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The Rhetoric Of Victimisation Powering Brexit, Trump And The DUP

One of the primary motivations behind the United Kingdom’s divisive Brexit referendum of 2016 was the widely shared sense of victimhood filling the minds of British voters in the years leading up to the plebiscite. Throughout the campaign and in the decades previous to it, the country’s Eurosceptic lobby had crafted the legend of a Great Britain brought low through the machinations of bean-counting bureaucrats and greasy-palmed politicians in Europe. Raised on the imperial myth of British exceptionalism, a majority of the electorate found itself susceptible to the resentment-filled rhetoric of the Brexiteers, harking to the claim that the continental nations had succeeded where Napoleon’s France and Hitler’s Germany had failed, snatching away the freedom and independence of the British (or rather, the English) people through emasculating treaties and agreements.

Only by unshackling itself from the European Union, so went the logic, could the UK return to its rightful place on the global stage, a morally uplifting superpower at the centre of a commercial and cultural imperium. Remarkably, this fantastical tale worked, convincing a sizeable portion of the electorate that the route to the magical land of Britannia could be found through the Brexit wardrobe, shutting the doors firmly behind them.

That same toxic rhetoric of a prestige country being unfairly bullied and hectored by its envious upstart neighbours, continues to influence the thinking of the minority Conservative Party government in London, exacerbated by a parliamentary alliance with the irredeemably xenophobic Democratic Unionist Party. It is also the opinion of a significant swathe of the right-leaning British press. Take this piece of plaintive whining from the Spectator on the recent transition deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which it views as an act of “capitulation” to the international bloc:

“Michel Barnier has been criticised for his obstinacy and his lack of imagination in solving issues such as the Irish border. It is true that his constant stonewalling of suggestions put forward by Britain shows the EU in bad light and is a reminder of the freedoms we might enjoy outside the bloc. His tone has been needlessly caustic… But his stubbornness is working: putting Britain on the back foot, forever struggling to defend itself.

The EU can get away with this because the government is in no position to walk away from the negotiating table, or even to threaten to do so. EU negotiators can see this, and have been able to behave as if a trade deal were a one-way concession to Britain, rather than an agreement of mutual interest.

Also, the member states’ power over the European Commission is waning. In Britain, the EU is often thought about as a single entity — and one that in the end will do whatever Germany says. But Angela Merkel is struggling to exert control over her own government, let alone the continent. Juncker and Barnier see an EU that does not take its orders from member states, but draws (or claims to draw) its own democratic legitimacy from the European Parliament. The EU member states have an interest in a good deal with Britain. But the European Commission — the apparatus in Brussels — has an interest in Britain being seen to be worse off after leaving the EU.”

The establishment media in Britain, like many of its fellow-travellers in Westminster, struggles to understand that the EU is attempting to act as one body in order to meet the best interests of all its component parts. Instead, the Brexiteers find it easier to see themselves as the innocent, wide-eyed victims of internal power struggles and conspiracies at the highest levels of power in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. As the plucky solitary Brits facing up to the homogenising continental monolith, the champions of individual liberty on behalf of European peoples who have foolishly or unknowingly succumbed to a centralising tyranny. It is the myth of World War II writ small.

Of course, a roughly similar narrative of victimisation played out in Donald Trump’s successful election to the presidency of the United States of America in 2016. Though in this case the victims were White- or European-Americans, abandoned by Washington and the coastal elites in favour of “non-white” minority communities and immigrants. The buffoonish New York real estate tycoon and the wayward, hard-right scions of the former Tea Party movement became their champions, bankrolled by a coterie of publicity-shy millionaires and billionaires. In much the same way as the affluent financier Nigel Farage and his fractious followers in UKIP, allied to various upper class toffs in the Conservative Party, took the Brexit campaign to victory with the exorbitant backing of various “dark money” donors while posing as the leaders of the White Van Man.

Unsurprisingly, one can see this effect closer to home with the reaction of mainstream unionism to the socio-political changes taking place in the British legacy territory in the north-east of the country. It’s not just the growing evidence of demographic movement, as the northern nationalist electorate reaches parity with its pro-union equivalent, a predicted outcome formerly dismissed by many politicians and commentators as a republican chimera. Society more generally in the Six Counties has undergone a decade of remarkable growth and development, as liberal attitudes have gained a foothold in a once implacably conservative region. While this has impacted both communities, nationalists seem to have internalised the changes more readily, expressing continuity of thought with the new-found liberalism of the majority population or polity on the island.

Unionists on the other hand have tended to view such developments as a mortal threat, a herd of Trojan Horses undermining ethno-national homogeneity and cultural supremacism. Consequently it’s not just a reunited Ireland that some pro-union figures fear but modernity itself. And like Trump during and after the presidency of Barack Obama, they have adopted the argument that if northern nationalists in the Six Counties – or Black- and Latino-Americans in the US – were willing to forget the past, to conform with the language and culture, the norms and traditions of the existing majority, then all would be well. For to do otherwise is to victimise that majority and encourage artificial divisions.

13 comments on “The Rhetoric Of Victimisation Powering Brexit, Trump And The DUP

  1. Jams O'Donnell

    Aye. The Protestant ascendancy and one of the last outposts of the old, unhappy British Empire is doomed. I don’t see it lasting more than another ten years – twenty at the very outside – possibly even sooner if Brexit really bites. And good riddance to it too. That just leaves Scotland to be freed, and that will happen even sooner – within the next two years I hope, but in any event, within the same outside timescale as NI.


  2. I think you’re right re Scotland. It will be interesting to see how the stresses of Brexit deal with that – that will be the fundamental game changer.


  3. Just to say, completely agree with your post ASF… one other aspect was the toxic discourse on immigration into the UK. And one could add to that the inability of governments of leftish and right to manage both that and expectations. So rather than seeing EU immigration as very useful for a state with a declining birthrate etc it was presented in the most alarmist and negative light possible.

    Still, that aside, hard to beat this for sheer delusion – that second paragraph in the quote you have above:

    “The EU can get away with this because the government is in no position to walk away from the negotiating table, or even to threaten to do so. EU negotiators can see this, and have been able to behave as if a trade deal were a one-way concession to Britain, rather than an agreement of mutual interest.”

    The UK removes itself from a trading bloc, becomes a minority of one and is amazed it doesn’t have the weight it did when part of the bloc? They’re daft.


    • Yep, I have no doubt that immigration played a part, especially in England. The Welsh pro-Brexit vote continues to puzzle me. I’m not sure how valid is the usual finger pointing at “English migrants” in Wales tending to vote communally with English voters in England. It’s certainly something I’d like to see some studies and data on. My impression is of quite conservative-leaning migrants from England. Hence the bizarre strength of UKIP in Wales, in a sort of anti-Welsh/Plaid Cymru voting bloc that previously would have split between the Tories and Labour.


  4. Time for the Brits to pay the price of Empire and the delusions of great trade deals will prove false, China was not a world power in 1973 and the UK will be a bit player in the game.


  5. ar an sliabh

    It powered Brexit to a large extent, but it did not power Trump. What powered Trump was primarily the repulsiveness of Clinton. Folks living in the central United States fearing for their livelihood helped as well. Trump would not be in the picture had Sanders (or anyone else reasonable, for that matter) been the opposing candidate. Whereas the concept of main-stream conservatives striving for ethno-national homogeneity and cultural supremacism applies quite well to the English situation, it is an oversimplification when applying it to the politics in America. This type of supremacism, albeit present in many, is not a mainstream conservative mantra. Many of the key conservative players in America are Latino-American, for example. Although many liberals in America wish to view it this way currently, it is a dangerous viewpoint, as they are blind to the full gambit of their adversaries, and they create enemies in many of the more centrist conservatives that would otherwise be their allies in many of the endeavours so desperately needed to further the country. The focus in America should be to put forth a reasonable choice for president, who is in line with what most voters would like to see done, to unseat this moron. The constant attention he gets right now will only lead to his reelection.


    • Hmmm. I’m not sure, but I definitely think that it was more a case of Clinton losing the election than Trump winning it. She just couldn’t get it right. She and her associates made some very bad campaign calls, based upon, so it seems, their own arrogance and cock-sure attitude. They even dismissed Bill Clinton when he warned them to get out and stump in several key states.

      As I said before, Trmup against Biden, for all the latter’s occasional faults, would have been a safer bet. Actually, I think he would have taken the White House over Trump.

      Though I’m not sure he is the guy to take Trump on for round two. If Trump is still around for that!


  6. ar an sliabh

    Absolutely, I am convinced of that as well. They just need someone solid and somewhat centrist, similar to Obama, and focus on solutions instead of mud-slinging. It’s not even hard.


    • Joe Biden or a younger version thereof. The Kennedys seem to have produced a new crop of aspirant politicos.


      • Jams O'Donnell

        I don’t agree – what they need is a younger and more radical version of Sanders


        • Younger, for certain. I’m not sure about more radical. For mainstream American or Congressional politics he is pretty much on the edge. Much further and a candidate would drop off it. The US is still a very conservative country in terms of socio-economic attitudes, which is essentially what we are talking about. That is the real politics, not all the Trump shiny mirrors and trinkets show.

          I can’t see American voters in a presidential election going much further left than Sanders. And even he would be a 50/50, for all his popularity.


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