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This article highlights a growing clash between mainstream modernizing and populist anti-modernizing forces in the UK. Whilst scholarship on UK party politics has, for the past three decades, focussed on processes of party modernization, little attention has been paid to the countervailing processes of resistance towards modernization. This contrasts with comparative studies, which show that throughout much of Europe modernization processes have worked to produce populist backlashes from anti-modernizing forces seeking to reassert various types of traditional values and practices. Drawing on the comparative literature on modernization, our argument here is that a similar populist backlash against modernization is occurring across the political spectrum in the UK and has been a factor in: the rise of nationalism associated with UKIP and the SNP; the 2016 BREXIT vote and the efforts of both Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative PM Theresa May to distance their parties from the legacies of their modernizing predecessors. Empirically, we show how this increasingly prevalent line of conflict is playing out in the UK, whilst theoretically we argue that a discourse theoretical approach can provide significant advantages over existing approaches for understanding the dynamic interplay between modernizing and anti-modernizing discourses.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Notes on contributors

Peter Kerr is a Senior Lecturer at Birmingham who specializes in British party Politics.

Emma Foster is a Lecturer at Birmingham who specializes in International Politics.

Alex Oaten is a Teaching Fellow at Birmingham who specializes in British politics and populism.

Neema Begum is a Doctoral student at Bristol who specializes in British Politics and elections.


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