Buses and Breaking Point: Freedom of Expression and the ‘Brexit’ Campaign

Andrew Reid

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)
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In the aftermath of the ‘Brexit’ referendum two pieces of campaign material used by the successful Leave campaign proved controversial: a slogan on the side of a bus fallaciously implying that leaving the EU would necessarily free up £350 million a week for the NHS; and a poster stating that Britain was at “Breaking Point” – purportedly due to an influx of migrants – that was redolent of Nazi propaganda. This paper analyses and develops some criticisms that were levelled at the Leave campaigners who authorised these from the perspective of political liberalism. It concludes that those behind the Breaking Point poster could justifiably have been subject to non-criminal sanction by institutions such as the Electoral Commission, but that this is not the case for the NHS bus. The Breaking Point poster warrants sanction because it belongs to a category of hateful speech that propagates false and discriminatory beliefs about its targets. Where these are disseminated by those in authority or of high status, such as political campaigns, they can strengthen these beliefs amongst the rest of the population. This can lead to members of the targeted group being unable to deliberate effectively as they are not treated with adequate respect in political discussions, which in turn undermines the process of public justification. As a result, it undermines public justification in a way that false factual claims do not, eventhough in this case the NHS slogan appears to have had a greater effect on the referendum result.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)623-637
Number of pages15
JournalEthical Theory and Moral Practice
Issue number3
Early online date29 May 2019
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019


  • Hate speech
  • Legitimacy
  • Public reason
  • Brexit
  • Propaganda


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