Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Transforming a Transactional Debate: Leadership and the Rhetorical Road to Brexit

Academic journal article Social Alternatives

Transforming a Transactional Debate: Leadership and the Rhetorical Road to Brexit

Article excerpt

What is the EU actually for? In the midst of the rancorous Brexit referendum, little consideration was given to this fundamental question as the duelling 'remain' and 'leave' campaigns wrestled for the future of Britain. I was recently at a seminar given by a former senior politician from an EU country. In introducing his theme, he suggested that the 'EU is the most successful peace process in history'. It's a thought-provoking point. The EU took shape on a continent which had in the space of four decades in the twentieth century fought the two biggest wars in human history, at the cost of countless millions of lives. In their wake, former enemies emerged not just as friends, but as a social and economic bloc. Buttressed by a combination of liberalism and democracy it drew together an ever-expanding group of countries after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The idea that any country would in fact want to leave the EU was not even contemplated for a club that countries clambered to get into rather than to get out of. An exit mechanism has only formally been available for less than a decade, since article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009. For the second half of the twentieth century, an ever-more united Europe seemed an irresistible force. To quote Charles de Gaulle: '... it is Europe, from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is Europe, it is the whole of Europe, that will decide the fate of the world' (De Gaulle 1959, cited in Partington1996: 234). The question has always been, as de Gaulle himself well knew given his own often fractious relations with the United Kingdom, whether Britain was a wholly committed and accepted part of that vision.

The United Kingdom has long seen itself as a country apart. It is European by geographical accident rather than cultural inclination. As historians such as Linda Colley (2009) have persuasively argued, the very force that first gelled Great Britain together as a unified nation was the sense of shared struggle in the wars against France of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The tumultuous and unpredictable continent of Europe was the 'other' against which Britain could define itself. It is impossible to analyse the extraordinary campaigns on the Brexit question without seeking to understand this historical context of British exceptionalism. In the British imagination, Europe is the continent of revolutions and upheavals - of uncurtailed passions and autocratic restrictions. As I discuss below, during the Brexit debate Europe was seen - even by those who supported Britain's continued membership of the EU - as an economic convenience rather than a spiritual home. A shared tectonic plate does not equate to a shared view of the world.

This historical background provides the context for what follows, which takes as its research question: why did the arguments of the remain campaign fail to prevent a majority vote for Brexit? I look for the answers to that question through an examination of the rhetoric of the Brexit debate, and the extent to which different leaders were able to project the 'right' kind of arguments at the right moment in order to actually persuade voters. I begin by examining theoretical perspectives on the rhetorical power of leaders. I then position the rhetorical choices of the campaign within a leadership lens by applying one of the best known analytical leadership dichotomies - transactional as against transformational leadership. Using techniques of 'rhetorical political analysis' I then examine the ways in which the public comments of key players shaped different views of what Brexit would deliver.

Rhetorical Leadership in a Democracy

Political leaders in democracies are at one and the same time powerful and constrained. They are powerful because they hold the keys to the full institutional armoury of the state. The exchequer, the military, the Civil Service - these are the forces which British prime ministers can in theory unleash as they see fit (subject only to the approval of the Crown). …

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