Spinning Brexit as a success story: Three temporal regimes of Brexit legitimation by Boris Johnson’s government


by Monika Brusenbauch Meislová (Masaryk University)

My article, recently published in JCMS, looks into how ongoing policy processes are discursively legitimated. It argues that that in order to satisfy complex demands on their legitimacy, policy makers tend to legitimate them not only by referring to the status quo (the current – new – state of affairs), but also by legitimating the status ad que (the future state) and delegitimating the status quo ante (the previous state). The article applies this original typology to the empirical case of Brexit, not least because the question of how Brexit is being legitimized is of immense European-wide relevance. Indeed, Brexit acts as a benchmark for citizens’ evaluations of EU membership in other member states, with the literature showing that positive information about the Brexit outcome leads to substantial increases in optimism about leaving the EU.

I specifically focused on the official communications of the UK Conservative government under Boris Johnson published on its website. The findings demonstrate that the government did seek legitimacy of Brexit through its current performance but also legitimated Brexit heavily through an anticipatory future promise and delegitimation of its previous EU membership and the EU as a result. While doing so, it (re)produced particular pasts, presents and futures (and the relations between them) and constructed a distinct sense of place and (non)belonging between self and the EU as the ex-community. Let’s now have a look at how exactly the Johnson’s government did that.

Legitimating the presence

The UK government strongly claimed the output legitimacy of Brexit through its current performance, framing it as a highly effective policy that had achieved all its goals.

There were two dominant narratives within this temporal regime: the narrative of success and the narrative of emancipation. The narrative of success functioned to construct the image of Brexit as a sheer triumph. The main topic here was that of gain. Appealing to people’s collective feelings of national pride, this narrative conveniently served the function of highlighting the great many advantages that Brexit had already brought to the UK and that ‘everyone’ in the country could now reap. With Brexit having already proved a ‘great success’, arguments here were built on a very simple cause and effect logic: the end of EU membership was the direct cause of the UK’s current successes.

The narrative of emancipation served to cast Brexit as having empowered the UK, almost in all every way imaginable, with the topic of control restoration being central to this construction. The main discursive thrust here was the representation of the control which the government had now managed to take back from Brussels (on a plethora of issues, including democracy, borders, waters, money, the economy etc.). Brexit was explicitly marketed as a tool by means of which the UK had restored its national pride. It was only now, with the country ‘finally out of the EU single market and customs union’, that the UK had become a ‘sovereign country’, able to make ‘sovereign choices across a range of different areas of national life’.

Legitimating the future

Despite having become a reality, Brexit (still) functioned heavily as a future imaginary. Representing it as a future benefit, the government foregrounded various aspects of its numerous upcoming (solely positive) implications.

Two dominant narratives here were those of a bright future and that of opportunity. The narrative of a bright future served to convey the vision of UK’s post-Brexit amazing future. A prominent topic was that of better prospects. Replete with pledges for a better future and a bold new future Britain, this promissory discursive construction was characterized by offering up a vision of the expected future of the UK, unhampered by EU membership, which was full of possibilities. Relying on the symbolism of hopeful future-oriented performance and values, the Johnson’s government routinely exploited this topic to send the message that Brexit would increase prosperity in all parts of the UK, across all levels of society.

The narrative of opportunity, built around the topic of potential, functioned to depict Brexit as a source of huge opportunities. The government was eager to cast the end of EU membership as a key precondition for creating a forward-looking, entrepreneurial, and globally ambitious country. Constantly evaluating Brexit’s potential as ‘enormous’, it was only due to Brexit that the UK would ‘thrive as a modern, dynamic and independent country’ and ‘seize new opportunities available to a fully independent global trading United Kingdom’.

Delegitimating the past

Even though the government highlighted its efforts to create a ‘new relationship’ with the EU ‘as friendly trading partners and sovereign equals’, it very much deplored the country’s former EU membership (and the EU as such) in its pursuit of Brexit legitimation.

Two central narratives were those of the oppressive EU and freedom (re)gain, both driven by the exclusionary rhetoric of othering. The former narrative, built around the topic of subjugation, functioned to delegitimate the EU as an outside force which used to prevent the UK from seizing the worldwide economic (and other) opportunities that it was rightfully entitled to. EU membership was invariably construed as a constraint, restricting member states’ actions and unacceptably interfering in domestic affairs.  The government repeatedly refereed to the need of rebuilding the country from the ‘distortions created by EU membership’ and ‘EU restrictions.’ Accordingly, the delegitimation acts are dotted with targeted allusions to the previous EU-imposed burdens, realized mainly via the ‘burdensome’ and ‘excessive red tape’ expressions.

Intimately related to the previous narrative was the narrative of freedom (re)gain. The main topic here was that of independence, conjuring up the idea that the UK was imprisoned and unsovereign as an EU member. The metaphor of imprisonment played a key role here. Typically, Brexit was characterized by the UK government as ‘freeing’ Britain from the EU, its policies, and various EU restrictions. The ‘newfound freedoms’ were inseparably connected to Brexit, as they were called ‘Brexit freedoms’. As such, Brexit was habitually presented as the sine qua non of the country’s ability to control its own domestic affairs. It is only now, after leaving the EU, that the UK had become ‘an independent nation’.

Problematic practical implications

Johnson’s government’s legitimation discourse of Brexit was problematic for many reasons, but two in particular. Firstly, according to the UK government’s discursive logic, Brexit had produced only winners and no losers. Obvious here was the strategic silence on adverse effects of the EU withdrawal. The government deliberately deployed a discursive strategy of omitting the inconvenient costs that are inherent in (any) disentanglement from the 47-year-old relationship. In doing so, it did not pass on the information necessary to facilitate the (British but also wider European) public’s understanding of the implications of the EU withdrawal.

The second problem pertains to the highly contradictory nature of the official legitimation discourse, with the UK government willingly demonizing the very actor with whom it proclaimed the desire to build a new friendly relationship. The official governmental communication was exceedingly radical in its explicitly exclusionary construction of the EU, promulgating anti-EU sentiment and countenancing mutual polarization. Such discursive handling of relations undermined the trust between the two actors and hampered the advancement of mutual talks.

Dr Monika Brusenbauch Meislová is an Associate Professor at the Department of International Relations and European Studies, Masaryk University, Czech Republic. She is also a Visiting Professor at Aston University in Birmingham, United Kingdom, and one of the coordinators of the UACES research network ‘The limits of EUrope’. Her research work covers issues of British EU policy, Brexit and political discourse. Her most recent research has been published in various journals, including The Journal of Common Market Studies, The British Journal of Politics and International Relations, European Security, British Politics, Europe-Asia Studies, and The Political Quarterly. She can be followed on X here.