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2021 Conference of the ECPR Standing Group on Politics and Gender

‘EU Did It!’ – The Role of Blame in Brexit

European Union
Political Psychology
Laura Skillen
University of Kent
Laura Skillen
University of Kent

The Brexit campaign saw mass blaming of the EU and concordant portrayal of British citizens as ‘victims’ to the machinations of scheming Eurocrats. The site of actual responsibility for any given event—or factual basis for blame—appeared unimportant. This paper asks the question ‘what is the relationship between blame and self-victimisation in populist discourse, and what are the implications for political support for the EU?’. It uses Brexit as a case study, investigating the use of blame, corresponding victim status, and the role of both in the polarisation of British populations in favour of a ‘leave’ vote, in turn addressing the wider concern of the role of blame and associated affect in populist discourse.

This paper draws from research into victim-blaming in cases of assault, referencing psychology and the role of emotions in identity formation, and concerns itself with the affective results of the populist discursive tactics of blame and victim identification. Intertextual content analysis of speech acts delivered by key Brexit actors establishes specific blame and self-victimisation tactics. A Foucauldian framework is then employed to evaluate the relationship between blaming and emotions, victimisation, and political power, and points at implications for countering a Eurosceptic populist threat.

This research argues that Eurosceptic populists’ use of ‘blamees’ and ‘victims’ grants their supporters an inviolable status of ‘victimhood’, gives rise to an emotional response and the desire to take action, in turn polarising audiences against the EU. It helps to explain why, after decades of EU-blaming by Eurosceptics in Britain, there was finally a rupture in the form of a ‘Leave’ vote. It contributes to an understanding of blame as a political mechanism and its role in political polarisation, and bridges work on populism and emotions.
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