“Enemies of the people”? Diverging discourses on sovereignty in media coverage of Brexit


In November 2016, The Daily Mail ran a cover story with the now infamous title “Enemies of the People” attacking the three judges of the High Court of England and Wales who had ruled that the UK Government needed Parliament’s consent to give notice of Brexit. Debates on sovereignty were not only reflected on the pages of the print media but were often also steered by them as political players with their own agenda. This paper explores how the topic of sovereignty was represented by the British media using a qualitative content analysis of the most shared online articles on Brexit and a narrower subset of editorials in right-wing and left-wing newspapers. The paper shows that the left–right divide mattered greatly for how sovereignty was portrayed in pro-Leave media, but not at all in the pro-Remain media. While in the period before the referendum coverage of Brexit was marked by a conflict between national and supranational sovereignty, after the referendum the conflict between popular and parliamentary sovereignty became more prominent. Changes in the frames deployed over time suggest that newspapers instrumentalized some concepts of sovereignty to promote their agenda. Finally, the fact that some positions (such as the left-wing pro-Leave defence of democratic sovereignty) were almost absent in media discourse had important consequences for the public debate on the topic.

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  1. 1.

    Among the most useful lists was research by YouGov on How left or right-wing are UK’s newspapers? (Smith 2017), the Huffpost list on newspapers’ positions in the EU referendum (Ridley 2016) and a Dabbling with Data blog on the issue. To identify pro-Leave left media I counted on expert advice and triangulated their suggestions with Alexa data on popularity rankings and information on the circulation of papers (Statista 2019). Moreover, I conducted several pilot analyses, downloading articles by different media and reading through them in order to have an additional insight into the positioning of particular media.

  2. 2.

    Of course, it can be argued that economically liberal newspapers such as the Financial Times are more centrist than right-wing. Yet, with any dichotomous classification, choices have to be made and considering the FT’s past support for Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s policies, as well as their, albeit reluctant, support for Theresa May in the 2017 election, the year after the referendum, it made more sense to classify the newspaper as right- rather than left-wing.

  3. 3.

    This is a Boolean Search for all articles that contain the word Brexit AND either sovereign/sovereignty or control.

  4. 4.

    Daily Mail comment (12 October, 2016) Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3833496/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-Whingeing-Contemptuous-Unpatriotic-Damn-Bremoaners-plot-subvert-British-people.html.

  5. 5.

    Hall, M. (13 May 2016) BREXIT: Britons should grasp their chance says leading Kiwi. In: Express. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/world/669767/New-Zealand-QUIT-EU-future-exciting-Britain-votes-Brexit?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+daily-express-news-showbiz+%28Express+%3A%3A+News+%2F+Showbiz+Feed%29.

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    Maddox, D. (27 December, 2016) BREXIT BOOST: Britain will gain £24BILLION per year after EU exit—says new report. In: Express. Available at: https://www.express.co.uk/news/politics/747369/Brexit-boost-Britain-gain-billions-every-year-European-exit.

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    Daily Mail comment (28 July 2016) Another betrayal by Europe's pygmy tyrant. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3711793/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-betrayal-Europe-s-pygmy-tyrant.html.

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    Daily Mail comment (12 October 2016) Whingeing. Contemptuous. Unpatriotic. Damn the Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3833496/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-Whingeing-Contemptuous-Unpatriotic-Damn-Bremoaners-plot-subvert-British-people.html.

  9. 9.

    Daily Mail comment (2 July 2016) Stop panicking and put the country first. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3670895/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-Stop-panicking-country-first.html.

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    Daily Mail comment (20 March 2019) 1,000 days of incompetence, betrayal and now national humiliation… how DID victory turn to this? Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6828461/The-Daily-Mail-reviews-1-000-days-incompetence-Brexit-referendum.html.

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    Daily Mail comment (25 January 2017) DAILY MAIL COMMENT: This was not a good day for democracy…Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-4154526/DAILY-MAIL-COMMENT-not-good-day-democracy.html.

  13. 13.

    Daily Mail comment (25 September 2019) The real political vandals are the out of touch MPs blocking Brexit. So when will they give us an election? Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-7501269/The-real-political-vandals-touch-MPs-blocking-Brexit.html.

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    Cadwalladr, C. (7 May 2017) The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked. In: The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/may/07/the-great-british-brexit-robbery-hijacked-democracy.

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    Harford, T. (9 March 2017) The Problem with Facts, In: Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/eef2e2f8-0383-11e7-ace0-1ce02ef0def9.

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    Cadwalladr, C. (4 December 2016) Google, democracy and the truth about Internet Search. In: The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/04/google-democracy-truth-internet-search-facebook.

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    Penny, L. (24 June 2016) I want my country back. In The New Statesman. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/06/i-want-my-country-back.

  18. 18.

    Financial Times (15 June 2016) Britain should vote to stay in the EU. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/3748166e-3151-11e6-ad39-3fee5ffe5b5b.

  19. 19.

    Guardian opinion (8 September 2019) The Guardian view on the world and Brexit: rue Britannia. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/sep/08/the-guardian-view-on-the-world-and-brexit-rue-britannia.

  20. 20.

    Observer editorial (5 February 2017) The Observer view on parliament’s sovereignty over Brexit. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/05/parliament-must-ensure-second-brexit-referendum.

  21. 21.

    Financial Times (28 August 2019) Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament is an affront to democracy. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/9dbc7852-c9b2-11e9-af46-b09e8bfe60c0.

  22. 22.

    Guardian opinion (7 September 2017) The Guardian view on the Irish border: the UK’s Brexit blind spot. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/sep/07/the-guardian-view-on-the-irish-border-the-uks-brexit-blind-spot.

  23. 23.

    Financial Times (29 July 2019) Brexit has become the enemy of the UK union. In: The Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/98290d92-b1f7-11e9-bec9-fdcab53d6959.

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    Morning Star (6 November 2016) Left Must Lead on Brexit Plan. Available at: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-f2fd-left-must-lead-on-brexit-plan-1.

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    Morning Star (1 June 2017) Corbyn will give us the Brexit we want. Available at:https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-394e-corbyn-will-give-us-the-brexit-we-want-1.

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    Morning Star (8 January 2016) EU “new deal” is a swindle. Available at: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-345b-eu-new-deal-is-a-swindle-1.

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    Morning Star (3 November 2016) Fight for a People’s Brexit. Available at: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/a-4e2c-fight-for-a-peoples-brexit-1.

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    Morning Star (11 October 2019) Will Brexit boost the case for Irish unity? Available at: https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/e/will-brexit-boost-case-irish-unity.


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Rone, J. “Enemies of the people”? Diverging discourses on sovereignty in media coverage of Brexit. Br Polit (2021). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-021-00157-9

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  • Brexit
  • Referendum
  • Sovereignty
  • Media
  • Parliament
  • EU