Populism without ‘the people’: A discourse analysis of the 2016 EU referendum
AffiliationSchool of Social and Political Sciences
Document TypePhD thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2022-12-22. This item is currently available to University of Melbourne staff and students only, login required.
© 2020 Lucas Grainger-Brown
The EU referendum of 2016 is commonly defined as a populist event. This is a misinterpretation. Current scholarship conceptualises populism as a thin ideology, discourse, or performative repertoire that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. This thesis argues that none of these features actually apply to the EU referendum. Brexit arose from an elite-defined process featuring an elite-controlled debate. Far from a populist irruption, the EU referendum endorsed a particular type of anti-populism. Anti-populism can bluntly state its distaste of populism and attempt to dissolve ‘the people’. Equally, though, it can manifest as a phenomenon this thesis terms populism without ‘the people’ – a discourse that employs a similar political style to authentic populism but follows the political logic of anti-populism. Discourse analysis of Vote Leave and Stronger In – the two official campaign organisations set up to contest the referendum – reveals that both engaged in anti-populist performances. Stronger In deployed anti-populist rhetoric that depicted leaving the EU as dangerous, oversimplified, and likely to inaugurate a crisis in British life. Vote Leave’s discourse, however, while meeting all the stylistic criteria for populism, also aimed at dissolving ‘the people’ and further empowering the governing elites of the British state. This thesis therefore posits that Vote Leave played the role of a sophisticated anti-populist force. The EU referendum demonstrates why populist theory needs to incorporate praxis into the definition of populism. The referendum was not a populist/anti-populist struggle, but an anti-populist broadcast presented in two different registers of sophistication. The voter’s constituent power remained the same regardless which portion of the governing elite ‘won’. This thesis concludes that populism needs to be reconceptualised as a discourse that is committed to democratic augmentation. Specifically, the solutions offered by populists must in some way enhance the constituent power of ‘the people’ in relation to ‘the elite’. If a political movement is not proposing to enhance the constituent power of ‘the people’ then it is anti-populist regardless of the style it adopts.
KeywordsPopulism; Anti-populism; Brexit; EU referendum; Vote Leave; Britain Stronger In Europe; Discourse; Ideology; Political style; Constituent power; Democratic augmentation
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