted by the pace of economic change—some of it caused by technology, some of it caused by global economic competition, some of it caused by other factors. These are mostly older, white voters, particularly in regions of the country that have been hit hard by deindustrialization. These individuals feel like they have been on the losing end of globalization in terms of competition from new immigrants.

30All these elements undermined trust in politics. The impact of austerity policies which have been implemented since 2010 can also be mentioned: purchasing power has not increased, social care has reduced and it is more and more difficult to find an accommodation. UK labour markets are the most flexible in Europe: it is very easy to hire or fire people and the social safety net is generally weaker than in a lot of European countries. Programs for retraining and to help workers adjust and find new jobs are weaker in the UK than they are in the rest of Europe. Besides with the generalization of zero-hour contracts many people have very difficult working conditions. Between 2010 and 2016, the Cameron government decided to spend less money on social care, thus increasing the number of poor people even among those who had a job. Moreover, with the austerity programme implemented by the coalition government, between 2010 and 2019 more than £30 billion in spending reductions have been made to welfare payments, housing subsidies and social services. Consequently, the risk of poverty for adults living in working households has risen by 26.5%, from 12.4% to 15.7%, between 2004/5 and 2014/15.44 By the final year of this period, 60% of people of all ages living in poverty were living in working households – the highest figure yet recorded. In 2013, Universal Credit, a United Kingdom social security payment which is replacing and combining six benefits for working-aged people who have a low household income, was introduced but it is not totally efficient as it does not always manage to help people move from welfare to work. For all these reasons it is possible to say that Brexit is the consequence of deeper problems in British politics and society. The UK is today one of the most unequal countries according to the Gini index, a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the income inequality or the wealth inequality within a nation. Gini coefficients of income are calculated on a market income as well as a disposable income basis. The Gini coefficient on market income is calculated on income before taxes and transfers, and it measures inequality in income without considering the effect of taxes and social spending already in place in a country. Income inequality, as measured using the Gini coefficient, has been broadly stable over the past ten years with disposable income (post direct taxes and cash benefits) reaching 34.6% in financial year ending (FYE) 2020 after peaking at 38.6% in FYE 2008 just prior to the economic downturn; however, the Gini coefficient is 6.1 percentage points higher than average levels throughout the late 1970s and 1980s.45 Figures show that inequality has not ceased to increase since the late 1970s from 25% in 1977 to almost 35%. The United Kingdom has some of the highest levels of inequality in Europe, according to the GINI coefficient. Inequality in the UK is not confined to overall income equality. In 2020, for example, the gender pay gap between a man and a woman's average hourly earnings was 15.5 percent for full-time workers. This difference in earnings is also heavily associated with age, with the gender pay gap for people in their 30s standing at 0.7 percent, compared with 12.8 percent for workers in their 50s. Differences in earnings can also be observed when comparing people of different ethnicities. In 2019, for example, the ethnicity pay gap in England and Wales stood at 2.3 percent, indicating that white British people earned more on average than those of an ethnic minority. Although the ethnicity pay gap has fallen from a peak of 8.4 percent in 2014, this overall pay gap masks some significant pay gaps for certain ethnic groups. Pakistani workers, for instance, earned 15.5 percent less than that of white British workers in the same reporting year.

31It means that for more than thirty years the successive Conservative, Labour and coalition governments have not been able to create more equality. In this context, with the help of populist leaders, two scapegoats were identified during the Brexit campaign: European bureaucracy and mass immigration. There is a lot of irony in this since the UK is outside of Schengen and has a lot more control over non-EU migration. And because it is isolated on an island it has not faced the same flow of refugees from the Middle East and from North Africa.

Conclusion

32Populist leaders can only succeed when the system has failed and this is what happened in the United Kingdom. Brexit is the result of years of frustration and anger linked to the social and economic situation of the country. In other words, Brexit is a consequence, not a cause and the United Kingdom would probably still be in the European Union if voters had not lost all trust in traditional parties. Because neoliberalism has triumphed in western countries the Labour party had to adapt to come back to power with Tony Blair in 1997. Today, there is no real difference between the two main political parties and therefore voters decided to listen to a different type of politicians this time.

  • 46 Jessica Elgot, “Boris Johnson says shortages are result of ‘giant waking up’ of economy”, The Guard (...)

33Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage definitely used populist methods to attract voters and obtain a very short victory. We know that Nigel Farage left UKIP a few months after the referendum and created a new party, the Brexit Party, which he also left. He is currently not involved in British political life but that may be only temporary. As far as Boris Johnson is concerned, three years after the referendum, his insistence on implementing Brexit rapidly allowed him to become leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. But campaigning and governing are two different things, and it will be interesting to see if his methods are successful in the future, if he has the ability to remain in power and politically survive the problems linked to the post-Brexit period. As a matter of fact, Brexit is probably a turning point in the United Kingdom’s political history. First, populist ideas have won and the country now has a populist leader, something that would have been unthinkable before the debate about Britain’s membership of the European Union transformed everything. And as we have seen, populism can be a movement, a leader, a regime, or an idea but never all of these at the same time. At the moment, it is neither a movement nor a regime, only a leader with many communication tricks but few ideas that would really be life-changing for the country’s population. Indeed, post-Brexit Britain is facing a shortage of manpower in many sectors as rules concerning immigration have changed. This can have a negative impact on people’s lives as in the case of the fuel supply crisis. Until now, Boris Johnson has managed to convince people that there was no crisis and that difficulties were linked to the revival of the economy, a giant waking up according to him. He also said that the country was going through a long process whose goal was to increase productivity, wages and invest more in energy and infrastructure.46 And yet, there is already a disconnection between the Conservative Party manifesto of 2019 and reality. Several promises made before the election have not been kept and the population may realize that populism is not a viable option in the long term. In other words, the Brexit campaign with all its excesses has been the moment which allowed Boris Johnson to become a major political leader and eventually Prime Minister. But paradoxically Brexit and its aftermath could also be fatal to him and prove the limits of populist leadership.

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Bibliography

Breaugh, Martin, “Démocratie ou oligarchie ? Quelques réflexions sur notre situation politique actuelle”, Les ateliers de l’éthique, Volume 7, numéro 1, printemps 2012, pp.119-126.

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Notes

1 Respectively prime minister of the UK, former president of the United States, leader of the Rassemblement National in France, prime minister of Hungary, former deputy prime minister of Italy, former second deputy prime minister of Spain, former president of Venezuela and former prime minister of Greece.

2 Paul Taggart, Populism, Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2000, p. 2.

3 Ibid., p. 4.

4 Vincent Coussedière, Éloge du populisme (Seyssinet-Pariset, Élya, 2012), p. 61.

5 Martin Breaugh, « Démocratie ou oligarchie ? Quelques réflexions sur notre situation politique actuelle », Les ateliers de l’éthique, Volume 7, numéro 1, printemps 2012, pp.119-126.

6 Paul Hirst, Representative Democracy and its Limits (Oxford, Polity Press), 1990.

7 Frédérick Guillaume Dufour, Entre peuple et élite, le populisme de droite (Montréal, PUM), 2021.

8 Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, tome 1 (Paris, Flammarion, 1981), p. 230.

9 Pierre Rosanvallon, Le siècle du populisme (Paris, Seuil, 2020), p. 23.

10 Vincent Coussedière, Éloge du populisme, p. 21.

11 Paul Taggart, Populism (Maidenhead, Open University Press, 2000), p. 75.

12 Ivan Krastev, After Europe (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017), p.35.

13 Ibid., p. 91.

14 Alexandre Dorna, “Le néopopulisme et le charisme”, La tentation populiste au cœur de l’Europe (Paris, La découverte, 2003), pp. 89-100.

15 Paul Taggart, Populism, p. 88.

16 The New Republic, April 4th 1985.

17 Paul Taggart, Populism, p. 5.

18 Ibid., p. 4.

19 Ibid., p. 8.

20 Jon Stone, “Boris Johnson rejects ‘populist’ label”, The Independent, February 25th 2021.

21 Paul Lewis, Rage, rapture and pure populism: on the road with Nigel Farage, The Guardian, May 19th 2019.

22 Martin Fletcher, Boris Johnson peddled absurd EU myths – and our disgraceful press followed his lead, The New Statesman, July 1st 2016.

23 Jennifer Rankin and Jim Waterson, “How Boris Johnson’s Brussels-bashing stories shaped British politics”, The Guardian, July 14th 2019.

24 Boris Johnson, “Delors plans to rule Europe”, The Sunday Telegraph, May 3rd 1992.

25 James Tapsfield, “Have you gone bananas? Boris splits opinion with bizarre claims about EU rules on how big bunches should be”, Daily Mail, May 17th 2016.

26 Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate just as Hitler did”, The Sunday Telegraph, May 15th 2016.

27 Simon Winlow, Steve Hall, James Treadwell: The Rise of the Right, English nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics (Bristol, Policy Press, 2017).

28 Roger Martelli, L’identité c’est la guerre (Paris, Les liens qui libèrent, 2016).

29 Denis Staunton, “Boris Johnson accused of racism over Barack Obama remarks”, The Irish Times, April 23rd 2016.

30 Dan Sabbagh and Jennifer Rankin, “Boris Johnson wrongly denies stirring Turkey fears in Brexit campaign”, The Guardian, January 18th 2019.

31 Nigel Farage, in Simon Walters: “I’ll back Boris as PM if Britain leaves the EU”, Daily Mail, May 14th 2016.

32 Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, “Nigel’s Farage anti-migrant poster reported to police”, The Guardian, June 16th 2016.

33 Christian Dustmann, Tommaso Frattini, “The Fiscal effects of Immigration to the UK”, The Economic Journal Volume 124, Issue 580, November 2014. pp. 593-643.

34 Alexis de Tocqueville, De la démocratie en Amérique, tome 1 (Paris, Gallimard, 1992), p. 185.

35 Alexandre Dorna, “Le néopopulisme et le charisme”, La tentation populiste au cœur de l’Europe (Paris, La découverte, 2003), pp. 89-100.

36 Duncan Mc Donnell, Stefano Ondelli, “The Language of Right-Wing Populist Leaders: Not So Simple”, Perspectives on Politics, 2020, pp. 1-14.

37 Steve Buckledee, The Language of Brexit (London, Bloomsbury, 2018), pp. 54-55.

38 Ibid., p. 56.

39 https://blog.lboro.ac.uk/crcc/eu-referendum/uk-news-coverage-2016-eu-referendum-report-5-6-may-22-june-2016/ consulted February 15th 2022.

40 John A. Tures, “Thanks to Brexit, America Could Now Colonize Great Britain”, The Observer, May 23rd 2019.

41 Jon Henley, “Why Vote Leave £350m weekly EU cost is wrong”, The Guardian, June 10th 2016.

42 Elise Uberoi and Neil Johnston, “Political disengagement in the UK: who is disengaged?”, House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper Number CBP-7501, February 25th 2021, p. 34.

43 David Goodhart, The Road to Somewhere, The Populist revolt and the future of politics (London, Hurst & Company, 2017).

44 Rod Hick and Alba Lanau, In-work poverty in the UK: Problem, policy analysis and platform for action (Cardiff, Cardiff University, 2017), p. 3.

45 https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/personalandhouseholdfinances/incomeandwealth/bulletins/householdincomeinequalityfinancial/financialyearending2020provisional#measuring-the-data.

46 Jessica Elgot, “Boris Johnson says shortages are result of ‘giant waking up’ of economy”, The Guardian, October 5th 2021.

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References

Electronic reference

Youssef Ferdjani, The Populist Dimension of BrexitRevue Française de Civilisation Britannique [Online], XXVII-2 | 2022, Online since 15 June 2022, connection on 27 September 2022. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/rfcb/9503; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/rfcb.9503

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About the author

Youssef Ferdjani

Laboratoire Babel, Université de Toulon

Docteur, PRCE, enseigne la civilisation britannique. Ses recherches portent sur la vie politique au Royaume-Uni et la société britannique contemporaine.

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Copyright

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Creative Commons - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International - CC BY-NC-ND 4.0

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/

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