Images throughout courtesy of the author

Words can change the world. They can inspire movements, overturn political landscapes, and create borders. In the case of Brexit, when the public in the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to withdraw from the European Union, words literally erected a new border. How? In the lead-up to the vote, the campaign strategies of Brexiteers relied on words with affective properties intended, not to inform, but to rouse emotion and generate reactions. Vindication, dismay, anger, outrage: words steered citizens into feelings, and from there into various shades of agreement and disagreement that would spur them to “have their say”. 

Yet words do not do their work in a vacuum. How did Brexiteers convince the UK’s different publics to endorse their cause? One important answer to this question is the form in which those words were delivered: twenty-first-century pamphlets.

The texts distributed by Brexit campaigners were intended to agitate, to provoke, and to generate a negative reaction towards the EU that would swing the vote in their favor. Persuading by exciting emotions, these political texts were both print and digital, delivered on the street and online. These multi-media pamphlets, like their eighteenth and nineteenth century counterparts, were written forms of protest that captured a political moment as much as they represented an intended outcome.

According to George Orwell, agitation and provocation are key properties of the pamphlet. A pamphlet collector, Orwell amassed and studied some 2,500 pamphlets throughout his lifetime. In 1948, he described the pamphlet as “written because there is something that one wants to say now . . . A pamphlet may be written either ‘for’ or ‘against’ somebody or something, but in essence it is always a protest.” For Orwell, a pamphlet was a literary tool, used to express a contrarian stance in the political moment. Pamphlets take a side: they argue for urgency in changing public perception and action. 

As Orwell knew, pamphlets had long been tools of protest and agents of political change. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1775), a canonical text of the American Revolution (perhaps the original “exit”?), fits Orwell’s description of the form. It argues for secession, and it is for secession now. Common Sense also adheres to other definitions of a pamphlet, a form that, both the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster define as a “thin book” or “print publication” with “a paper cover.” 

But these definitions are dated in the digital era, since they hinge on the materiality of paper. Text and print are no longer synonymous, and distribution can occur absent of physical exchange. But screens and other media technologies developed since the eighteenth century have not made the pamphlet obsolete; they have merely expanded what it can be. Today, these political texts can be flyers, booklets, posters, or newspaper editorials; or they can be .pdf files, memes, blogs, or tweets. Political texts can also exist in multiple versions simultaneously. 

Understanding the hybrid quality of the modern pamphlet was how Brexiteers got their messages across. Flyers associated with Leave campaigns were plastered on streets or handed out at events, but they were also available for download, shared across social media, and embedded in online news articles. These materials were a protest against the EU. They argued for leaving, and for leaving now. 

To understand forms of the pamphlet in the twenty-first century, we must re-conceptualize what a pamphlet can be and do, and where it can appear. These new forms may not appear to be pamphlets per se, but they can be identified by their “pamphletary” qualities.

Those qualities are not physical, but narrative. When the official Leave Campaign distributed leaflets titled “The European Union and Your Family: The Facts,” featuring speculative scenarios of a future in the EU, or when associated interest groups disseminated flyers with headlines such as “It’s Time to Leave!” listing decontextualized statistics as disadvantages to EU membership, they used a pamphletary form to convey their claims. 

Yes, these leaflets often appeared on paper, but they were also disseminated online, and had a reach that has not traditionally been associated with the pamphlet. They existed as .pdf downloads on websites, they were embedded in blogs, and they were shared across social media. These texts could not be defined by a “paper cover” but by the messages they sought to convey. And these texts, perhaps most importantly, sought to generate reactions, then actions.

The pamphletary form recognizes Orwell’s notion of timely protest and adds an essential ingredient: affect. Brexiteers not only sought to protest EU membership, but they also sought to convince different publics to protest it by voting. But to persuade people to vote, these pamphletary texts had to make the public feel. For example, pamphletary materials filled with “facts” detailing the so-called migration threat inspired readers to feel fear. When reading statistics detailing the decline of the National Health Service, readers would feel anger. These feelings, in turn, drove citizens to the polls. If pamphlets are objects, the pamphletary is an affective politico-literary practice that engages publics and inspires them to act. 

Why does this matter? Because in democracies, convincing the public can shift not just politics but political paradigms. Examining the literary side of political texts leads to a new way of thinking about the formative role writing and reading still plays in structuring our intellectual, social, and political systems that are nothing like the eighteenth-century world where the original pamphlets called for revolution. Just like mass demonstrations, democratic events such as referendums or elections rely on the participation and decision of voters, and the pamphletary form—persuading voters to act with emotion under the guise of informing them and asking them to decide—does not just explain Brexit.

It explains the new norms for political communication that require an equally effective response.

Sakina Shakil Gröppmaier is a doctoral candidate at the Faculty of Language and Literature at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.

*This project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program (grant agreement No 852205). This publication reflects only the author’s view, and the agency is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.