The UK EU Referendum - an anthropologist's view - Business Works
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The UK EU Referendum - an anthropologist's view

by Dr Tamara Dragadze have wondered how an anthropologist can use her expertise as a way to understand the result of the UK Referendum about leaving the EU. In my profession we try to avoid generalisations and stereotypes and yet I will be discussing mainly, as I will explain, a 'majority' which was in fact around 36% of the eligible voting public in our country who voted 'Leave', says Dr Tamara Dragadze.

We do have, however, a useful analytic tool which we call a 'dominant universe of discourse' which allows us to encapsulate a commonality used among a particular group. That this discourse was characterised by the use of probably the most powerful imagery - that of nationalist discourse - is what I will address in the short space I have here.

Just to be clear, when I refer to nationalism, I should quickly touch on what you probably know already, but good to recap: history based Ernest Gellner pinpointed the rise of nationalism to when the logic of industrialisation demanded that the disconnect between rulers and ruled, ethnically and linguistically, had to be overcome. Benedict Anderson pinpointed 'imagined communities', as he termed national consciousness, to the advent of printing presses where messages could be spread beyond the privileged few who could read hand-written manuscripts. 'Imagined' because in fact nobody really knew each other and the sense of commonality had to be created through imagery and powerful messages. Against this understanding of nationalism are the 'primordialists' who see ethnic/national consciousness as a communal expression innate to human nature. My own view is that there is indeed a propensity in human beings to feeling familiar and comfortable with ethnic and national rhetoric like with no other. This is difficult for me as a Londoner to identify with but when localism like mine has to be imitated by the rest of the country it seems to produce less resonance as indeed international socialism or any other such evocation of commonality.

However, when I use the word 'nationalism' here I really mean 'pseudo-nationalism'. It has nothing to do with the great nationalist movements of anti colonial independence of the last century!

The Remain Campaign essentially proposed the continuation of what we had already, so it was a fact based campaign because it could point to what existed. Our country has free trade with Europe, legislation that benefits women, workers, the environment and remember that over 2000 decisions went the way of the UK in the European Parliament with only 56 against our wishes. Indeed, we are at the EU table, we have our say, we are part of a large family and just look and see what is there before you.

Obviously for the Remain campaign, projections into the future without the EU became a subtraction exercise, based on probabilities of what would happen if we didn't have what we have now.

The Leave campaign, in contrast, had to project beyond that subtraction exercise of what we actually have and all can see, and so it needed powerful, imaginative form of persuasion to get people to back something that had never been seen before. For this reason, because of the social constructs and images it had to create based on a series of intangibles, the Leave campaign is much more interesting for an anthropologist as it relied on beliefs as we usually study them in traditional societies and they used a familiar and potent repertoire which most people can relate to through history and the constant search for commonality and collective power.

The Leave campaigners needed to create a self-defining rallying cry to focus on: The Significant Other.

UK out of EU

A nationalist independence movement in nearly all the colonies could rise against their colonial rulers who had come through military conquest. This was not so in the case at hand, so what could be done? It was necessary to create an 'outsider' image - "they, the EU" didn't speak our language, they came with their rules uninvited when all we had wanted was trade. And 'they' were subtly demonised with all sorts of powerful 'stranger' images. But the very flexibility with which this very undefined population was denoted (since it was clearly not a definite people ruling through their metropolitan colonial military conquest) was ever more useful to the campaign. It had an adaptability that proved useful.

Let me give you one instance of my own experience a few weeks ago when outside Fulham Broadway station in London, talking to a Leave leafleter: "My great-great uncle was Neville Chamberlain. He asked for Peace in Our Time. Look what Europe did to us then! And now you want 'them' to do the same again? We must keep 'them' out!"

Not one 'Stronger In' campaigner went home without having heard at least once during the day: "I am voting 'Out' because my grandfather / great grandfather fought in the War against 'them' and we don't want 'them' back." 'Faceless bureaucrats' had less resonance than the 'them' the 'non-English', which was left suitably undefined. But 'Sovereignty' from 'them' (despite so many MEPs and a Commissioner being British) and 'Get our Country back' were powerful independence movement slogans in the colonies and were beguiling here too.


I was surprised that one of the 'Brexiteers' I interviewed told me that he had not been aware that stopping Immigration was the main driving force behind the cause he had espoused for economic reasons, he said. But few can say that who were out campaigning, reading the press, watching television, keeping their ear to the ground. It is commonly agreed now that 'immigration' was the main issue for the Leave campaign and the Leave vote.

Undoubtedly, the Leave campaign predicated most of its energy on focussing on the plight of the British people because of the presence of so many migrants either in their midst already or on their way. Never once did the leaders of the campaign distinguish between EU migrants and the immigrants who were here because of the Geneva Convention of 1951 to which Great Britain is a signatory! (Anyone who states 'I seek asylum' has to be taken in and then checked out only after.) I still cannot understand why none of the Remain campaign leaders denounced this deliberate fudge even when I asked Tim Farron in person to do so, our LibDem leader, during the closing days of the campaign.

For the Leave campaign, all immigrants had to be perceived, lock stock and barrel, as an unwanted product of the EU. And it being essentially a Tory led campaign, the difficulties for schools and doctors were never presented as the result of austerity and cuts, including the removal of the grant which Gordon Brown had established for mitigating the arrival of immigrants.

Because of lack of space I will not comment on the Labour non-campaign.

Insofar as the 'Out' vote has increasingly been interpreted as the expression of deprivation and resentment at being left behind in the progress of economic growth, there was no uprising against the seat of government of our own nation where the responsibility logically lay. Instead the focus of the uprising, insofar as the vote 'out' was expressed as one, was displaced.

The fact is that 'The people against the elite' signified 'the people having to put up with immigrants' versus 'the elites who don't'. And this was Boris Johnson's rallying cry which was worthy of any nationalist leader. He repeated it wherever he went.

Some commentators on the Referendum have noted the importance of 'Little Englander' identity, but, however important or unimportant it might have been, the main point is that the identity had to be claimed in terms of the Referendum being their last stand against the threat of the 'outsider' - the immigrants, the EU.

Towards the end of the campaign, given the very flexibility for creating imagery enjoyed by the Leave campaign, they could shift to other persuasive evocations. Not 'them' as the EU or migrants but, on Referendum day 'them' as cosmopolitan Londoners and the Scots 'who will stop you from voting for your freedom'. And further, for that injection of self importance so essential in Independence movements in colonial times: 'You are so important! Everyone's eyes are upon you!'. And here: 'you are so important that you must mark your vote in ink because M15 want to erase your pencil mark!'.

Eventually, because of the intangible essence of both the images and the idiom used, the assertions of the Leave campaign eventually were transformed into an act of faith. This meant that, once embraced, an immunity to argument developed which is immovable.

And then the vote was counted

'Project Hope' (hope like when I play the lottery from time-to-time and imagine buying houses for my children and my loft conversion) has won over 'Project Fear' (where really you have tangible fact; just look at it) - Hope and Fear as the Daily Telegraph called it.

And since: 7000 hate crimes and rising. The temporary stay for the currency and stock market because Article 50 has not yet been invoked is mistaken for Our Great British Nation surviving as it is stronger than all the other forces that can ever be piled against it.

And I could go on ...

In conclusion

We should never underestimate the powerful imagery of nationalist sentiment in whichever way it is used, pseudo or genuine. Nor the power of the printed word here when servicing it, of course. Nor the wilful blurring of boundaries in pointing fingers at 'them'.

The fact that the final vote result came in at 7:11am and that at 7:16 Nigel Farage said £350 Million a week to the NHS was a 'mistake' has been drowned in the warm, great and finally undefinable sentiment of the nationalism that has been invoked.

Indeed, immigration turned out to be an easy target to pin the various ills of this country on. And an undefined EU from Brussels, seen as another kind of immigrant come to run our lives, was an easy image to peddle too. The familiar repertoire of nationalist imagery used throughout the centuries in our country are so easy to bend and misuse.

Evoking the British nation state collectively as the underdog in a battle between aliens and ourselves, the natives here, is what was written in the Daily Mail on Saturday 25th June, 2016: "The quiet people stood up and roared! Tired of decades of deceit, sick of being patronised and sold out in the salons of Europe, the Secret People of England have exacted their own revenge."

I do not think the primordialists have it, but it will take a strong generation to come, to dissect the parody of nationalism as it was misused in this vote and expose it forever for what it is in this context.

Just a PS here: And spare a thought, by the way, for those struggling democracies in Georgia and Ukraine who are ready to endure hardship for the sake of European Integration and who now will have to argue with their own people who resist, that Great Britain, for all its greatness, was mistaken.

This editorial is taken from a talk given by Dr Dragadze at the House of Lords (UK Parliament) on 30 June 2016

You can contact Dr Dragadze via her LinkedIn profile page

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