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To remain or to leave? The United Kingdom in the grips of populist drives. Politicians divided; voters confused

With a team of researchers from Loughborough University media expert John Downey is monitoring modes and languages characterising the debate on the referendum of next June 23rd on  British TV, newspapers and news websites. For the time being, slogans prevail, leveraging on fears, while the consequences of either option – to remain or to leave – are not being debated or reflected upon

A few days ahead of the Brexit vote that will decide whether Great Britain will remain or leave Europe’s “common home”, the tones of the Brexit debate are heating up. In these islands where phlegm is a leitmotif, populism worms its way through with emphatic tones, high-strung statements, raised slogans on both sides: to “remain!” in the EU or to “leave”. Those advocating permanence with Brussels envisage yet another economic crisis, while those who argue against Europe claim that the country will be invaded by millions of Muslim migrants ready to attack English women, as dreaded by Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, opposed to Europe membership. John Downey is a renowned media expert. He is a member of a research team at Loughborough University tasked with analysing the ways in which the Brexit issue is presented on British television, newspapers and news websites. The researchers have produced a dedicated Report widely divulged by British media outlets.

Professor Downey, what is your opinion on the way in which the Brexit debate is being addressed? The ongoing debate is extremely narrow-minded, marked by strongly nationalistic tones, focused on what is the most convenient option for the UK.

Whether the focus is on remaining or leaving the EU, to extent of recovering relations with former colonies, the only thing that matters is what is most convenient to Great Britain.

The love for Europe is never mentioned; nor the positive aspects of EU membership. Also those who will vote against a Brexit justify their decision as the lesser of two evils.

Do you consider the tones of the debate too extreme? Yes, without a doubt. Figures are inflated for no reason. It’s not true that we give the EU 350 million pounds a week, as the pro-Brexit party claims. Both sides exaggerate and thus lose credibility. Voters feel alienated by the vote because they are being confused. It’s a worrying situation considering the importance of a referendum that will forever change the history of Europe.

What is the reason for such exaggeration? Politicians want to reach out to less educated and poor voters, since the outcomes of the referendum depend on their decision.

As a matter of fact, the two most important leaders, premier David Cameron, who is against a Brexit, and the former mayor of London Boris Johnson, who is in favour, are scions of the upper class. They both studied at Eton, the most exclusive British college.

Until a few weeks ago their political differences were insignificant.

In short, populism has arrived.

It has. The United Kingdom never had a populist tradition, but the pro-Brexit camp, although headed by a rich and famous personality like Boris Johnson, who is self-described as an advocate of the poor against wealthy multinational corporations and of migrants, whom he presents as those who would take the jobs of English people. This rhetoric works and it allures voters.

The pro-Brexit camp appears to be more determined and emotionally charged. Isn’t is an advantage? Indeed, the “leave” camp is exploiting all the fears and prejudices of poor and aged population brackets, claiming that it is defending the Country from migrants who assault national healthcare and welfare systems. Although in reality austerity cuts are responsible for having jeopardized public health and services. The “remain” camp uses the argument of economy to argue that despite the EU’s many limits it is worthwhile remaining for matters of convenience.

What will happen in these last days ahead of the vote?

Poll results change every week, but the two fronts are head-to-head. Whoever wins on June 23 will gain a very narrow margin of victory.

How will the Country, and the Tories in the government, recover from the divisions triggered by the Brexit debate, considering the no-holds-barred clash between the two camps? It’s hard to tell, but certainly things will be easier if the pro-Europe stance prevails.

In case of a victory of the “leave” front, it is very likely that Cameron, who argued in favour of EU permanence, will have to resign and the Tories could be overcome by a battle between internal factions.

Moreover, even Labour is divided on this issue. It’s an extremely complex situation, with a Country, the United Kingdom, divided in two.

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