Britain's EU Referendum and the Power of Historical Narratives in Politics

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The UK held a general referendum on whether to remain in or leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016. 72.2 % of registered voters participated in the referendum and 51.9 % of people voted in favour of leaving. The UK already held a referendum on this issue in 1975, two years after it joined the club, which was the first ever general referendum in the country. The rationale behind asking the electorate to vote again in the matter was that the EU had changed a lot in the last forty years, and some believed that people should have the right to express their views about whether the UK should still be part of it.
The debate about the referendum was dominated by economic and legal issues which might give the impression of a rationalistic discussion about costs and benefits. The module aims to deconstruct this image and to shed light on the more latent, but by no means less important, normative and affective sides of the debate. Specifically, it will introduce to the students certain key concepts of identity politics (such as symbol, myth and trope) in order to examine how different participants in the debate use historical narratives to frame their argument and construct images of Britain, the "Continent" and the relationship between the two.

The Power of Historical Narratives in Politics

Politics is often portrayed as a struggle between professional, shrewd and calculating politicians for power. This narrow-minded approach completely ignores how decisions of political relevance are (explicitly or implicitly) present in the everyday life of “ordinary” people, how issues of symbolic and emotional relevance figure prominently in politics, and how politicians themselves might be highly influenced by these non-rationalistic matters. Symbolic politics is in fact far from inconsequential, cultural “froth on the tides of society.” The affective side of politics is intimately connected to how people think about their identity and about the loyalty that they owe to the polity. By legitimating or challenging established power arrangements, political symbols thus have important real world implications, they “perform” in the social world.

Political symbols come in various shapes and sizes. Myths are an important type of political symbol which, for the purposes of this module, are understood to be publicly represented historical narratives that are constitutive of identities. Calling a historical narrative a myth, in this sense, does not imply a judgement about the historical accuracy of that narrative. Recurrent themes or narrative tropes of political symbolism are the distinction between “Us” and the “Other,” the belief in “our” exceptionality, the reference to “our” origins and the commemoration of “our” martyrs and founding fathers. Nationalist ideologies are probably the most well-known for employing a wide range of these myths and tropes, but they are by no means the only ones that make extensive use of political symbols. This module will explore the myths and the narrative tropes prominent in these myths that are employed by the participants in the debate about the EU referendum.