openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Johnson won because of the meaning, not the message

"Get Brexit done" was a rallying cry for Anglo-British nationalism. All else was noise.

Stuart Cartland
20 December 2019
Boris Johnson drives a Union Flag themed 'Get Brexit Done' digger
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Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

It must be understood that it is not just the message of ‘get Brexit done’ that provided such an overwhelming majority for the Conservatives. As surprising as the Conservative victory might seem to many, particularly where the Conservatives picked up the votes to win in traditional Labour strongholds, elections are not won on practical manifesto pledges but rather through dominating a national narrative. This is something the Conservatives have monopolised well over recent years.

This dominance has been the culmination of an overwhelming control of a symbolic national narrative dictated and controlled by the conservative right. Practicalities of politics matter little here. The point being that key right-wing conservative tropes of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration rhetoric have become the common ground of ‘British’ politics and sense of national narrative, this being particularly resonant within England.

Indeed as Nicola Sturgeon recently pointed out, Scotland will not be held prisoner by a Tory dominated England in a Union that in terms of dominant national narratives and a political, social and cultural environment it has become so distanced from. And indeed she can be seen as being very accurate in her depiction, the SNP are very much the opposite of what the Conservatives represent, the SNP represent a progressive, civic nationalism one that is social democrat in character and anti-Brexit through and through, and one that is not beholden to the frothing mouths of the right-wing media.

Moreover, we have witnessed a shift particularly in England of an Anglo-centric nationalism based upon division and exclusion, indeed Boris Johnson has certainly used these tropes time and again without being detrimental towards his re-election prospects. Clearly everyone who voted Conservative is not a racist or an Islamophobe but the national narrative that has dominated cultural imaginations over at least the past 10 years is built upon a dominant discourse of implied ethno-anglocentricism. This has been an ongoing process and theme through a conservative cultural dominance that arguably made the Conservative victory almost an inevitability.

Johnson represents this symbolic national narrative much like Trump in the US. Regardless of how untrustworthy, contradictory, offensive and inappropriate he may have proven himself to be, regardless of scandal after scandal, Johnson (much like May) represents the symbolic social and political discursive conservative dominance within England of a national narrative and imagination. Indeed, the Conservatives dominance of this national imagination not the individual figure won the election.

For huge swathes of England voting for the Conservatives is an act of willing self harm but this proves how utterly encompassing the conservative message and dominance has become. Regardless of how (in practical terms) a Labour government would benefit the majority of the population and conversely how detrimental a Conservative majority will be, ‘get Brexit done’ is the symbolic representation of a conservative national imagination rather than the rather hollow and meaningless message it might seem on the surface. In terms of policy the Conservatives offered very little in the election but they didn’t need to. The Johnson victory is the culmination and consolidation of conservative cultural and discursive dominance particularly within England of many years of the ideological positioning of the national narrative.

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Peter Geoghegan Dark Money Investigations editor at openDemocracy and the author of ‘Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics’.

Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief, openDemocracy.

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