here is no shortage of opinion pieces claiming to know what the Referendum held on 23 June 2016 on the UK’s membership of the European Union represents.[1] Yet in these early months, it is by no means clear what kind of an event this was and what might yet unfold from it. What is clearer is how this political moment has been felt, embodied and sensed, at least among many on the progressive Left. I know that I am not alone in feeling exhausted by emotions as well as by the intensified atmospheres of fear, shame and anger (Orbach, 2016). In this vote, a Right Wing English nationalism[2] that erupts from time to time bloomed in a thousand tiny ways. The heightened nationalist atmosphere led to a marked rise in racist attacks and hate crimes against minorities. Following the initial impasse that came with the result, the UK now has a more Right Wing government than it had previously and a Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs that has a history of making racist statements. All this seems to have been legitimized, or grudgingly accepted, at least for the moment. How might we understand and place this revitalized nationalism, as well as the ways in which it circulated in and through this particular referendum campaign? What made this nationalist atmosphere possible and what does it mean for the politics of the Left?

The decision that the UK should leave the European Union cannot be blamed on the poor, uneducated, or abject. As Geography Professor Danny Dorling has shown (2016), most people who voted “Leave” lived in the south of England. And of all those who voted “Leave,” 59% were in the middle classes (A, B, or C1 social groups). According to Dorling’s analysis, the proportion of “Leave” voters who were of the lowest two social classes (D and E) was just 24%. He concludes that “Leave voters among the middle class were crucial to the final result” (Dorling, 2016: 1). This constituency, and noisy minority, are aunts, fathers, bosses and neighbors: they are the people who have wanted to have their say on “Europe’’ for a long time. Nick Clegg, former leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister between 2010-2015, apparently insisted several times in talks with former Prime Minister David Cameron that a government cannot afford to hand them the microphone (Clegg, 2016). In the event, this core anti-Europeanism combined and blended with other political grievances and feelings. The Referendum—initially the result of an internal Conservative party struggle—thereby managed to expose a deep vacuum in ideas, narratives and visions among the UK political parties. It is this vacuum that enabled English nationalism to take hold and expand its reach.

This particular form of nationalism is nostalgic for Britain’s “greatness,” melancholic for a “purer” British society (Gilroy, 2004), and defensive about the privileges that it enjoys and the extent to which it might share those with others. However, it can’t be mapped directly onto “England”: it’s a part of all the countries that make up the UK (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), and London is not immune to it. It takes very different forms in all these localities, just as they all host their versions of progressive opposition to it. It doesn’t belong to one party: it works as an “affective atmosphere” that congeals around particular figures, materials, and images and echoes as part of an assemblage of constituencies and forces. In this particular case, it was given time to brew through an ugly, divisive referendum campaign where several events by chance provided a focus for intensified affects, including the European football Championships and the murder of a female MP in West Yorkshire in a far-right, misogynistic attack. The noisy rhythms of the campaign trail, which included inflammatory posters[3] and “battle-buses,” jostled with football match kick-offs and the rhythms of 24 hour news as well as the amplified noise of twitter feeds. As collective waves of organized and disorganized joy and disappointment, excitement and anger, boredom and fandom dispersed, it became possible to voice positions that in other contexts would be considered unspeakable, until following the murder of Jo Cox MP, all political campaigning was temporarily cancelled as feelings of shock, shame, disbelief and horror weighed heavy in the air. Yet even this shocking murder of a much liked and respected MP, and the powerful tweets sent out by her husband in her memory,[4] consciously harnessing the powers of mourning and violence (Butler, 2006), could not halt the nationalist moods accumulating. In the course of this campaign, the political often appeared unbearable.

In asking what is to be done, critical responses among the progressive left to the re-election of George W. Bush as President of the United States in 2004 provide an interesting basis for reflection and comparison. Of course, that was a very different context, being an election rather than a referendum, and taking place before the economic crisis of 2007-8, although the heightened nationalism and talk about “values” remains familiar. Firstly, this was another moment when commentators and theorists on the left described feeling exhausted by the over-stimulation of the whole campaign:

“I cannot not feel enough about all of this… The ego is supposed to protect you from emotional overstimulation: but, as we know all too viscerally, this is no longer the era of the ego but rather of the ego’s exhaustion” proclaimed Lauren Berlant (2005).

She describes that exhaustion as a feeling of “dragging-on tattered and barely holding shape… living a different, more unprotected kind of existence than that implied by ‘sovereignty’’’ (2005). This description chimes with those feelings of sickness, anger, fear, shame and rage reported by many on the left following this Referendum vote and experienced against a set of arguments about “Taking Back Control.”[5]

Secondly, as with the 2004 US Presidential Election, this Referendum campaign defied the popular mantra in western democracies that political elections—and referenda—are decided by economics. In the UK in 2016, managerialism and economics lost out to a debate about feelings and “values,”[6] as people were said to have voted against their own interests. Indeed, repeated warnings that leaving the EU entailed “deadly economic risk” worked in the same way that a parent’s warnings work on a teenage child: the more it was said, the less it was heard, and the more it compelled people to vote against “the establishment”: ‘The centrists were the ruling classes of an unrecognized state—call it Remainia—whose people were divided between the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems’ (Behr, 2016). Only this state wasn’t “unrecognized”; it was recognized all too well—as a self-serving elite who have more in common than divides them, and who have for a long time been unable to articulate a vision for a progressive, broad based Leftist movement that can rein in the extreme inequalities that shape the UK landscape and address the changing meanings and forms of work. In this context, various figures and minority movements were able to claim that they offered a return to “passion” and “values” in an otherwise moribund political landscape, and a contrast to the politics as management that we’ve become used to. But warmth and passion are not alternatives to cold management: they are two sides of the same coin. Neither presents an answer to a political vacuum; they simply make the vacuum more obvious. And of course, this scenario is not unique to the UK; it can be gleaned in the Republican party’s nominee for US President in 2016, Donald Trump, the way in which he positions himself against “elites,” and in doing so, develops his own brand of affective racist nationalism that blames minorities and differentiates against Muslims in particular. Across these scenes, what seems consistent is the failure of the Left in addressing what redistribution of wealth, equality and justice might look like in a globalized political economy, where “the state” appears both elusive and insufficient as a response to the challenges of transnational politics.

Thirdly, in the context of the re-election of George W. Bush as US President in 2004, Robert Meister asks us to consider who “we” progressive types, aghast by the outcome, think “we” are (2005). He questions how “we unconsciously enjoy a fantasy of power over those who are manipulated” and challenges “our very knowingness.” He goes on to say that it is “the Right that now speaks the language of antagonism and polarization that the Left once spoke” while “we who oppose them speak the language of ‘cultural diversity”’ and tolerance (Meister, 2005). Let’s be clear that a language of cultural diversity and tolerance is always preferable to the language of purity and superiority. But this point about being all too knowing is interesting. Moving back to the UK context, which has very different histories of multiculturalism, racism and colonialism to the US, Gary Younge (2016), in his analysis of the Referendum vote, argues that liberal commentators are too quick to identify “poorer Britons with an ingrained loathing of foreigners.” In this context, one of the Left’s standard responses to a heightened nationalism has been to insist on the value of “cultural diversity.” This is indeed an essential response, but it has two core problems. The first is that it casts “difference” as an ahistorical thing to be “enjoyed” or “valued” rather than understood. It fails to discuss the historical legacies of Britain’s role as a colonial and imperial power (Bhambra, 2016). It also fails to unpack the politics and necessities of immigration to many sectors of the British economy, as well as the problem of out-migration in parts of Wales, Scotland, and the peripheries of Britain. The second problem with the language of “cultural diversity” is that it often quickly slips back into championing the nation. For example, a particular brand of Left Wing English nationalism has for several years repeated that “It isn’t fair when someone illegally enters our country and jumps the queue” (Reid, 2006) and that “the other side of welcoming newcomers who can help Britain is being tough about excluding those adults who won’t and can’t” (Brown, 2008). In proclaiming to “know” what people feel, this language among parts of the Left has served as an echoing chamber for the wretched form of nationalism that it claims to resist. To conclude, the Left has also played its part in making this vote possible, meaning that we cannot simply “correct” what people feel about “Europe” by calling it “Austerity,” “Class,” or “Neoliberalism” instead.

Counting votes following the European Referendum in Ceredigion, Wales, UK. 23/24 June 2016. Photograph by Keith Morris

So where next for the Left? In this event, several different desires, dissatisfactions, and affects became folded into the question of whether one wanted to remain or leave the EU, and “Europe” became a way of expressing several different issues. The question itself should not be taken seriously—as it was never asked or debated seriously. As a political event, it was a scam, which is why some on the Left refused to vote. Many on the Left voted “Leave” because they could not vote for the neoliberal agenda attached to the EU;[7] whilst others rightly reminded us that “Europe” is not the world. Yet in this particular campaign, these nuanced progressive positions fell on deaf ears, just as they did in 1975 when the UK was last asked whether it wanted to remain part of the European Economic Community (or Common Market).[8] And in the aftermath of this campaign, the progressive Left in the UK seems unable to articulate what those different desires, dissatisfactions and affects that led to the vote might be—in bold, compelling and non-nationalistic terms—and in ways that give hope for some form of transnational politics.

Though things may appear doomed, these are also interesting times in that political allegiances and feelings are shifting. Six weeks before the vote to “Leave,” Sadiq Khan MP was voted the first Muslim Mayor of London where racist campaigning on the part of the Tory right, legitimized by Prime Minister David Cameron, was discredited. On the same day in the Welsh Assembly Elections, Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru between them won 41 out of 60 seats; although the UK Independence Party won 8, which should have been a warning signal. The point here is that a progressive politics does not belong to a past that is now being replaced by something else: these are multiple constituencies, alliances, forces and affects that share the same present. Progressive political emotions, ambitions and leanings are there to be grasped and shaped by opposition parties and movements that can articulate a plural, progressive politics that resists the desire to be “all too knowing” about the way forward. This means thinking beyond the political assumptions, outlooks and collaborations that we’re accustomed to. Who knows what “triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty”[9] would mean in practice, but given that politics is about symbolism, rhetoric, atmospheres, and feelings as much as it is about laws, decisions, policies and violence, we can appreciate that “Brexit” has already begun:

“the only thing worse than the result and its consequences is the poisonous atmosphere that made it possible” (Younge, 2016).

All sorts of divisions have come into view between those who believe “‘we’ have always been here” and those whose right to citizenship is now questioned. Yet through this vote, various movements of people—and young people in particular—have found themselves keen to defend something that they almost weren’t aware they had—the environmental, working and human rights that come with membership of the EU, free movement for artists, musicians and students across the Union, and the symbolic aspect of being citizens of something beyond a nation-state (Painter, 2008). This vote has politicized people—not through the campaign, as it should have—but in its aftermath. Progressive forces now need to build alliances, with people whom we might not be used to working with, to invent new and better stories that talk to people’s lives and experiences, to resist English nationalism in both its left and right wing forms. The key point here is to keep on arguing for mixture—not only as something to be “celebrated,” but as what we hold in common. This means pressing for plural and historicized understandings of belonging and citizenship at every opportunity, and to keep alive the idea of being “Citizens of the European Union”—whatever that may mean.


[1] Dozens of academics have posted 350 word summaries on Open Democracy, summing up what “Brexit” (the term used by the “Vote Leave” campaign but which has become widely adopted by the progressive left) means and why

.[2] For more on this diagnosis of “Brexit” and English Nationalism, see Robbie Shilliam, “Racism, multiculturalism and Brexit.

[3] There was one poster in particular, unveiled by Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, showing a queue of migrants and refugeees and the words “Breaking Point.” It was later reported to the police for inciting racial hatred.

[4] See @MrBrendanCox. In her Maiden Speech in Parliament, Jo Cox MP talked about how her constituency of Batley and Spen has been enhanced by immigration and argued that we “have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” In the event of her death, this point was developed into the hashtag #MoreInCommon.

[5]Many of the key claims made as part of this campaign have now been removed from the official site.

[6] It was widely reported that this was the case with the 2014 Scottish Referendum and that this rule would abide in the vote on membership of the European Union. This LSE report concluded that people voted on the basis of “values” and not “economics.”

[7] For a left-wing critique of the EU, see Larry Elliott, economics editor for The Guardian:Brexit may be the best answer to a dying Eurozone” and “The progressive argument for leaving the EU is not being heard.”

[8] For example, “Yes to Europe but no to the EEC” was the position of Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales), the left of centre minority nationalist movement in 1975.

[9] This is the formal mechanism through which a member state leaves the European Union.


Behr R (2016) How remain failed: the inside story of a doomed campaign. The Guardian [online], 5 July.
Berlant L (2005) Unfeeling Kerry. Theory & Event 8(2): no pagination.
Benjamin W (1978) Critique of Violence. Reflections. New York: Shocken Books: 277-300.
Bhambra G (2016) Whither Europe? Postcolonial versus Neocolonial Cosmopolitanism. Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies 18(2): 187-202.
Brown G (2008) Gordon Brown’s speech in full. Speech by Prime Minister Gordon Brown to the Labour party conference. The Guardian [online], 23 September.
Butler J (2006) Precarious Life. The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso books.
Clegg N (2016) Brexit: Cameron and Osborne are to blame for this sorry pass. The Financial Times[online], 24 June.
Dorling D (2016) Brexit: the decision of a divided country. The Financial Times [online], 6 July.
Gilroy P (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London, New York: Routledge.
Meister R (2005) What is to be Done? Thinking Politically about the 2004 Election. Theory & Event8(2): no pagination.
Orbach S (2016) Susie Orbach: in therapy, everyone wants to talk about Brexit. The Guardian [online], 1 July.
Painter J (2008) European citizenship and the regions. European Urban and Regional Studies 15(1): 5-19.
Reid J (2006) In full: John Reid speech. Speech by Home Secretary John Reid to the Labour Party conference. BBC News [online], 28 September.
Tyler I (2013) Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain. London, New York: Zed books.
Younge G (2016) Brexit: A Disaster Decades in the Making. The Guardian [online], 30 June.

See Angharad Closs Stephens's most recent Society & Space contributions here: Beyond Imaginative Geographies? Critique, Co-Optation, and Imagination in the Aftermath of the War on Terror, Politics through a Web: Citizenship and Community Unbound, and Politics through a Web: Citizenship and Community Unbound