National Populist Symbolism

How does critical sociological work on ‘race’ and class help us move beyond symbolic stories of Brexit?

In the build-up to the 2016 European Union (EU) Referendum, ‘analysts concluded that there was ‘little risk’ of an anti-establishment backlash for then Prime Minister, David Cameron’ (Goodwin et al., 2017) but the result that followed sent shockwaves across the global political landscape.

Numerous political framings emerged in the wake of the ‘Brexit’ vote, seeking to explain how the status quo had been rocked so royally; some blamed it on a loss of national sovereignty to the EU; others working class Britons voicing their discontent about years of austerity; and many focused on public anxieties over immigration. However, there was a common theme amongst these explanations, that was the symbolic body of ‘left behind’ Britons, often posited as being ‘white and working class’ (Bhambra, 2017: 217). Critical sociological work on ‘race’ and class provides us with the tools to approach these symbolistic arguments in a more nuanced manner, by genuinely engaging with the emerging culture divide in UK politics. Bhambra states that rationalising the Brexit vote in these symbolistic ways risks conflating ‘socio-economic position with racialised identities’ and therefore can diminish the value of identity politics in understanding the UK’s political shift. (Bhambra, 2017: 217)

The vote itself highlights clear, but intricate fractures in the UK’s population, only emphasised further by the 2019 General Election results. Dubbed the Brexit Election, this was an opportunity for voters to realign themselves with rising national populism in the country and regain autonomy by expressing their desire to ‘Get Brexit Done’. The climate of stagnation perpetuated by the right-wing press (Alleyne, 2017) played into the hands of the UK’s technocratic right, as they were able to portray the opposition as cosmopolitan blockage, which undoubtedly influenced the further disruption of the UK’s ‘long-term tribal allegiances’ (Goodwin, 2018).  Yet again the Labour Party finds itself in an existential crisis, after refusing to accept that it relied on a structurally unsound electoral foundation. However, Labour falling to its largest defeat in over 80 years does not come as a surprise to some, most notably, Adam Przeworski, in Capitalism and Social Democracy (1985). Przeworski predicted that social democracy’s electorate was going to gradually, over time, become increasingly incoherent and divided between ‘university educated, middle-class’ voters and the remaining ‘socially conservative, working class’ voters (Przeworski, 1985), and with two thirds of Labour held seats voting Leave in the 2016 EU Referendum, it is clear that this cultural divide Przeworski predicted is beginning to materialise in Socially Democratic parties, like Labour. However, this essay is focused on the fundamental components of the Brexit vote and how sociological analysis has helped to better understand them, so on the topic of the collapse of Labour’s ‘Red Wall’, we will move North to look at the misappropriation of Sunderland as a symbol of the vote to leave the EU (Jackson, 2016).

In the aftermath of Brexit, attempts to highlight areas that have experienced post-industrial decline, particularly northern constituencies like Sunderland, as the crux of the Brexit methodology, personally became part of the issue. Lumping Briton’s from de-industrialised towns and cities together, and anthropologising that their decision was simply one of uneducated bigotry missed the narrative that the Leave campaign developed, which was one of culturally conservative, traditional, national identity. In order to progress beyond the anecdotal condemnation of cities to bigot status, Jackson engaged with the work of sociologist Anoop Nayak. Nayak’s research offers case studies of three specific subcultural youth groups in the North East, whose identities (Real Geordies, Charver Kids and Wiggers) are divided and differentiated by their closeness to Localist, Survivalist and Globalist ideologies respectively (Nayak, 2003). This work sought to make the case that subcultural studies have clearly overemphasized ‘race’ when studying non-white Britons, citing that “an over-racialization of visible minorities results in a de-racialization of ethnic majorities” (Nayak, 2003: 139) which constrains one’s ability to approach the issue of rising romantic nationalism in the UK.

To further explore the idea of romantic nationalism, we will engage with elements of the Leave campaign that played on a certain colonial nostalgia and mobilised anti-immigrant sentiment. The work of Virdee and McGeever (2018) addresses this directly and postulates that the Brexit vote actually comprised of two inherently contradictory but inter-locking visions of Britishness, the first was a ‘deep nostalgia for empire’ (Virdee & McGeever, 2018: 1803), which engaged with the issue of colonial reflection and was activated through ‘long-standing racialized structures of feeling about immigration and national belonging’ (Virdee & McGeever, 2018: 1803). The second, was more insular and sceptical of globalised structures, ‘Powellite’ (Virdee & McGeever, 2018: 1804) in its narrative of retreat. Throughout the campaign, the Leave side, more nativist in its ethic (Alleyne, 2017), played on existing racialized feeling within the UK, stoking ‘anti-EU and moreover anti-immigrant sentiment’ (Goodwin et al., 2017) in its slogans, speeches and leaflets. This familiar theme was ever-present in the language of Nigel Farage, whose ‘right-wing claims about potential mass immigration played into both public fears and the idea that the ordinary man or woman in the street is being sold-out by out-of-touch elites.’ (Geddes, 2013: 247)

Alexandra Bulat’s (2017) discourse analysis of Leave campaign leaflets suggested that the rapidly emerging literature on Brexit ‘lacked a detailed analysis on the nature of immigration arguments’ (Bulat, 2017: 1). Stating that campaign leaflets successfully mobilised existing anti-immigrant sentiment through the formulation of the ‘desirable’ and ‘undesirable migrant’ (Bulat, 2017: 1). Furthermore, there was a marked lack of Remain arguments and leaflets that provided a platform for voice of EU migrants, in fact there were none. This suggested that they were ‘spoken for’ (Bulat, 2017: 4) and not only did this unfairly represent the UK’s migrant population (Bulat, 2017), but this enabled the Leave campaign to mobilise national protectionist sentiment completely unchallenged.

‘Europe’s neoliberal consensus has been drastically unsettled’ (Virdee & McGeever 2018), and the culture divide between traditional, socially conservative classes and socially liberal, cosmopolitan classes is only expanding. Therefore, with national populism on the rise, and the future of post-Brexit Britain proving to be uncertain, it is clear that sociological and cultural analysis hold enormous responsibility in helping us understand the changing political tide, ensuring that we move beyond symbolistic binaries of Brexit that only further strengthen the politics of division.


Alleyne, B. (2017) ‘Not in the Family Portrait: BME Voters and Brexit.’
Bhambra, G. (2017) ‘Brexit, Trump and Methodological Whiteness.’ British Journal of Sociology.
Bulat, A. (2017) ‘The brightest and the best’ London: LSE.
Geddes, A. (2013)  ‘Britain and the European Union.’ Palgrave Macmillan.
Goodwin, M. (2018) ‘National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.’ (2018)
Goodwin, M. Clarke, M.D. & Whiteley, P. (2017) ‘Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union.’ Cambridge University Press.
Jackson, E. (2016) ‘On the Mis/uses of Sunderland as Brexit Symbol.’
Nayak, A. (2003) ‘Race, Place and Globalization: Youth Cultures in a Changing World.’
Przeworski, A. (1985) ‘Capitalism and Social Democracy.’
Virdee, S & McGeever, B. (2018) Racism, Crisis, Brexit, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:10, 1802-1819.

(Oli Scharff/AFP/Getty Images)

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