Brexit Populism: The Thick (and Thin) of It

No.1(2018)

Abstract
On 24 June 2016, a narrow majority of citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, a decision which has exposed deep divisions in British society. This article analyses the extent to which the campaign to leave the EU and its aftermath can be explained in terms of existing definitions of ‘populism’. It distinguishes between a ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ ideology of populism. Whereas the ‘thin’ ideology refers to a specific political method or style, one which claims to represent the ‘true people’ against a ruling elite, the ‘thick’ ideology focuses on substantial ideological elements, e.g. authoritarian and nationalist worldviews. The paper demonstrates that the Brexit campaign has been dominated by exclusive, right-wing populist ideas. In order to understand the appeal of populist parties and movements in the UK, the paper explores the multi-layered factors that have led to widespread support for the anti-European and anti-immigration politics. It argues that a mix of economic, political and cultural disenfranchisement is a root cause of the vote for Brexit. In this light, the Brexit rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ can be interpreted as a (problematic) attempt to overcome disenfranchisement.

Keywords:
United Kingdom; Brexit; UKIP; populism; disenfranchisement; ideology.
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