Professor of Political
Psychology, Bournemouth University
In December 2015, only
six months before
the EU referendum and after nearly
three years of anticipating it,
just 1% of the sample cited Europe
as the most important issue of the day. By April 2019 that figure
jumped to 59%.
And not only then:
This data does not support a view of Britain's relationship with Europe as the cause of a longstanding and deep split within the British people.
Instead it points to the
referendum and the propaganda around it - before and since - as
causing the split. Prior to 2016, although people differed in their
views of Europe - sometimes strongly - it was never, for most, the
overriding issue which it has become.
While inequality and immigration are important to understanding BREXIT, this sort of analysis does not provide us with a full explanation for its current all-consuming primacy.
It has been suggested that hostility to immigration has been in sharp decline since 2010, and so the referendum vote was not driven by an onrushing wave of such feeling.
Nor can the theory of the
BREXIT vote as expressing the pain of those "left behind" by
globalization, explain the Leave votes that came from people
who lead comfortable and secure lives.
We can attribute this, at least in part, to a background throb of anti-EU propaganda in sections of the British press. But then there was a huge leap in anti-EU feeling.
In 2015, only 22% wanted to leave the EU yet, as we know, 52% voted to leave in the referendum held the following year.
This inflation of
euro-phobia, which provoked alarm among Remainers, was more
or less simultaneous with the rapid installation, noted above, of
BREXIT as the major national issue.
outside parliament in 2017. PA
There were no events in the world to which people were responding as they coalesced into opposing camps - except the referendum itself, and the rhetoric which had crystallized around it.
BREXIT is a major example
of a shift which took place almost entirely within what we can call
the emotional public sphere, the
mood and preoccupations of a national public, which is often heavily
shaped by dominant media agendas and messages.
Remainers, for their part, found a new focus for suspicion and negativity towards the culturally unwashed, as some tended to see the bulk of the Leave vote.
Told that they were all
in irreconcilable conflict with each other, many of the British
people believed it and felt it.
On both sides, membership of a community of self-confidence and self-righteousness seemed to beckon, an antidote to the widespread sense of precarity and confusion.
The BREXIT question offered people the increasingly scarce experience of being sure, clear and together with others.
In a world where it can
be increasingly difficult to feel at home, and to know what we
should be doing, this is a powerfully attractive experience - none
the less so for being, in this case, illusory.
A small anti-EU minority laid the fuse, but the rest of the public proved highly combustible.
Getting to the bottom of
how and why BREXIT has blown up as it has, will be essential to the
work of repairing and improving British democracy...