Cultural Trauma, Populist Grand Narratives, and Brexit

Michael Toomey, Alistair J.K. Shepherd

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Recently, increased academic attention has been paid to the role played in populist rhetoric by narratives surrounding humiliation and trauma. These studies analytically focus on how populist politicians use such narratives to legitimize their messages, as a response to genuine voter demands or worries. We argue populist messaging may just as easily be constructed through a top–down, elite-driven process, rather than in response to grassroots demands. We examine the use of cultural trauma and humiliation in narratives surrounding Brexit from 2013 to the present day. We argue that these narratives, which typically tended to focus on the UK’s loss of international status during the twentieth century (and the role that membership of the EU played in this), were largely constructed by pro-Brexit members of the British political establishment and the Conservative Party. We find that these articulations served two main purposes. First, they allowed prominent Brexiteers to build a defensive wall around themselves against criticism from domestic and foreign political rivals. Secondly, they significantly raised the political significance of the process of Brexit. This allowed Brexit to be portrayed as a grand project of national rejuvenation, and its supporters as the defenders of this project. Thus, Brexit, and narratives evoking humiliation and trauma, remained central even after the country formally left the EU. Indeed, Brexit itself has become a traumatic event invoking further grand narratives that continue to draw on and create a sense of humiliation and cultural trauma, both for those who voted to leave and to remain.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberksad055
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Studies Quarterly
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 19 Oct 2023


  • Brexit
  • Cultural Trauma
  • Grand narratives
  • Conservative Party
  • Populism
  • Humiliation
  • Euroscepticism


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