The ghost in the machine: Brexit, populism, and the sacralisation of politics

Steven Kettell, Peter Kerr

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The current global wave of populism has fuelled a surge in scholarly interest but the links between populism and religion remain under-researched and most studies have centred on cases where religion remains socially and politically influential. This paper contributes to developing studies in this area by analysing the use of religious tropes and themes in a comparatively non-religious context, examining the populist discourse that was constructed to promote Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (‘Brexit’). Drawing on neo-Durkheimian ideas about the endurance of the ‘sacred’ in social organisation, it identifies three core themes: (1) a framing of the EU as a ‘folk devil’ and an existential threat to the liberty and prosperity of the British nation, (2) a presentation of Brexit as a source of national rebirth and salvation, underpinned by an exceptionalist view of the British people who were said to possess a unique global destiny, and (3) a sacralisation of ‘the People’ into an homogenous mass whose Will was to be enacted at all costs in the aftermath of the referendum. The study shows how populists are able to draw on a religious repertoire to mobilise voters, even in contexts that are largely non-religious.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)23-40
Number of pages18
JournalPolitics, Religion & Ideology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 8 Apr 2022


  • Brexit
  • discourse
  • populism
  • religion
  • sacred


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