‘The People’ in Populist Narratives – Franco Zappettini

University of Liverpool

“‘The people’ have always been a central element of populist narratives and Brexit has been no exception. In the wake of  a resurgent populist thrust across Europe and beyond, ‘the people’ have been at the core of the Brexit narrative for example in Farage’s speech claiming the victory for ‘the real, ordinary people, and decent people’ as the early results were declared or in PM May’s commitment to execute a ‘hard Brexit’ (perhaps?) as the ‘will of the people’.

The media have been a major actor in the unfolding of Brexit and its legitimation.  In particular, through their sensational and trivial language, the historically anti-EU British tabloid press have amplified messages of the Leave campaign as choices of/for the people and crucially contributed to support Brexit as an act of ‘the people taking back control’.

A study I have conducted on a corpus of online tabloid press and their discourses during the Brexit referendum campaign shows that most British tabloids have used the word ‘people’ consistent with populist and nationalist scripts. In other words, they promoted specific representations of Brexit that mobilised the ‘British/ordinary/working people’ and antagonised them against the ‘elites’ (differently represented as Brussels, the IMF, etc.) or different ‘others’ (mainly EU migrants).

In these discourses, we can recognise the vagueness of the term ‘people’ (in English even more than in other languages) and, at the same time, as it has been noted by various scholars, how the term can conveniently be used in political discourses to appeal to the imagination of empowerment of different groups and interests.”

– Franco Zappettini, University of Liverpool