The Media, National Identity and Brexit Politics

52% of the population – mostly from small towns and rural communities, mostly from older generations, mostly from England and mostly from the most impoverished communities in the UK have voted to take the UK out of the EU. 48% wanted to stay but in a simple 50/50 referendum the result is clear and decisive.

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These groups have different lives from one another, they have different experiences, worries and concerns and they are largely unrepresented in the media. The UK media is metropolitan, university educated and socially liberal (if economically conservative) – just like the political class. From Jeremy Corbyn to David Cameron (and including Nigel Farage whatever he might say). Andrew Marr, Robert Peston, the Dimbleby brothers and Evan Davies exist on the same continuum of privilege and are, collectively, the establishment. The Brexit vote has been seen as a working class rebellion against the distant and disinterested establishment. An ‘up yours’ from those who feel marginalised, alienated and unrepresented in our current democracy. A democracy where 5 million votes let to only 1 UKIP and 1 Green MP but 1 million votes in Scotland put 50+ SNP MPs in parliament. A democracy where your general election vote only counts if you live in a marginal seat, where 24% of the population voted Tory and this was enough for a majority in the House of Commons, a democracy where people who are ‘undecided’ get the casting vote.

The marginalised and alienated groups that voted Leave are statistically most likely to be affected by the austerity policies enacted by the government in the past 6 years. Austerity has led to cuts to local and national services, increased costs of and reduced access to training, rises in house prices and private indebtedness, tax cuts for the wealthiest and a low wage/benefit sanction/foodbank culture for the poorest. Programmes like Channel 4’s Benefits Street and the cultural debates it inspired showed how ‘divide and conquer’ was being used as a political strategy to pit ‘workers’ against ‘shirkers’. Creating a culture of bitterness and envy began to naturalise the idea that social welfare cuts for the disabled and the unemployed were justified because some people are ‘undeserving’.

Economic inequality is high and there has been a noticeable decline of social mobility over the past few years. We were a divided nation long before the EU referendum was offered as a manifesto promise by David Cameron. An act many see to try to quieten a Euro-sceptic minority in his own party and an attempt to stop Tory voters defecting to UKIP in the 2015 general election.

Another ‘divide and conquer’ technique employed initially by UKIP and more recently the Leave campaign is based around immigration. The idea of economic migrants, refugees and the free movement of people from within the EU has been collapsed into one simple problem – overcrowding caused by foreigners coming to the UK. Foreigners became the scapegoat for concerns about our stretched and underfunded public services and the problems people face in a low wage economy. Perhaps it has been easier to blame foreigners rather than the systematic cuts to funding and the lack if investment that has been the ideological economic strategy adopted by the Conservative government. The repetition of the narrative has, it turns out, proved to be extremely powerful with many who voted Leave citing immigration as the main reason for this decision.

This idea of the immigrant bases itself on ideas of national identity and ideas of Englishness and Britishness have been central to both campaigns in the referendum. ’In’ and ‘out’ voters, however, have different ideas of national identity and the Leave campaign were particularly adept at identifying a specific version of national identity and tapping into it.

This campaign video is a montage of ‘patriotic’ images linked together by Farage’s voice over. The video connects World War II, The Monarchy, The Falklands, Cricket, Football and our industrial and rural past with the word ‘independence’ and, in doing so, clearly identifies who Farage sees as the target audience for his message. This is a video tapping into nostalgia for a UK of the past and that feels disconnected from the politicians and institutions of today. This idea of ‘Britishness’ taps into the ‘Keep Calm/Bake Off’ culture that has been present over the last few years. Some have argued this acts as a comfort blanket reminding us all of better times or when we (as Brits) had to show strength in the face of adversity. This is a popular image of ‘plucky-Brits’ facing danger with a ‘stiff upper lip’ and a ‘Blitz mentality’ enabling us to survive the war. Interestingly those that remain from the WW2 generation were more likely to vote for Remain as they had lived through a Europe wide conflict once – and had no desire for it to happen again.

It pays the media to help us construct a national identity. The news media often needs to create an idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ to help simplify complex issues based on ideas of otherness whether that’s Russian, Muslim or European otherness. The news media also likes to create a sense of unity around events such as sport and royal celebrations. These constructs of identity help the media find and engage with their target audience. It also pays the media to divide us along these lines as conflict helps to create drama and, most importantly in this digital age, audience engagement.

Characters like Nigel Farage can be guaranteed to create emotional responses in the audience. His outspoken ways inflame anger in some and create a sense of belonging in others. Emotional responses are crucial for political programmes such as Today, Question Time and Peston’s Politics. The more passionate the audience feel the more likely they are to engage in debates and discussions on social media that act to promote the programme and raise its profile. Back before the 2015 election people were asking why the leader of a party with no MPs (at the time) appeared on the BBC so often. Farage appeared often on Question Time and was regularly used by BBC News as an ‘alternative voice’. He was offered a stronger media presence than representatives of the Green Party who had an MP sitting in the House of Commons. Farage makes for exciting and provocative TV and radio and deliberately or not, the BBC acted to steer the debates to the EU and immigration by giving UKIP a seat at the debating table. Constant repetition of ideas help them to stick – help them to feel natural.



  • Fact: Multi-billionaire Richard Desmond (the 48th richest man in Britain according to the Sunday Times Rich List) owns The Express Newspaper.
  • Fact: Billionaire Richard Desmond has donated £1.3 million to support UKIP

The need for dramatic narratives and the construction of conflict is central to how the press (on and offline) select stories and apply their news values. Within two hours of Hilary Benn appearing on The Andrew Marr Show after being sacked by Jeremy Corbyn (26th June 2016), The Guardian’s coverage of events had elicited almost 7000 comments. All clicks and comments on this story of conflict and strict within the Labour party add to the revenue The Guardian could hope to raise via advertising. Comments below the line show anger and frustration from all sides of the political divide and The Guardian opinion writers are positioned to provoke more and more emotional responses.

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This tabloidisation of the news media has seen a prioritising of ‘click bait’ stories and opinions, the rise of professional agitators like David Starkey and Katie Hopkins as the irrationality of emotions becomes much more profitable than facts or the truth – something our politicians (on all sides) are aware of too. ‘Project Fear’ attempted to frighten people to vote Remain whilst Leave campaigners offered things they had no authority to offer (despite the promises, Remain are now saying £350 million per week won’t necessarily be spent on the NHS now we’re out), told outright lies about the negative impact of immigration (in fact immigration brings more money into the UK than it takes out), the reason for a lack of school places (rather than immigration, it is a lack of investment in social infrastructure and the de-professionalisation of teachers that has caused the current crisis in education) and the impact the EU has on the way bunches of bananas are sold (none). A key Remain campaigner, Daniel Hannan has identified that immigration is unlikely to be reduced and the free movement of labour (workers) will continue to be an important part of the post-Brexit economy.

The referendum campaigns, along with Trump’s presidential one in the US, are being called examples of post-truth politics – which is a polite way of saying politicians are making stuff up and voters are being lied to.

Despite the fact that people have access to instant facts and figures via the internet, ironically the internet makes post-truth politics possible. Misinformation is spread on social media (and the mainstream media too) and misunderstandings go viral and become ‘the truth’. Some people may learn the actual truth but others do not and so misinformation can easily replace facts. Finding the truth takes effort and is not always easy. The truth is often complex and rarely offers simple answers to complex questions. Some politicians actively dismiss the idea of using facts or the outcome of research or analysis saying that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ (Gove). After all, who needs experts in a post-truth world? The BBC were criticised in the final couple of weeks of the referendum for not taking politicians to task when they gave false or misleading information. The BBC, in an attempt to appear politically neutral, often failed to challenge politicians on both sides in their use of ‘statistics’ and ‘information’. Impartiality apparently more important than providing accurate information in a campaign that was based on guessing and speculation in both the Leave and Remain camps. Sadly, this means that votes could well have been cast on both sides based on misunderstandings that now have a concrete reality. As early as the day after voting, some voters were expressing regret and a desire to have a do-over. It seems that some had become so used to their vote not counting, it came as a surprise that in this case, it did.

The Channel 4 programme An Immigrant’s Guide to Britain took a tongue in cheek approach to our cultural diversity and integration by offering advice to people coming to the UK as to how to deal with British food, social behaviours and attitudes. In doing so, this comedy show identified ‘typical’ British traits such as banter, our fixation with the weather, nights out drinking, caravanning and eating pies. What is clear from the programme there is not one single idea of British Identity that is shared by all – we are a diverse and disparate group of people.

If you are not a royalist nor a football/X Factor fan it can sometimes feel tricky to identify as British or English sometimes as these are the identifiers so often used in the media. In the days of Britpop, union flags and ‘cool Britannia’ became marketing tropes. More recently James Bond, Adele and Coldplay contribute to a version of ‘Brand Britain’ that is sold around the world. You don’t have to like Bond and Adele to be British of course. There are many things that people have been able to take on board as cultural definers – many bought together in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the 2012 Olympics. British identity – English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish has always been complex, contradictory and perverse. Hence it being incredibly difficult for us to define. The idea of Britishness is even more difficult to understand. In the past it has been our forward looking, tolerant attitude that many people have felt defines us as British despite our differences as Welsh, English Scottish and Norther Irish. However, an ‘English’ identity seems to resonate more with people than a ‘British’ one.

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The excellent John Harris series Anywhere but Westminster gives us an insight into the complexities of our national identity and over the years has made it very clear that there has been a divide brewing. In the EU referendum, the country was asked to consider a simple binary ‘in’ or ‘out’ and in so doing created the perfect place to express this divide.

As we’ve seen over the post-referendum weekend we are not a ‘united kingdom’ with shared values and attitudes. We are divided by class, geography, education and age. The Conservative party leader has handed his resignation in and at the time of writing, the Labour party is in a dire positon with a challenge on its leader from the members of the shadow cabinet. In three days, the two leading parties find themselves engaging in power grabs, the pound has crashed in value and billions have been wiped off the value of the stock market and discussion over the weekend suggests businesses could be cutting jobs, stopping recruitment and, in some cases, relocating away from the UK. A huge social and economic upheaval has been voted for in the slimmest of margins with clear differences of opinion being shown between different demographics.

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Many Leave voters may be surprised by the way promises are now being backed away from and how ideas like the NHS investment and even the reduction of numbers of immigrants are unlikely to be seen in a post-Brexit world. Commentators are speculating that Boris Johnson never thought he could win and his attachment to the Leave campaign was part of a career strategy that had an unintended consequence. Whatever happens next the news media will probably still provoke emotions and focus on conflict while the people wait and see how the establishment will deal with the outcomes of the referendum.

We live in interesting times.


Some Further Reading

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