Introduction: the Brexit campaign


Dr Dan Jackson

Principal Lecturer in Media and Communications at Bournemouth University and Co-convenor of the PSA Media and Politics Group.



Dr Einar Thorsen

Principal Lecturer in Journalism and Communication at Bournemouth University, and Associate Director of the Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community.



Prof Dominic Wring

Professor of Political Communication at Loughborough University. He is the co-founder of the UK Political Studies Association’s Media Politics Group and former Chair of the International Political Science Association’s Research Committee for Political Communication.

Harold Wilson once opined that ‘a week is a long time in politics’. This much overused phrase is apt for describing the events that have followed in the wake of the momentous Referendum vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Wilson was the Prime Minister who originally introduced plebiscitary decision-making to Britain in an attempt to bring unity to his fractious government. The contentious issue was, then as now, UK relations with its continental partners. Despite the electorate voting decisively to stay in the then European Economic Community in 1975 the question over British membership was not resolved. The closeness of the 2016 result and its implications will ensure the issue continues to dominate debate for the foreseeable future.

British exit from the European Union, so-called ‘Brexit’, will have profound consequences. The Referendum delivered a 52% to 48% victory to the Leave campaign but this result masks serious division within the UK. Scotland voted 62% to Remain and there are now plans to hold another referendum on independence to protect the country’s EU membership. Although its constitutional status within the UK is less in doubt there are also implications for Northern Ireland, where 56% backed Remain, given it shares a border with the European Union. In contrast, England and Wales both supported Leave by a slightly larger margin than the UK as a whole. But even here the campaign has been blamed for stoking resentments and, in the tragic case of the late MP Jo Cox, violence of the most heinous kind. There is also major uncertainty about the state of the British economy and the degree to which it can cope with the potential consequences of Brexit, whenever the latter process formally begins.

Aside from the economic situation Britain also faces political uncertainty following the resignation of David Cameron and the failure of Boris Johnson, his nemesis, to succeed him as Prime Minister. This after a highly unusual campaign in which both of these Conservatives, effectively the respective leaders of the rival Remain and Leave camps, only declared how they would vote in the Referendum months before the country had to decide. Although more united before the vote, the opposition Labour Party has since been plunged into turmoil by an attempt to overthrow Jeremy Corbyn.

Despite the consistently close polls, the verdict delivered on 23rd June still came as a shock to many experts. Three weeks before this historic vote former Education minister and Leave campaigner Michael Gove argued ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. But now, more than ever, expert and public alike need to try and make sense of what has happened and could now unfold.

This report is a modest attempt to pursue this goal. The aim of this publication is to capture immediate thoughts, reflections and early research insights of leading scholars in media and politics in the UK; and in this way contribute to public understanding of the 2016 EU Referendum whilst it is still fresh in the memory and help shape the path ahead. Here, we are particularly interested in what ways different forms of media, journalism and political communication contributed to people’s engagement with the democratic process during the Referendum – and crucially the relationship between media, citizens, and politicians.

There are eight sections to the report. The opening Context section lays the foundations of the historical debate over UK-European relations including more recent controversies surrounding immigration and sovereignty, often played out through the news media.

The Politics section focuses on the contemporary debate and begins to unpack some of the key political themes of the Referendum campaign such as the rhetoric of excess, the role of facts, falsehoods and political infighting. Whilst the Referendum was in many ways an exercise in democracy as people power, serious questions are raised by contributors about how democratic the campaign actually was given the campaign strategies of the respective Leave and Remain sides.

These campaign themes reverberate throughout this report and are given detailed attention in the Campaign and Political Communication and Social Media sections. Here, we can also consider this Referendum campaign in the context of ongoing debates around contemporary campaigning through billboards, social media, popular culture and televised debates.

In this fiercely contested and divisive campaign, what role did the news media play? In the News and Journalism sections, we offer empirical, theoretical and at times, polemical perspectives on this question. Whilst press coverage might have been quite predictable, a number of authors question the more problematic notion of broadcast impartiality and its role in presenting the issues to the public. A public, it should be noted, that professed widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of information they received during the campaign.

The fallout from Brexit has been truly tumultuous for both the main UK political parties and their leadership. In the penultimate section we therefore turn attention to the Parties and evaluate the significance of the campaign for the major UK wide contenders for power.

The final section focusses on Voters, including identity, emotion, Britishness, young people, gender and social class. This sheer diversity of perspectives tells us that there is no single explanation for why UK voters chose to vote leave on 23rd June 2016.

Published within ten days of the Referendum, these contributions are short and accessible. Authors provide authoritative analysis of the campaign, including research findings or new theoretical insights; to bring readers original ways of understanding the Referendum. Contributions also bring a rich range of disciplinary influences, from political science to cultural studies, journalism studies to psychology. We hope this makes for a vibrant, informative and engaging read.