Symbolism, mythology and flat caps: deconstructing The Brexit Party's communications

Image: The Brexit Party

Image: The Brexit Party

Politics is all about communication. People have a desire to be heard and represented by people who have – or at least appear to have – the same values as them, so when we see or hear someone speaking in a way that resonates with our views, we pay attention. 

A recent Flamingo interview with Professor Divina Frau-Meigs, an expert on the role of fake news in elections revealed that, during elections, people constantly revise their positions and align them with their own experiences and thinking. So, we’re liable to change our minds, but we also often listen for what we want to hear, and shape what we do hear to fit our existing views. 

With that in mind, Flamingo’s semiotics team analysed a recent, successful, piece of political communication. Commercial semiotics reveals embedded meaning in culture, via a close analysis of its artefacts: movies, music, news stories, personalities, iconography, language, colours, metaphors – whatever will shed light on what’s really going on. Successful communications often reference these cultural artefacts, which act as mental shortcuts to certain values.

The Brexit Party won a third of the votes at the recent European elections, having been launched just six weeks previously. Was this a victory won by mythology and symbolism?

The party’s first, and most popular, video features leader Nigel Farage lecturing the camera with a directed hand guiding his words. “We have been betrayed”, he says. To his right, the white cliffs of Dover encroach on the shot: a symbol of frontier, proud British singularity and a boundary between the known and unknown from the days of King Lear, right through to the World Wars. The Brexit Party professes “a different sort of politics”; its main (only) campaign goal is the achievement of Brexit. The party explicitly has no other policies, and Farage condemns common political terms like ‘manifesto’ for their associated lies and deceit. It is through this blank, open referent that The Brexit Party can be thought of as the perfect mythological sign.

Semiotic theory from cultural theorist Roland Barthes sheds light on The Brexit Party’s rapid and, to some, surprising success. Barthes highlights that myths are created when a sign (a real thing – like Britain voting to leave the EU), becomes just a signifier (the mental image that evokes the thing). The Brexit Party’s grounding –of Britain voting to leave the EU –is distinctly expressed through its title and communications. 

However, crucially, its name and communications, which are at once empty and specific, as well as its lack of manifesto, allows the group to be decoupled from any associated meaning. ‘The Brexit Party’ as a name has huge semantic potency, as it is able to house infinite possible meanings, with each voter able to ascribe their own mental image of what ‘leave’, and Brexit means to them.

An intersectional cast of leave voters are interviewed in this video, with statements that don’t commit much meaning at all. “This isn’t about left or right”; “we wish to remain a nation”; “democracy is under threat”; “we can do so much better” are all open statements that don’t ascribe one particular interpretation. 

The Brexit Party as opposed to, say, UKIP, invites interpretation because it clearly communicates one thing – Brexit – without the surrounding universal, concrete meaning that UKIP has come to embody. Myths are purposefully ambiguous. The Brexit Party invites the electorate to ascribe their own values on top of its blank, manifesto-less slate. The party utilises ambiguity to unite a disparate electorate with one easy rallying cry against the ‘status quo’. 

“That’s why we are going to fight…” Farage continues. His trademark coat and flat cap convey a sense that he could have almost been walking by and pulled into the shot at last minute to capture ‘the will of the people’. There is a palpable attempt to portray some sort of salt-of-the-earth authenticity in the shot, which jars with the clear attention to detail. Cut to the end and we see Farage telling the viewer: “The Brexit Party needs you,” pointing straight to the camera, in a manner that almost exactly mirrors Lord Kitchener’s iconic call to arms. 

Barthes argues that myths frame things simply, making them innocent, giving them a natural and eternal justification, a blissful clarity, and eroding complex histories so they appear to mean something on their own. The urgency of Farage’s tone, in what is effectively a final call to arms, channels the nostalgia, frustrations and aspirations of an electorate who are increasingly leaning towards the easy, fix-all rhetoric of populism. At the end of this video, these emotions are addressed by Farage in one very simplistic narrative and action, without attention to the deeper meaning behind the complex histories that he is referencing. 

From a semiotic perspective, The Brexit Party’s success can be viewed as a result of these very deliberate simplifications. 

Isabella Devereux, Flamingo