Book Review: Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from Itself by Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese

In Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from ItselfLorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese offer an innovative look at citizenship, grounded in the development of a transnational civil society sphere across Europe. This is an ambitious, perceptive and clear-sighted argument for a transnational citizenship and politics, writes Ben Margulies, that also details the political project required to make it a reality. 

Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe can be Saved from Itself. Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese. Zed Books. 2018.

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Politics is a realm of abstract nouns and concepts, and we often use or pass over these without too much interrogation. ‘Citizenship’ is among these terms. It is a legal status, or a vague exhortation to public-spiritedness, or a legal burden to acquire or overcome.

This is unfortunate, because the institution of citizenship is especially relevant to the dilemmas and grievances of modern politics. Citizenship is what Isaiah Berlin would characterise as a form of ‘positive liberty’ – a freedom to do something, specifically to actively participate in the acts and processes of governance. If the chief complaints of the populist age are a sense of powerlessness and neglect, then citizenship is an obvious solution.

But citizenship of what? Populists – left and especially those designated ‘radical right’ – typically answer with ‘the people’ or ‘the nation’. Those populists on the radical right seek to make that citizenship meaningful by drawing thick borders around the body of citizens (‘nativism’) and by advocating direct democracy over the representative sort. Centre-right politicians have also embraced this framework in a bid to meet citizen dissatisfaction – this is what Theresa May meant in her 2016 party conference speech, when she said:

But today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

May’s speech provides the launchpad for Citizens of Nowhere: How Europe Can Be Saved from Itself, an innovative look at citizenship from authors Lorenzo Marsili and Niccolo Milanese published by Zed Books. Marsili and Milanese are London-based activists and the founders of European Alternatives, which encourages the development of a transnational civil society sphere across Europe.

Marsili and Milanese’s work extrapolates from sources and arguments which have been aired elsewhere in the debate over Europe’s future. Where their book shines, however, is in analysing the relationship between citizenship and governance – not just the nation state, but the means and institutions by which we are governed.

Marsili and Milanese’s core argument is that citizenship is only meaningful in relation to the fact of being governed. This means that nation-state citizenship is no longer uniquely relevant, because ‘the governing political elites are spread between international and non-national institutions and authorities’ (83). Since citizenship is only truly valuable as a means of self-government and accountability, then national citizenship is insufficient – it cannot provide self-government in a context where much of government occurs beyond the nation state, or beyond any state, in the realm of the global market. Without some sort of transnational citizenship, most people lack any agency: ‘the vast majority of us are ‘‘citizens of nowhere’’ to some extent, and we will remain so until we invent political forms of agency that are equal to the forces shaping our world’ (4). This disempowerment also prevents us from imagining alternative futures to the neoliberal order, and this too makes us ‘citizens of nowhere’, as ‘meaningful political citizenship requires the possibility of acting in support of what currently seems impossible’ (12).

Image Credit: (Pixabay CC0)

Citizens of Nowhere offers a detailed exposition of how a focus on the national impedes effective political campaigning and organisation. On the one hand, fantasies of seceding from the global market and creating an autarkic nationalist bastion cannot work. A nation state could withdraw from common monetary, commercial or juridical agreements:

But given that each state would remain subject to some of the governance authorities and would need to trade with others, cooperate militarily, rely on international law and so on, the harm to which they would subject themselves by leaving some elements of the international system would surely undermine internal support for pulling out totally (82)

At the same time, existing transnational institutions are designed to exclude democratic participation and contestation. The end result is a nationally focused politics which obscures the common economic condition of those exploited under neoliberalism, and the common political condition of ‘being governed’, citing Michel Foucault (148).

The book also contains a number of interesting passages on the various threats to and manipulations of citizenship. Massili and Milanese devote a chapter to how citizenship has been devalued by its sale to wealthy investors, and by the willingness of states to strip nationality from citizens on national security grounds (creating ‘disposable citizens’). States also claim – as May did – that citizenship cannot exist unless borders are closed and harshly policed to keep outsiders from accessing its privileges. Citizenship becomes not a right to do anything for oneself, but to exclude and punish others – because that is all that citizens under neoliberalism are really allowed to do. ‘Sovereignty is configured as the power to decide who loses their rights’ (148).

What really shines through in the text is the idea that citizenship cannot be fully national, because it rests ultimately on a fundamental conception of human equality. Massili and Milanese link the concept back to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), the first French human-rights legislation. The authors observe that this declaration spoke not of French rights, but universal rights, and that the revolutionary regime freely granted citizenship to noted foreign liberals until 1793 (137-39). Thus, migrants are citizens because all human beings are.

The authors’ solution to the gap between citizens and the transnational system that rules them is to create a ‘transnational’ party. This party, like the neoliberal elite, would be ‘promiscuous’ in its activities – it would act at all levels of governance (national and supranational), and in both governmental and non-governmental spheres. ‘The party would be placed simultaneously beyond and between formal institutions of state and politics’, and ‘would care for all the ways in which politics is conducted outside the institutions’ (194). It would transcend ‘inter-national’ approaches that take nation states as the main actors in supranational politics, and it would create the subject, the demos, necessary for such a transnational democratic politics (‘for a democracy, you do not need a people, you need parties!’ (190)).

Of course, everyone wants an open, liberal party rooted in a vibrant grassroots activism. Every political activist – or, at least, those who tend to call themselves progressive – wants their party to be ‘a space of coordination and collaboration’ with a mission to ‘multiply civic energy by creating connections’ (199), rather than a top-down structure reminiscent of Robert Michels’s ‘iron law of oligarchy’. In practice, the literature doesn’t give Massili and Milanese much cause for hope – typically, left-wing parties that grow from or in tandem with social movements, like Podemos (Spain), Syriza (Greece) or the Workers’ Party (Brazil), find that, once in power, they tend to draw the social movement activists into office and focus on electoral concerns. The grassroots tend to wither as a result. One of Podemos’s early notables complained in Jacobin recently about how the party had few militants and an insular, elitist leadership.

Citizens of Nowhere has a few flaws. The discussion of neoliberalism, though necessary, is something of a potted history. The authors also have a tendency to speak of neoliberalism as if it were a unitary actor, manipulating national differences in order to befuddle and frustrate the common people. Though neoliberal elites are certainly capable of a bit of national chauvinism, this rhetoric incorrectly implies that neoliberal elites act in concert, which Brexit surely disproved. It also implies that neoliberal politicians and economists are not themselves socialised to nationalism, embodying the contradictions between the national and the international in themselves. Again, the desire from a post-Brexit ‘global Britain’ would seem to illustrate this point.

Though the authors’ overview of history and contemporary politics is a bit uninspired, Citizens of Nowhere is nevertheless an ambitious and perceptive book. It advances an innovative and clear-sighted argument for a transnational citizenship and politics, and a detailed political project for making that citizenship a reality. The question at hand is whether that project can outpace the nationalist, nativist turn of our contemporary politics.

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This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.

Ben Margulies is a lecturer in political science at the University of Brighton. He was previously a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Warwick. He specialises in European, comparative and party politics.

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Despicable migrants? UK’s treatment of foreign criminals will only harden after Brexit

An increasing number of EU nationals who have committed crimes find themselves being deported. In the context of the UK’s tortured departure from the EU, the deportation of foreign criminals has become a touchstone of British notions of the public goodwrites Nevena Nancheva (Kingston University London). She argues that the UK has effectively curtailed the rights of what it sees as a particularly despicable group of migrants – foreign criminals. Rather than looking at its own inequalities, it has chosen to tighten its physical and invisible borders. 

Britain used to deport its criminals. In fact, it used to deport all ‘wicked and evil-disposed persons’ whom the judges were too merciful to execute instantaneously for a long list of crimes against property, or indeed, for being idle or seeking employment, as section V of the Transportation Act of 1717 mandates. Such offenders were transported originally to the West Indies (where they habitually neglected to stay), then to America (a secret often brushed under the carpet by American historians and politicians alike), then, amidst the turmoil of American revolution and to prevent the French from extending their empire, to Australia in 1787.

In those days, the dispossessed, the idle, the vagrant, the lewd fell into the category of criminals because they threatened the established social order. They were bound for expulsion to protect sovereign landowners, the common good, and the good society. The mobile, in particular, were frowned upon as ‘the chrysalis for every species of criminal’. From a longue durée historical perspective, Bridget Anderson spends a lot of time unpacking the link between vagrancy and criminality in Britain, positioning the migrant as essentially a ‘failed citizen’.

Today, we begrudgingly agree that our criminals, petty or not, are our own problem and should not be dumped on indigenous peoples around the world. (That is, unless we can strip them of their citizenship and invite Bangladesh to deal with them!) Foreign criminals, however, are a totally different matter: a cause célèbre for a host of Labour and Tory leaders, the deportation of foreign criminals has gradually become the norm, rather than the exception to the rule.

Changing the rule book

The notion of Britain’s ‘public good’ has remained intrinsically linked to this development: under the 1971 Immigration Act, non-citizens are liable to deportation if this is deemed to be ‘conducive to the public good’ (section 3(5)). There is no explicit mention of criminality in this law, but the 2007 UK Borders Act amends the omission by explaining that ‘the deportation of a foreign criminal is conducive to the public good’ for the purposes of the above (section 32).

The amendment came after a string of scandals and heated public debates over the fate of some 1,023 foreigners who had been released from British prisons into society since 1999, rather than considered for deportation, costing the office of the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke. It is perhaps not coincidental that these discussions arose in the process of EU enlargement to the 10 former communist states of Central and Eastern Europe. Even though regions in turmoil (such as Somalia) or human rights (e.g. international refugee protection) were cited at the time as constraints on deporting foreign criminals, Charles Clarke went on to write a book about the threat of migration within the EU, capturing a long-standing concern of the British public with the open borders and the freedom of movement which the EU seemed to be all about.

The invisible boundaries of Britain

In the context of Brexit and UK’s tortured extraction from the EU, the deportation of foreign criminals has become an interesting touchstone of British notions of the public good: that elusive abstraction which pits the lives and rights of concrete men, women and children against a fuzzy and imagined, but clearly incomparably more significant, entity: the nation. In 2018, I conducted a pilot study of the impact of deportation on the families of foreign criminals in the designated foreign nationals male prison HMP Maidstone. What I discovered in my conversations with matter-of-fact prison wives, is that the law is implemented with implicit disregard for the integrity of their families and the welfare of their children. That the much-lauded ‘public good’, upheld in the letters from the Home Office and the decisions by the judges, should trump the best interests of these families points to the boundaries of Britain’s community of value. As the Brexit dynamics narrows these boundaries, the distinctions between those who clearly do not belong (such as foreign criminals) and those who should belong but are not really welcome (such as EU nationals) become blurred.

Image: author’s, Walls of HMP Maidstone, The Visits Building (1819).

No Article 8 rights for foreign criminals

Even the immigration-control-obsessed 2007 UK Borders Act provides an exception (section 33(2)(a)) to the deportation of foreign criminals in cases where the removal of an individual would breach his or her rights under the European Convention on Human Rights, in particular the right to family and private life under Article 8. Before a decision for deportation was made, the individual’s rights would be weighed against the public interest on the basis of a five-stage test (the case of R (Razgar) v SSHD [2004] UKHL 27), normally by a panel of judges at a tribunal, covering a wide variety of factors (‘as varied as life itself’, lawyer Nick Nason sympathetically explains). These rules were swiftly changed, first by the executive in 2012 and then by the legislature in 2014, to limit the cases when individual rights would disable deportation, and to give decisively greater weight to the public interest.

Thus, a prison sentence of anything more than 12 months could justify interference with the rights of a foreign citizen to maintain his or her spousal or parental relationships in the UK, which would otherwise have been protected under human rights legislation. The Secretary of State’s practice to ‘certify’ these rights as ‘clearly unfounded’ (aka ‘deport now, appeal later’) aimed at ‘cracking down on the appeals conveyor belt used by criminals to delay their removal from the UK’, as then Immigration Minister James Brokenshire claimed after the practice was upheld at the court of appeal in 2015.

Disturbing stories began to emerge of petty criminals being ‘treated like animals’, apprehended when signing on with the Home Office and rushed on chartered flights to Jamaica at the break of dawn. Even as the Supreme Court ultimately ruled the system for deportation before appeal unlawful, the Windrush scandal followed in 2018, to illustrate the extreme extents to which Britain’s fascination with deportations had legitimised the practice.

What of EU criminals?

Interestingly, since 2014 an increasing number of EU nationals find themselves among the deported foreign criminals. This is somewhat surprising since EU law mandates a much higher level of protection against deportation for EU citizens than the domestic rules for other foreign criminals. This number is in addition to the homeless EU nationals deported from the UK on the basis of Home Office’s creative interpretation of EU Treaty rights as incompatible with homelessness. The removal of homeless EU nationals has fed into Britain’s own soul-searching over the enforcement of the 1824 Vagrancy Act continuing to criminalise homelessness and begging!

In favour of closure…

So Britain seems to have gone full circle from the days of the penal colonies and the deported mobile poor. It has effectively curtailed the rights of a particularly despicable group of migrants – foreign criminals – all the while making clear its displeasure with order-disturbing vagrants. Rather than looking at its own inequalities, it has chosen to tighten its physical and invisible borders. Brexit will inevitably bring further legal restrictions in the governance of migration. One can only surmise their impact on the public good of Britain after the EU.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. 

Dr Nevena Nancheva teaches Politics, International Relations and Human Rights at Kingston University London. She has studied EU migration to the UK since 2016, with a British Academy grant, building an academic network of scholars working on the topic. Her current research focuses on transnational identities and the marginalisation of migrants in the context of Brexit. This piece is based on a pilot study of EU nationals in detention with a view to family reunification and human rights protection.

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Book Review: Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic Perspective by Andrew Blick

In Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic PerspectiveAndrew Blick situates Brexit within the wider context of UK constitutional reform debates over the course of the past century. Blick’s unconventional approach to this topic is insightful, providing instructive historical context to contemporary discussions of Brexit that will be of particular value for scholars of constitutional affairs, writes Gary Wilson

Stretching the Constitution: The Brexit Shock in Historic Perspective. Andrew Blick. Hart. 2019.

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The phenomenon of Brexit has generated a considerable body of literature, much of which either seeks to understand the reasons why the UK voted to leave the European Union or assess the likely consequences of departure from the EU. Stretching the Constitution by Andrew Blick, a constitutional scholar, is refreshing in that it employs a unique approach by seeking to place Brexit within the wider context of constitutional reform debates going back over the course of the past century. The author begins from the non-controversial suggestion that the scale of the impact of Brexit has been considerable. The outcome of the 2016 referendum on EU membership immediately led to the resignation of one Prime Minister, has effectively derailed and destroyed the premiership of his successor and has produced major divisions within the two largest political parties – and the cabinet itself – over how to proceed. In addition, Brexit has resulted in challenges to the ultimate status of the UK as a constitutional entity and exacerbated deep divisions in public opinion.

Blick’s approach to making some sense of Brexit is grounded in a consultation of documentary materials which address some of the key constitutional themes that have surfaced during the Brexit debate, either explicitly or implicitly, the result being that Brexit is not regarded as an issue on its own but rather as part of a wider constitutional discussion. Part One of the book makes reference to textual material drawn from the period of Brexit itself, while in Part Two Blick considers aspects of related constitutional debates through the prism of earlier reform proposals produced over the course of the past century. In selecting his materials, the author is clear that he has sought to avoid official governmental or party political materials in order to maintain some objectivity.

The two chapters which comprise the first part of the book have a wide-ranging remit. In the first chapter, Blick draws upon reports of parliamentary select committees to gauge the lessons learnt from the referendum experience, while also touching upon constitutional issues which have arisen since, such as the role of the Supreme Court within the Brexit process, underlined by its ruling in the Gina Miller case. Chapter Two takes a step back to consider the debates which preceded the referendum, focusing on Parliament’s consideration of the 2015 EU Referendum Act which sanctioned its taking place.

Image Credit: Parliament Square (Leonard Bentley CC BY SA 2.0)

The major part of the book’s flesh is, however, found in the historical retrospect which runs through Part Two. Within these seven chapters, the author identifies and illuminates varied perspectives found in a range of historical writings and touches upon constitutional themes and issues, the significance of which have resurfaced against the backdrop of Brexit. A key point which quickly becomes apparent from this overview is the extent to which constitutional reform proposals advanced several decades – and, in some instances, a century – ago often inadvertently anticipated contemporary constitutional reform debates or continue to be relevant to shaping their parameters.

Given the end objective of those who support the Brexit agenda, Blick appropriately begins by surveying earlier perspectives on the shape and function of multi-state organisations, drawing upon works by L.S. Woolf, Friedrich Hayek, William Jennings and William Beveridge, who had advanced proposals for organisations which bore some features of the modern EU. By contrast, a far more recent plan of Brexit supporters Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan is considered, which sets out a vision of the UK’s post-Brexit relationship with other states.

The next two chapters address issues of democracy, focusing respectively on the referendum mechanism and representative democracy. The merits of using referendums within a representative democracy has been controversial in some quarters, although arguments for their use, similar to those advanced in support of the 2016 exercise, are found in earlier writings on the referendum mechanism. The shortcomings of the UK’s system of representative democracy have been highlighted both before and since the 2016 referendum. These must be seen within the context of debates over electoral reform and the redistribution of power within the UK. Again, earlier constitutional reform proposals can be employed to shed light upon some of these issues. Those surveyed within the book range from a 1911 proposal for the introduction of the single transferrable vote to unofficial Conservative proposals for House of Lords reform much earlier than those which the Labour government sought to effect in 1999. Earlier proposals for the decentralisation of power are also touched upon.

The following chapters are concerned with proposals for reform to Parliament, the territorial structure of the UK and the executive branch of government. The role of Parliament has been central to the Brexit process. While limitations in its operation have been illustrated by its inability to reach consensus on a form of leaving the EU acceptable to a majority of its members, concerns over its function are not new. The earlier reform proposals discussed by the author include the advancement of the case for the creation of sub-parliaments by Winston Churchill, amongst others.

To many minds, Brexit threatens the existence of the UK, while the 2016 referendum also gave rise to debates concerning the relative voice which its constituent parts might have within that process. The case for a federal UK is again revisited through the lens of earlier proposals. The varied reform suggestions pertaining to the executive range from those found in the writings of Arthur Ponsonby in respect of the scope for democratic control via the House of Commons, to foreign policy – particularly interesting in light of the extent to which the House has effectively curbed Government’s freedom of action in Brexit negotiations – to Harold Laski’s calls for reform of the civil service.

The final substantive chapter, titled ‘The Digital Constitution’, considers the relationship between digital technologies and democracy. While it is easy to see this as a modern challenge, with few lessons to be learnt from earlier writings, Blick manages to adduce works from HG Wells and others to bring historic perspectives to bear on this issue.

From his survey of earlier constitutional reform proposals, Blick reaches the conclusion that ‘historical analysis shows that the belief that democracy is in peril is far from new’. He questions the legitimacy of the Brexit process, acknowledging that it raised serious constitutional problems, while also noting that shortcomings within the UK’s system of democracy manifested during the Brexit debate have featured in past analysis. Some possible reforms are touched upon: for example, to the House of Lords as a second chamber capable of representing to the UK’s constituent parts and regions, and electoral reform to increase the democratic legitimacy of the UK’s political institutions. These are, however, couched within the context of earlier debates, which by its conclusion the book has clearly demonstrated are of great relevance to contemporary discussions surrounding constitutional reform.

This book is not perhaps one of the more conventional treatments of either Brexit or constitutional reform debates. That is, however, its main appeal. It is able to make an important contribution to the existing body of work within these fields precisely because it does not seek to replicate the usual approaches or discussions. The historical context provided to contemporary debates is insightful, but also very instructive in introducing the modern reader to materials of which they would in many instances have been ignorant or unaware. Anyone who purports to be a scholar of constitutional affairs should read Stretching the Constitution.

Note: This article is provided by our sister site, LSE Review of Books. It gives the views of the author, not the position of LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics.

Gary Wilson is Senior Lecturer in Law at Liverpool John Moores University. He specialises in collective security, the use of force and issues of secession and self-determination.

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Understanding Boris Johnson’s ‘retropian’ appeal to Conservatives

paul david beaumontThe election of Boris Johnson once again highlights the salience of nostalgia to the Brexit debate. This is more than a throwaway attack line, writes Paul David Beaumont (Norwegian University of Life Sciences). Drawing upon social psychology can provide the theoretical basis for why and how Johnson’s “retrotopian” rhetoric appeals to old, wealthy, and nationalist Brexiteers.

The election of Boris Johnson by the Conservative party membership should – but won’t – put to bed the popular hypothesis that Brexit was chiefly a rebellion by the ‘left-behind’ against the establishment. In this account, a combination of unchecked EU immigration and a decade of austerity had left great swathes of the working class, especially those in the North, in dire economic straits and angry at the establishment. The Brexit referendum was a welcome opportunity to take revenge. As a result, the last three years have seen  intrepid reporters voxpopping Wearsiders, with the subtext that these are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.

Yet the ‘left behinder’ thesis is at best partial. Indeed, one will not find many ‘left-behinders’ among the Tory party membership who selected Britain’s new Prime Minister. Johnson stood on the promise to Brexit, come what may. Indeed, the Tory membership offers a snapshot into the relatively wealthy, older, middle-England voter that seldom features on BBC news, yet also voted in high numbers to leave the EU.

The election of Boris Johnson also offers a timely excuse to revisit an article I wrote back in 2017: Brexit Retrotopia, and the Perils of Post-Colonial Delusions. As the title implies, it offers a plausible explanation for some of the reasons why this group voted Leave, and a why they are now doubling down on no-deal Brexit. The work sought to complement a number of quantitative studies that highlight how national identity and values are at least as important in driving Brexit as economic factors. However, I suggested that we needed to unpack the identity ‘variable’. After all, it is not a given that nationalists are Eurosceptic, and Britain has no monopoly on nationalism. Moreover, the EU is similarly bureaucratic, inefficient, and rule-imposing for other members, which begs the question of why Britain –  rather than say, Italy – chose to exit. (To be clear, I am not arguing that voting leave is irrational; there are plenty of good reasons to dislike the EU. Rather, it is an argument for why Euroscepticism has been especially strong in Britain.) Given this, a full explanation of how identity mattered to Brexit requires analysis of the quality of British nationalism: What is it about Britain’s identity narrative that made Brexit appeal to nationalists?

Drawing on social psychology, and a touch of Zygmunt Bauman, my article sought to add empirical and theoretic ballast to the now frequent refrain that nostalgia for Britain’s past informs Brexiteers’ plans for Britain’s future. Indeed, while Brexit baffles economists, social psychologists will not have been surprised to see Brexiteers risk diminished economic wellbeing for seemingly intangible identity reasons. Social identity theory (SIT) suggests that individuals are often willing to forgo economic gain in order to improve their social group’s status, enable positive comparisons with outgroups and thus generate pride and self-esteem. It should be immediately clear how provisionally SIT may relate to Brexit: voting Leave could be understood as a radical strategy for making their national social group more positively distinct from Europe. Yet as intuitively appealing as it appears, there is a snag with the standard SIT model’s applicability to Brexit. It is unclear why nationalists would consider Britain to compare poorly with other EU members in terms of what Brexiteers themselves considered important: ‘sovereignty‘. Britain enjoys bespoke treatment within the EU, unrivalled by other members: it has more opt-outs than any other member, and receives a rebate of approximately 66% of its annual net contribution. Britain, if anything, had privileged status in the EU.

While the standard SIT model founders, introducing a temporal dimension can help illuminate what underpins Brexiteers’ status concerns. An offshoot of the Social Comparison Theory that SIT is based upon, Temporal Comparison Theory (TCT), suggests that individuals do not just compare themselves to their peers but also to their former self’s status: people seek to maintain a coherent narrative of the self that shows self-improvement over time. When one struggles to make favourable comparisons with the past self, it can prompt low self-esteem in the same way that unfavourable comparisons to peers can. Scaling up this argument, Joshua Freedman has argued that China’s status dissatisfaction and subsequent status-seeking activities demands an understanding of how its identity narrative requires China to remedy its “century of humiliation”, and regain its former glory.

It should be clear by now that TCT is well placed to shed light on Brexit. If we assume that individuals often rest their self-esteem upon temporal comparisons with their social group’s former self, then what does this illuminate about Brexit? In short, my article suggested that two key features of Britain’s identity narrative make it particularly susceptible to Eurosceptic arguments. Because Britain’s mainstream national identity narrative relies upon glorifying its former empire (and lamenting its loss) together with fetishising the second world war, devolving power to the EU undermines nationalists’ sense of progression and self-esteem. To a country that once boasted (and still learns) how “the sun never set” on its empire, the EU’s practices of compromise compare poorly. Cooperation is easily presented as subordination.

Indeed, Britain’s present EU relationship – regardless of how much economically better off it may be than before, regardless of how much ‘more’ sovereignty it retains vis-à-vis its fellow members – seemingly turned Britain into a rule-taker rather than a rule-maker. Perhaps most ignominiously, from this perspective, Britain can be presented as having ceded power to the very countries it fought off in the second world war. All this enables Eurosceptic leaders to present a narrative of decline that calls for an urgent halt via Brexit. Indeed, Brexit embodies a vision that Zygmunt Bauman might have diagnosed as retrotopian: a nostalgic vision for the future based upon a lost but undead past. As such, the nature of the UK’s self-narrative – constantly reproduced via popular culture and the media — can thus help explain why arguments pertaining to “sovereignty” resonate so powerfully in the Brexit debate among older, wealthier, and more nationalistic Englishmen, who have certainly not been left behind.

While my article only provided provisional evidence supporting the plausibility of the thesis, two years on the argument appears to be holding up well. A growing body of research has fleshed out and nuanced the nostalgic underpinnings of Brexit and its post-colonial overtones. Meanwhile, second world war references continue to pepper Brexiteer discourse: scarcely a week goes by without a Brexiteer calling for Brits to reawaken the ‘spirit of Dunkirk’, rather than worry about the damage done by a no-deal Brexit. Perhaps most pertinently, Britain’s new PM Boris Johnson has risen to power on the back of almost cartoonish retrotopian appeal. Indeed, campaigning for Brexit, Johnson exhorted voters “to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the lion roar again!”, while his first speech as prime minister concluded with the call for Britain to “recover our natural and historic role”. As Edoardo Campanella put it in Foreign Policy, Johnson is “the ‘quintessentially nostalgic leader’.

It is certainly understandable that Johnson, and any state leader, wants their citizens to feel pride in their history. Indeed, glorifying the past can help solidify national cohesion; after all, if a nation is just a series of stories we tell about ourselves, why not make those stories good ones? The danger is when hubris based upon the past meets with the hard realities of the present. Little of what Johnson has said so far suggests he recognises the challenges that lie ahead either in renegotiating with the EU or in leaving without a deal. Indeed, Johnson’s claims that Brexit merely requires more ‘energy‘ and positive thinking resemble those of a self-help guru rather than a prime minister. It may well be exactly what Brexiteers would like to hear, but I doubt it will change either the EU’s calculus or soften the effects of a no-deal Brexit.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Paul David Beaumont is currently finalising his PhD dissertation, The Grammar of International Status Competition, at the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He tweets @BeaumontPaul​.

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Long read | It’s the English, stupid! Brexit is an expression of English nationalism

It’s the English, stupid! Hudson Meadwell (McGill University) writes that the national structure of the UK and Britain, and the political organisation and expression of that structure, are keys to understanding Brexit.

Brexit is an English-centric phenomenon in which Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales appear as complications or afterthoughts. The sole constitutional voices in the Brexit process are English-dominated, first in the referendum itself, which aggregated the vote across national jurisdictions and in Parliament. Neither Northern Ireland, nor Scotland nor Wales are constitutionally empowered to express a voice on the matter of EU membership.

However, English political dominance is not something which can be directly acknowledged in political discourse. The language used by Donald Cameron and Theresa May in their letters, eighteenth months apart, to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, shows some of the political equivocations that result. Cameron’s letter opens under the heading, “A New Settlement for the United Kingdom” and then twice refers to the ‘British people’. May opens her letter with reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ and then presents the referendum as a ‘vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination’. These brief quotations should show just how slippery these signifiers are. The United Kingdom includes Northern Ireland but Northern Ireland is not British. Indeed, the notion of the ‘United Kingdom’ was repurposed in the 1920s in order to recognize the reality of Irish partition. May never refers to the British people but she does invoke national self-determination. Later, she again makes reference to the ‘people of the United Kingdom’ But to which nation is she referring; whose self-determination is she signifying? Is this just loose, sloppy language?

These kinds of ambiguities and equivocations in expression, in important documents written both to your negotiating adversary as well for a larger political audience, are revealing and call out for some diagnosis. Perhaps the political unconscious is slipping out. Or are we looking at strategically ambiguous political rhetoric embedded in plans, the elements of which are not self-evident in these documents? These are hard questions, in any case, particularly so here, when there is relatively little material, primary or secondary, to work with.

So, how to proceed? I’ll advance a conjecture related to nationalism. If anything can be taken for granted and thus draw some of its force from its unarticulated everydayness and be articulated and enacted in a political plan, it’s nationalism. Nationalism, as some of its theorists suggest, can be both banal and a self-conscious political project. That’s not a contradiction, it is a measure of the sources of nationalism’s social and political force.[1]

Hence the conjecture: Brexit is an expression of nationalism. Between Cameron and May in their letters, the latter is much more explicit, as she tried to invoke the legitimating power of national self-determination. But which nationalism? Who is more likely going to slip into the mentality that confuses their nation with ‘Britain’ or the United Kingdom?

This is a nationalist conceit but whose? It’s not the Scots, nor is it the Irish, or the Welsh. It’s the English.[2]That’s fully compatible with the recurring theme of English exceptionalism in British history, which takes English dominance (if not superiority) as a natural birthright.[3] After all, who incorporated who?

That birthright has been challenged at different historical points, and each challenge marks an important political crisis. English identity has proven fairly resilient but each crisis has left its mark. English dominance is not as natural a birthright as it used to be.

Irish resistance and eventually revolution still casts a long shadow in the form of Irish partition, even if England retained its dominant position in what is now known as the United Kingdom. In hindsight, partition perhaps bought England some (considerable) time but it looks now like that particular colonial legacy has come home to roost. Northern Ireland, drawing indirect and direct support from the EU and Ireland, and despite the support the Democratic Unionist Party has provided the Conservatives in Westminster, is now limiting England’s political degrees of freedom, much to the chagrin of Brexiteers.

Scotland is no longer particularly tractable and successfully induced the English to concede an elected assembly and, not long after, a first referendum on independence. This may be more a running problem than a crisis, if you prefer your crises to be episodic; nonetheless, the Scottish question will be part of the calculations of the Conservative government in their negotiations, up to and after the run-up to October 31, of a Labour government in the event of an electoral defeat of the Conservatives, at some point, whether post-Conservative transition or post-withdrawal and, naturally, of the SNP. There is no resolution of the Scottish question in sight.

Then there are the cumulative long-run effects of the rise of American power culminating in its post-1945 hegemony, the loss of blue-sea colonies, and more recently, the incremental deepening and enlargement of the EEC/EU after British entry. All of this changed the international standing of Britain and the UK and their imperial core – England.

English dominance thus is vulnerable: There are standing internal challenges to the borders of the political shells it maintains, and membership in the EU threatens its ability to control these interior spaces through the British parliament. These challenges can work in tandem as well as separately. ‘Scotland in Europe’ captures dramatically the instrumental relationship between Scotland’s national aspirations and EU institutions. Both the EU and Ireland have tangible stakes in Northern Ireland.

England has seen off various challenges to its dominance but its day of reckoning does seem to be drawing closer. It’s now much harder to separate challenges and deal with them as one-offs.

However, imperial cores don’t often reform themselves in the aftermath of empire. The current imbroglio does not look like the expression of a politically-healthy ruling class. There is no appetite for reform in the English ruling class. It’s a little like watching for regime change in autocratic contexts, looking for signs of a crack in the regime and the emergence of challengers to its hardliners. But there is not much sign of this in the party system, at least not yet.

The Conservative Party appears now all in for withdrawal, although it has been debating different scenarios. However, some of these scenarios are contrived. The Conservative party does not hold many cards, now that an agreement has been negotiated and ratified by one of the two parties in the negotiation.

On the other side of the House, the main political alternative – Labour – has been, at best, ambivalent about EU membership in the run-up to Brexit and afterwards. We can’t really say that Brexit has polarized the two major parties until relatively recently, as its leader pledged to support Remain in the event of a new referendum. Yet this was a rather half-hearted, rather than fully-voiced position. It likely will be overwhelmed by internal party division.

Labour is led by a longtime MP and activist who came to political maturity in pre-Thatcher Britain in a period in which (‘old’) Labour had not fully cast off its dream of ‘socialism in one country’. Membership in the EEC/EU, and the long march of English and British political history may not have put fully paid to that dream (even a weaker version of it) in Labour. Hence, withdrawal could be seen as an opportunity to return to roads not taken. That is also quite consistent with the general argument on the left that the EU is a neo-liberal dead end. So, the narrow national vision that underpins the Conservative position is not completely alien to Labour. If something like this is the choice on offer – if these are the two little Englands on offer – unification for the Irish and separation for Scotland may look more attractive.

This brings me back to where I started: the language of the letters written to Donald Tusk by Cameron and May. Perhaps, then, it is the political unconscious speaking in those letters even if the most recent challenge to English political dominance that continued EU membership represented has provoked a nationalism that is anything but banal.

No doubt, like his predecessors, the new Prime Minister will take the opportunity to write, whether to the President of the European Council or the President of the European Commission. Whatever is being said privately between the two negotiating parties, we can expect such a letter to be written partially for a domestic audience and hence to be made public.

How will he put it? In such a letter, will Johnson repeat in different words, his first public communication after being named Conservative leader, and invoke ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red white and blue flag who together are so much more than the sum of their parts’?

Part of this is generic, boilerplate nationalism, ‘rally around the flag’ rhetoric. Yet most of it is distinctively English nationalism – the denial of challenges to English dominance which an acknowledgement of national disunity would represent, coupled with an appeal to the unbroken coherence of the United Kingdom (the ‘awesome foursome’), all of which studiously skirts political reality.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

Hudson Meadwell is Associate Professor of Political Science at McGill University. Image © Copyright Richard Croft and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

[1] Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism (Thousand Oaks, CA.: Sage, 1995); Michael Skey and Marco Antonisch (eds.), Everyday Nationhood. Theorizing Culture, Identity and Belonging After Banal Nationalism (London: Palgrave Macmillian, 2017), Political Geography. Special Issue, Banal Nationalism 20 Years On. 54 (September, 2016).

[2] Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity. Englishness and Britishness in Comparative and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) and Michael Skey, National Belonging and Everyday Life (Palgrave Macmillan: Basingstoke, 2011).

[3] Tom Nairn, The Enchanted Glass. Britain and Its Monarchy (London: Verso, 2011, rev. ed), Leah Greenfeld, Nationalism. Five Roads to Modernity, (Cambridge, MASS.: Harvard University Press, 1992), chapter 1, Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, CT.: Yale University, 2009, rev. ed.)

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Post-2016 Britain faces a generation of constraining dissensus

Modern British politics is usually dated to either 1945 or 1979, both years symbolising generational resets that created new consensuses in British politics. As Tim Oliver (University of Loughborough) explains, 2016 is the new year by which British politics is dated. But instead of a new consensus, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of constraining dissensus.

The Conservative party leadership race, and Boris Johnson’s many foibles, has taken some attention away from Brexit. But as with so much in British life today, Brexit lurks in the background. The leadership race itself shows how Brexit has consumed, confounded and humiliated Britain’s political class. No wonder that the idea of suspending parliament to allow a no-deal Brexit is being taken as a serious idea by some in the Conservative party. They hope a British exit will allow their party, parliament and the country to move on.

But Britain is not going to move on. British politicians and public are still coming to terms with a generational reset of British politics triggered by the 2016 vote. Hopes a no-deal exit or some new withdrawal deal can end the bickering and divisions are as deluded as hopes a second referendum victory for Remain can return life to some pre-June 2016 norm. 2016 is becoming the year by which modern British politics is dated and defined. Traditionally 1945 and then 1979 were the years by which British politics was dated. But instead of some new political consensus emerging, as happened after 1945 and 1979, post-2016 Britain faces a generation of dissensus and all the constraints and obstacles that flow from that.

For Britain, 1945 was not only the end of the Second World War. It was also the year Winston Churchill, for all he had done to lead the country in its finest hour, was thrown out of office by a landslide victory for the Labour party. Clement Attlee’s Labour government set about building a ‘cradle to grave’ welfare state and a mixed economy. Management of Britain’s relative decline became the norm for a post-war retreat from empire while trying to hold on to global status through such things as the acquisition of an atomic bomb.

In 1979 that consensus was swept aside by Margaret Thatcher. The power of the market replaced the power of the state. Relative decline was given short shrift by the Iron Lady. Her successors up to David Cameron lived in her shadow as those before her had lived in that of Attlee.

The consensuses following 1945 and 1979 were, of course, the product of changes long in the pipeline and connected to wider international trends. Whether it was the Great Depression or the collapse of Bretton Woods, each new consensus reflected problems from the previous system. Nor were they complete revolutions or entirely accepted. Despite Thatcher’s efforts, state spending remains high and British relative decline very real. What few dispute is that the Thatcher and Attlee governments set the political weather for the following generation. It’s why their statues stand in the lobby of the House of Commons alongside those of Churchill and Lloyd George, the other two defining – and wartime – prime ministers of 20th century British politics.

Sixteen years into the 21st century and Britain once again faces a reset of its politics. Far from leading to a period of consensus, however, it’s likely Britain is now entering a generation of dissensus. It’s long been clear that the referendum was about more than UK-EU relations. Through the voting for Remain or Leave the British people voted on a range of issues and were motivated by more than just relations with Brussels.

In the political uncertainty that has reigned since the vote, politicians, not least Theresa May, have not only tried to find a way of withdrawing Britain from the EU. She tried to use Brexit as a means to affect a wider change to Britain’s political economy, identity, constitution and place in the world. That May failed and that no other political or ideological consensus has prevailed reflects the tumultuous political weather of the post-2016 consensus. Instead of one narrative or ideological agenda, Britain’s politics, society, economics, constitution, unity and place in the world are now deeply contested.

Such divisions are hardly new. The referendum and the post-referendum politics, however, have combined them, polarised opinion and forced the UK to face difficult choices it has long put off. It means successive prime ministers – whether Boris Johnson now or somebody else such as Jeremy Corbyn – will be unable to create a new consensus.  Instead of a new consensus, future governments will be faced by a period of dissensus, and thanks to all the divisions it will be a constraining dissensus at that.

The idea of a ‘constraining dissensus’ has been applied to the EU itself. The emergence over the past thirty years of multiple forms of Euroscepticism have left the EU struggling to integrate in ways it once did when a more permissive consensus about integration prevailed amongst the EU’s citizens and politicians. The UK faces something of a similar fate. Even the unity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is contested. A recent survey showed a majority of Conservative party members willing to accept Scotland and Northern Ireland’s departure from the UK as the price worth paying for an EU exit.

Equally fraught divisions over immigration, identity politics, the economy, the constitution, relations between the USA and Europe and much more now constrain Britain’s politicians, political parties and parliament. Add into the mix a constitutional setup thrown into a state of unprecedented flux and it becomes clear that even a large majority for one party in the House of Commons is unlikely to allow a prime minister or single party to set the agenda.

Much like the EU itself then, Britain’s politics for at least a generation is set to be one of ambivalence and division.

This article gives the views of the author, not the position of  LSE Brexit or the London School of Economics. This article also appeared on the Clingendael blog. Image © Flickr / BackBoris2012Campaign.

Dr Tim Oliver is Senior Lecturer at the Institute for Diplomacy and International Governance at Loughborough University London.

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‘I didn’t say it’: how families negotiate tensions around Brexit

katherine daviesHow do ordinary people, outside the Westminster bubble, negotiate the tensions surrounding Brexit in their family lives? Katherine Davies (University of Sheffield) shares some of the initial findings from her research project.

It goes without saying that Brexit has dominated UK politics over the past three years. What has been less visible has been the ways Brexit has pervaded everyday life, making its way into conversations at work, in front of the television, in family WhatsApp groups as well as expressed through silence and the avoidance of talking politics.

When the media’s gaze has moved away from Westminster, the focus has often been on Britain as a nation divided by Brexit. These tropes of division fail to grasp the complexities of Brexit as experienced in everyday family life. Based on qualitative interviews with 31 people from a range of backgrounds and including both ‘baby boomers’ and ‘millennials’ and those who voted Leave and Remain, I suggest a reframing of some of the central questions and themes that have thus far dominated debates.

Tenacity rather than division

Rather than a nation ‘deeply divided’ over Brexit, people I interviewed as part of my research were working hard to avoid falling out with their family over political differences. Many of the people I spoke to had family members or friends who had voted differently from them and, though arguments did occur, they employed a number of tactics to avoid these differences resulting in relationship breakdown. These tactics included biting their tongue, carefully judging when and where to talk politics as well as ‘reading’ the reactions of others in order to determine whether to raise the subject of Brexit. The overwhelming sentiment that arose in the interviews was about the tenacity of family relationships. These relationships, formed well before Brexit, were seen as valuable enough to weather the storm, even if this was sometimes hard work. As Sarah, a 52-year-old woman who voted Remain stated of her Leave voting brother; ‘We could have had a massive falling out, but I think you think, what’s the point?…At the end of the day, he’s my brother and we get on very very well. He’s got a right to do what he thinks is right, hasn’t he?’

Silence as action, not apathy

Many people I interviewed talked about avoiding conversations about Brexit. Some tried to avoid talking politics altogether. As Kate, a 64-year old woman, stated: ‘There’s three things you never ever discuss round a dinner party, and it’s politics, religion and money. And if you avoid these three subjects everything’s fine.’ Others talked about sometimes ‘biting their tongue’ to avoid causing an argument or upsetting family members. Take the following example from Claudia, who bit her tongue in a discussion with her friend: ‘He said he was going to vote Labour, and I wanted to say to him that, ‘I can’t understand why anybody in their right mind would vote for them’, but I didn’t say it, because I didn’t want to cause any sort of controversy.’

It would be easy to assume that staying silent about politics is a symptom of political apathy, but this would overlook the role of silence in everyday family life. Silence is an important tool used by people to keep the peace and to continue their family life despite political difference.

Biography and memory, not ‘baby boomers’ versus ‘millennials’

The idea of a generational divide between ‘baby boomers’ who are said to have voted mainly to leave, and ‘millennials’, said to have overwhelmingly voted to remain, has pervaded much media coverage of the Brexit vote. However, my research indicates that it is not so simple. Though there was no clear-cut generational divide in terms of voting behaviour, the role of people’s memories and biography was an important part of their orientation towards Brexit. Many people who can be viewed as part of the ‘baby boomer’ generation, for example, recalled the 1975 referendum to join the EU and felt that these memories gave them a different perspective on their Brexit decision. Take John’s discussion below where he feels that his decision to vote Leave can be explained by his memories of the original referendum:

‘If you want to be blunt about the European Union it’s not what we signed up to join…We agreed to join the common market in 1973 [sic], there was no mention of anything to do with the way it is right now. It was a common market, end of story. And that story was put out intentionally. You’ve only got to go back through history and look at some of the interviews that took place in 1973 and the misleading statements that were made by politicians. And really people were misled in 1973 as to where it was going.’

Others drew upon more personal memories of key moments in British political history. Take the following example, where Rosemary is talking about her memories of the 1984-5 miners strike. It is clear that this has affected her politics today, including her views of austerity:

‘Yeah, no, my dad never liked the unions I must admit. Obviously all that sort of thing did have a big effect because I know somebody whose father was a miner… it affected his growing up very, very much… nowadays I just think it’s really bad the way that the government is not looking after the people, I’m sure that there’s some way that they could sort out their money without making the general public suffer.’

Thus, whilst it is important to avoid making crude generalisations about the voting behaviours and motivations of different generations, the role of political memory and biography is a significant part of how people live with and make sense of politics in the present. Rather than outright generational division, it was these memories that could sometimes set people apart from others in their family.

The mundane and everyday, as well as Westminster and Brussels

Ultimately, this research has pointed to the importance of looking at mundane and everyday interactions about Brexit. Outside of Westminster and Brussels, people are making sense of Brexit in relational ways, managing disagreements and differences within their existing relationships and forming opinions within the context of their own biographies. My current research project, undertaken with Dr Adam Carter at the University of Sheffield, seeks to tap into the ways that Brexit is lived in ordinary, everyday lives. The project will work with a small number of families over time in order to understand how the ebbs and flows of Brexit map onto their everyday lives. Methods will include the keeping of Brexit diaries as well as Gogglebox-style television viewing to get a sense of how conversations and silences about Brexit might arise in families. These micro lived realities of relational life in ‘Brexit Britain’ are often overlooked in media coverage and political commentary – yet they have crucial implications for governance post-Brexit. It is vital that we avoid framing our Brexit discussions in ways that obscure what matters in people’s everyday lives.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

Katherine Davies is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at The University of Sheffield. Her latest research project, Brexit, Relationships and Everyday Family Life, is funded under the ESRC’s Governance After Brexit initiative.

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The seductions of Boris Johnson: hot air as political strategy

candida yatesBoris Johnson’s public persona has been carefully honed over the years, writes Candida Yates (Bournemouth University). Most male politicians have been paternalistic in style: the new PM has instead sought to resemble a fraternal figure, who conjures up a nostalgic irreverence for authority.

Last week, an inflatable ‘Boris blimp’ could be seen floating over London as thousands marched against Brexit and Boris Johnson. Now he has been crowned the Conservative party leader and Prime Minister. As with Donald Trump, who was also given the blimp treatment on a visit to London, there are similarities between the ‘real’ Johnson and his inflatable double – both signifying emptiness and plastic superficiality buoyed up by an inflated sense of self-worth. It is not surprising that Johnson, who resembles a kind of toy with whom the electorate can play, lends himself so well to the comical blow-up doll floating above the crowds, inflated by so much hot air.

boris johnson

Boris Johnson visits Birmingham on 26 July 2019. Photo: Number 10 via a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 licence

The performative, upbeat style of Johnson’s leadership campaign – as optimist, blagger and loveable rogue – represents a continuation of the public image he has built up over the years. His communication skills have been honed in various media and political settings, and his celebrity status is such that he is regarded as ‘political box office’ (Channel 4, 2019). Johnson continues to draw on the familiar, playful routines that worked so well for him during his time as London mayor (2008-16), a period which he regularly cites in interviews. Given his woeful record as foreign secretary (2016-18), one might even see that period in City Hall as his heyday – despite reports of his ‘baffling’ incompetence with regard to financial expenditure and other matters (Jenkins, 2019). While his charismatic public image enabled him to shore up his power base in his bid to become party leader and PM, it is not always easy to square his professional ambition with his comical masquerade and public reputation.

His seemingly authentic and spontaneous, unspun qualities as a fearless ‘can-do’ politician have been key to his ability to connect with the public, and his recourse to the language of ‘feeling good’ also reflects the close relationship between the performativity of celebrity politicians and the emotionalisation of politics today (Yates, 2019). The ways in which certain sections of the electorate relate to and identify with politicians such as Johnson provide further examples of such emotive processes at work. Deploying a psychodynamic analysis of the emotional investment in Johnson as a populist politician allows us to understand the structures of feeling that shape his appeal, and also the affective dynamics of contemporary political culture more widely.

As we know, Johnson has constructed a persona as a benign, old-school English eccentric, who refuses to identify with superego figures of authority – such as those labelled in pejorative terms as members of the out-of-touch ‘metropolitan elite’, or as faceless EU technocrats. He deployed a similar strategy when opposing Jeremy Hunt whose capacity to be ‘on top of policy detail’ was also spun as dull and technocratic. In the past, psychoanalytic studies of leadership have focused on the processes of fantasy around politicians as idealised parental figures, where the vertical structures of identification shape the relationship to them as objects of the psycho-political imagination. Today, however, Western democracies are influenced by a loss of faith in the old structures of authority: the hierarchical Oedipal identifications in public life have been challenged by the sociopolitical and cultural forces of late modernity. As an ambitious politician, Johnson is both a product of this wider context but also one who has been able to exploit the shifting patterns of identification to his advantage.

The increasing influence of social media across all levels of society often leads to more horizontal, ‘sibling’ structures of fantasy and identification. The popularity of Johnson’s playful persona with sections of the Conservative electorate – who are predominantly men – invites such fraternal rather than paternal identification, providing a perfect foil for perceptions about the ‘faceless authoritarian’ figures of the EU and the ‘elitism’ of its governing bodies. With his teddy bear looks and public gaffes that make people laugh, Johnson is, for some, a seductive figure; any notion of governance associated with his role as a senior politician is thus undercut and can be deflected elsewhere onto his opponents and the so-called ‘elite’, of which he is course a member. His apparent lack of deference to the establishment sits well with an electorate who are increasingly cynical and disenchanted with politics, and he manages to ward off any potential ressentiment of his position as an elite politician by representing himself as an un-impinging figure that people can enjoy.

Johnson often mocks the pomposity of those in the establishment who lack his ‘optimism’ and who too often call on the so-called ‘dull’ authority of ‘experts’. By contrast, Johnson’s very traditional English trait of celebrating amateurism and of refusing to take things too seriously taps into his populist appeal. It allows him to associate himself with a mode of English nationalism underpinned by the symbols of English cultural nostalgia, thereby appealing to his English base within the Conservative party membership – a generation raised on Jammie Dodgers and comics such as The Beano with cartoon characters that resemble the comical persona of Johnson himself. And yet, this nostalgic cultural imaginary also represents a retreat to a realm of psychosocial and political relations shaped by the values of empire and the injuries of racialisation, gender and social class.

The use of nostalgia as a defence against the losses and uncertainties of contemporary culture has been discussed at length, and the desire to turn back also taps into deep-rooted concerns about change and of being ‘left behind’ by the forces of modernity (Yates, 2015). For many, such anxieties played a key role in motivating them to vote to leave the EU, and Johnson’s image and leadership style resonates in that respect (Eaglestone, 2018). A cultural desire to look back – or at least to turn away from contemporary malaise and to identify instead with Johnson’s retro style – can be seen in this broader psycho-political and cultural context, but it is also framed by the experience of social and economic precarity. At the collective level, a fantasy of history is returned to and remains unmourned as, for example, in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s (2019) idealised account of Britain’s place in the world as a colonial power.

In contrast to figures such as the strangely serious and fastidious-looking Rees-Mogg, Johnson – like his hair – functions as a signifier of chaos and vivacity which, in the UK at least, is still unusual for high-profile politicians in public office. Johnson’s ‘Samson moment’ – having his hair cut in order to appear more convincing as a PM in waiting – is a reminder of his ‘as-if’ status as a boy in the public domain. However, as we have seen, there are a number of tensions between Johnson’s comical Just William persona and his new role as the PM who has set a course to sever ties with Europe. We are told that Johnson likes to be liked, and was shocked when he was heckled by Londoners as he left his house following the referendum result in 2016. Despite his current popularity with members of the Conservative party, the contradictions of his public persona will be tested, and the public may grow impatient with the vacuity of his performance as so much hot air.


Eaglestone, R. (ed.) Brexit and Literature. London: Routledge.
Rees-Mogg, J. (2019) The Victorians: twelve titans who forged Britain. London: Random House.
Yates, C. (2019) ‘“Show Us You Care!” The gendered psycho-politics of emotion and women as political leaders,’ European Journal of Politics and Gender (in Press).
Yates, C. (2018) On the psychodynamics of Boris Johnson and Brexit, New Associations, (25): 4-5.
Yates, C. (2015) The Play of Political Culture, Emotion and Identity. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Yates, C. (2014) Political Sport and the Sport of Politics: A Psycho-Cultural Study of Play, the Antics of Boris Johnson and the London 2012 Olympic Games. In: Bainbridge, C. and Yates, C. (2014) (Eds.) Media and the Inner World, Psycho-Cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 34-53.


My thanks to Iain MacRury for pointing out the Johnson ‘Samson moment’.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE. An extended version of some of the themes raised here can be found in: Yates, C. (2018) ‘On the psychodynamics of Boris Johnson and Brexit’, New Associations, (25): 4-5.

Candida Yates is Professor of Culture and Communication at Bournemouth University, UK. She is a Director (with Caroline Bainbridge) of the research network Media and the Inner World and a Founding Scholar of the British Psychoanalytic Council. Her publications include: Political Leadership and the Psycho-Cultural Imagination (forthcoming, Routledge); The Play of Political Culture, Emotion and Identity (2015); Media and the Inner World: Psycho-Cultural Approaches to Emotion, Media and Popular Culture (co-ed, 2014), Television and Psychoanalysis (co-ed, 2013) Emotion: New Psychosocial Perspectives (co-ed, 2009); Culture and The Unconscious (co-ed, 2007) and Masculine Jealousy and Contemporary Cinema (2007). 

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