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Brexit positions: neoliberalism, austerity and immigration—the (im)possibilities? of political revolution


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.

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  1. Progressive examples include the students’ Fund Our Future, Occupy, and the Trade Unions Council’s March for the Alternative (Saunders et al. 2015); Left Unity and the People’s Assembly Against Austerity (Maiguascha et al. 2016).

  2. 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’.

  3. 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.

  4. These were introduced by the New Labour government and were important in reducing poverty: they also, however, subsidize capital by encouraging low wages.

  5. Graphically depicted in Ken Loach’s award winning film I, Daniel Blake.

  6. For example, Daily Express 4th December 2011: Sick Benefits: 75% are faking . Daily Mail 21st July 2015: Migrants Milking Britain’s Benefits.

  7. ‘Of the 23 weekdays before the referendum, the Mail led with this immigration narrative on 17 of them’ (Adams 2017).

  8. 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).

  9. 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.

  10. The Ashcroft poll (2016) reported that 70% of voters expected remain to win, including a majority of leave voters (54%).

  11. 35% of higher earners (> £60,000) and 41% of higher professionals supported leave (Goodwin and Heath 2016).

  12. 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.

  13. The Democratic Unionist Party is deeply reactionary party, anti-reproductive rights and anti-LGBT rights.

  14. 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.

  15. 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.


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Correspondence to Kathy Powell.

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Powell, K. Brexit positions: neoliberalism, austerity and immigration—the (im)possibilities? of political revolution. Dialect Anthropol 41, 225–240 (2017).

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  • Austerity
  • Immigration
  • EU referendum
  • Conservative hegemony
  • Labour resurgence