The UK referendum on European Union membership exposed profound social and political divisions, rooted in the establishment of a neoliberal consensus that eclipsed the left and arguments against inequality, and intensified over several years of post-crisis austerity’s assault on the working poor, the disadvantaged and the immigrants. The narrow vote to leave confounded expectations on both sides of the referendum campaign, provoking a political crisis that has empowered a far right unlikely to address grievances, incited intense hostility between triumphant ‘leavers’ and dismayed ‘remainers’, and produced profound uncertainty about the future. This paper argues that while ‘Brexit’ has been characterized as a ‘people’s revolt’ against capitalist globalization, the decision to leave the EU has been aligned by a discourse of nativist nationalism and attempts to re-entrench an authoritarian Conservative hegemony; these attempts are, however, floundering which poses both opportunities and challenges for a resurgent parliamentary left and for radical grassroots politics going forward.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
UK Independence Party, founded in the early 1990s; a nativist far-right party that is anti-Europe, anti-immigration and anti-multiculturalism, and that seeks to promote ‘British values’.
For example, Daily Mail headlines Thousands of Illegal Workers Claiming Benefits. February 4th 2011: The ‘Swarm’ on our Streets. July 31st 2015. The Mail is one of the most widely read newspapers in the UK.
These were introduced by the New Labour government and were important in reducing poverty: they also, however, subsidize capital by encouraging low wages.
Graphically depicted in Ken Loach’s award winning film I, Daniel Blake.
For example, Daily Express 4th December 2011: Sick Benefits: 75% are faking . Daily Mail 21st July 2015: Migrants Milking Britain’s Benefits.
‘Of the 23 weekdays before the referendum, the Mail led with this immigration narrative on 17 of them’ (Adams 2017).
Support for ‘leave’ was 59% among the unemployed, 58% among low earners < £20,000) and 75% among those with no qualifications (Goodwin and Heath 2016).
Corbyn was subsequently ‘blamed’ by the PLP when ‘leave’ won, although 60% of Labour supporters voted remain, rather more than the Conservatives could boast. This led to a leadership challenge to Corbyn, in which his majority increased.
The Ashcroft poll (2016) reported that 70% of voters expected remain to win, including a majority of leave voters (54%).
35% of higher earners (> £60,000) and 41% of higher professionals supported leave (Goodwin and Heath 2016).
Anti-immigration sentiment is strong; for example, in a region I am familiar with, relatively affluent rural east midlands where immigration levels have been insignificant yet immigrants are routinely blamed for ‘the state of the country’ and St George’s flags flutter in the gardens of Daily Mail readers.
The Democratic Unionist Party is deeply reactionary party, anti-reproductive rights and anti-LGBT rights.
That contrast was especially apparent in their responses to a series of terrorist attacks in London, and in Manchester, and to the Grenfell House fire, where negligent privatized public housing safety oversight cost 80 lives.
The Labour party has, however, threatened to defeat the government’s ‘Great Repeal Bill’, designed to overturn European law, unless concessions are made on Brexit processes, which could well provoke a fatal crisis.
Adams, Tim. 2017. Is the editor of the Daily Mail the most dangerous man in Britain? The Guardian 14th May 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/media/2017/may/14/is-paul-dacre-most-dangerous-man-in-britain-daily-mail. Accessed 14 May 2017.
Ashcroft, Lord. 2016. How the United Kingdom voted on Thursday… and why. Lord Ashcroft Polls. http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/ Accessed 3 April 2017.
Badiou, Alain. 2008. The communist hypothesis. New Left Review 49: 29–42.
Block, Fred, and Margaret R. Somers. 2014. The power of market fundamentalism: Karl Polanyi’s critique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Bloodworth, James. 2014. Inequality: where Labour really did crash the car. Left Foot Forward. https://leftfootforward.org/2014/10/inequality-where-labour-really-did-crash-the-car/ Accessed 3 April 2017.
Boyle, Frankie. 2016. The Brexiteers look like villains cornered by Batman in a hall of mirrors. The Guardian. 31 May. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/31/brexit-referendum-campaigns-politicians?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other Accessed 31 May 2016.
Brown, Wendy. 2015. Undoing the demos. neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. New York: Zone Books.
Dropkin, Greg. 2016. Brexit: John Pilger is wrong. LabourNet UK. http://www.labournet.net/other/1607/brexit1.html. Accessed 8 August 2016.
Gentleman, Amelia. 2016. The IDS way: Victorian morality, reforming zeal and gross incompetence. The Guardian. 20 March. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/mar/20/ids-victorian-morality-reforming-zeal-gross-incompetence. Accessed 21 March 2016.
Geraghty, Kyle. 2017. Class and Brexit: or, why we should stop worrying about the working class and focus on capitalism. Salvage. March 2017. http://salvage.zone/in-print/class-and-brexit-or-why-we-should-stop-worrying-about-the-working-class-and-focus-on-capitalism/. Accessed 3 April 2017.
Goodwin, Matthew and Oliver Heath. 2016. Brexit vote explained: poverty, low skills and lack of opportunities. Joseph Rowntree Foundation. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/brexit-vote-explained-poverty-low-skills-and-lack-opportunities. Accessed 3 April 2017.
Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. In Selections from prison notebooks, ed. Geoffrey Nowell Smith and Quintin Hoare. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Key, Chris. 2017. Modelling the British economy after Brexit on Singapore is a really bad idea. The Independent. 19 January. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-singapore-british-economy-new-model-really-bad-idea-a7535226.html. Accessed 21 January 2017.
Kimber, Charlie. 2016. Why did Britain vote Leave? in International Socialism. Issue 152. http://isj.org.uk/why-did-britain-vote-leave/. Accessed 3 April 2017.
Krastev, Ivan. 2014. From politics to protest. Journal of Democracy 25 (4): 5–19.
Maiguascha, B., J. Dean, and D. Keith. 2016. Pulling together in a crisis? Anarchism, feminism and the limits of left-wing convergence in austerity Britain. Capital and Class 40 (1): 37–57.
Mouffe, Chantal. 1998. The radical centre: a politics without adversary. Soundings 9: 11-23.
Olusoga, David. 2017. Empire 2.0 is dangerous nostalgia for something that never existed. The Guardian. 19 March. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/mar/19/empire-20-is-dangerous-nostalgia-for-something-that-never-existed. Accessed 19 March 2017.
Perraudin, Frances. 2015. Marauding’ migrants threaten our standard of living, says Philip Hammond. The Guardian 9 August. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/aug/09/african-migrants-threaten-eu-standard-living-philip-hammond. Accessed 10 August 2015.
Pilger, John. 2016. A blow for peace and democracy: why the British said no to Europe. In Counterpunch, June 24th. Available at http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/06/24/a-blow-for-peace-and-democracy-why-the-british-said-no-to-europe/ Accessed 27 June 2016.
Polanyi, Karl. 2001. The great transformation: the political and economic origins of our time. Boston: Beacon Press.
Porcaro, Mimmo. 2012. Occupy Lenin. In The question of strategy: socialist register 2013, ed. Leo Panich, Greg Albo, and Vivek Chibber, 82–98. London: Merlin Press.
Rancière, Jacques. 2014. Hatred of democracy. London: Verso.
Richards, Dave and Martin Smith. 2017. “Things were better in the past”: Brexit and the Westminster fallacy of democratic nostalgia. Available at: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/81867/1/blogs.lse.ac.uk-Things%20were%20better%20in%20the%20past%20Brexit%20and%20the%20Westminster%20fallacy%20of%20democratic%20nostalgia.pdf. Accessed 3rd July 2017.
Saunders, C., Roth, S. and Olcese, C. 2015. Anti-cuts protests in the UK: are we really all in this together?’ In Austerity and Protest: Popular Contention in Times of Economic Crisis, eds. Giugni, Marco and Maria T Grasso, 171-190. Burlington: Ashgate Publishing.
Seymour, Richard. 2016. Union Jacks flutter over a widening gyre. Salvage. June 2016. http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/union-jacks-flutter-over-a-widening-gyre/ Accessed 29June 2016.
Seymour, Richard. 2017. What’s the matter with the ‘white working class’? Salvage. February 2017. http://salvage.zone/online-exclusive/whats-the-matter-with-the-white-working-class/. Accessed 13 April 2017.
Smith, Gavin. 2017. Intellectuals and (counter-) politics. New York: Berghahn.
Somerville, Will. 2007. The immigration legacy of Tony Blair. Migration Policy Institute. http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/immigration-legacy-tony-blair Accessed 4 May 2017.
Streek, Wolfgang. 2016. How will capitalism end? Essays on a failing system. London: Verso.
Watkins, Susan. 2016. Casting off? New Left Review 100 July–August, 5–31.
This study complies with the Journal’s ethical standards.
This study received no funding.
Conflict of interest
The author declares that she has no conflict of interest.
Rights and permissions
About this article
Cite this article
Powell, K. Brexit positions: neoliberalism, austerity and immigration—the (im)possibilities? of political revolution. Dialect Anthropol 41, 225–240 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10624-017-9469-2
- EU referendum
- Conservative hegemony
- Labour resurgence