When Nigel Farage celebrated the success of Brexit, he claimed that it would be a victory for 'the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people' against the oppressive elite. 1 Where did this need to fight against the establishment come from? Over the years, many sources; read on to find out more.

Anti-establishment Anti-establishment

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Table of contents

    Anti-Establishment Meaning

    The term anti-establishment broadly means against the 'established' authority of the royal family, the aristocracy and the privileged. In the United Kingdom, there have been several occurrences of this since World War II.

    Anti-establishment movements have come from varying ends of the political spectrum, including:

    • the Left, with the original counterculture movement of the 1960s;
    • the anarchism of the 1970s;
    • and the conservatism that helped Nigel Farage gain popularity, ultimately leading to Brexit.

    The key strand that links all of these notions together is populism and the necessity of appealing to the masses to overthrow the elite.




    The political left-wing, focusing on equality, social justice, welfare and state-controlled planning


    A movement with views opposed to those of established social norms


    A political movement to disrupt the existing political order and eventually produce a self-governing society based on collaboration and equality


    Belief in traditional values of the Conservative Party, such as a free market economy, privately-owned companies and maintenance of existing social hierarchies


    A political tactic that is used to gain votes and support from ordinary working people who feel disenchanted and forgotten about whilst the elite thrive

    Anti-Establishment Movement

    The anti-establishment movement rose to prominence in the decades after World War Two. How did this happen, and what were the ruling classes getting so wrong?

    The 1960s

    This decade, also referred to as the Swinging Sixties, was a time of liberation and the first real anti-establishment movement, save for the racist Teddy Boys of the 1950s. It came about as a crystallisation of numerous factors and originated on university campuses. A combination of the destruction of WWII, the threat of nuclear disaster from the Cold War, and the continuing conflict in Vietnam led the youth to put the older generation's way of life under a microscope.

    During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, race issues in Britain also came under scrutiny. The assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, who had been an emblem for a better future, seemed to be the last straw, spurring the British counterculture movement.

    The educational opportunities now afforded to the youth in Britain allowed privileged students to think critically, believing that peace and tolerance would make the world a better place. They also questioned the Christianity that had been used as reasoning for injustices in society.

    Anti-establishment President Kennedy StudySmarterFig. 1 - President Kennedy was a beacon of hope for young people before his assassination

    Here are some important events that defined this period and demonstrated a backlash against the establishment:

      • Mods and Rockers filled the vacuum of a post-war identity. In the 1964 Battle of Brighton, there were clashes between the two groups that caused alarm to the establishment. Similar seaside clashes occurred in other coastal towns.
      • At Grosvenor Square in 1968, there was a 3000-strong protest outside the US Embassy against the Vietnam War; a few protesters caused violence trying to break through police lines, with 11 arrested and eight policemen injured.
      • Protesting the British colonial involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia of some of its investors, students at the London School of Economics (LSE) stormed into the university. Over 30 students were arrested and the school was closed for 25 days.
      • The zenith of the Swinging Sixties was the Woodstock Festival. A confluence of musical expression, sexual freedom and illegal use of drugs was the ultimate anti-establishment act. Those involved in music and drugs were dubbed hippies.
      • As the students of the 1960s grew up, civil rights concessions were made by the government, the Vietnam War de-escalated, and the original anti-establishment counterculture was brought to an end.


    Mods were members of a youth subculture born in London out of the desire of teenagers to be modern and unique through socialising and fashion. Without the necessity of working and the newfound affluence, they donned scooters, took drugs and wore expensive suits. The culture declined when it reached the mainstream as it defeated its own purpose.


    Rockers were members of another subculture, characterised by leather clothes and boots, long greased hair, rock music and expensive motorbikes. The rockers valued their motorbikes over fashion and looked down on the Italian scooters of the Mods.

    The 1970s

    Older generations remember the 1970s as a turbulent decade for the United Kingdom. The following issues brought disillusion with the establishment once more; this time, however, dissatisfaction did not come from those privileged enough to study at universities but from the working class.

    • In 1973, the Yom Kippur War led to oil organisation OAPEC cutting the oil supply to the West, causing gigantic inflation in the UK. It reached 25% in 1975 as prices rocketed. Firms attempted to save money by laying off workers, which infuriated the workforce who organised strikes through trade unions.
    • In an attempt to balance the books in 1976, Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan borrowed almost $4 billion from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the loan came on the condition that interest rates rose and public spending was cut.
    • The economic crisis, along with a decline in traditional industries such as mining, left a huge number of people unemployed, which continued to rise to almost 6% before the end of the decade and climbed even higher in the mid-1980s.
    • The workers' voices grew louder as trade unions organised huge strikes demanding pay rises from James Callaghan's government. This culminated in 1978 and 1979 in what is referred to as the 'Winter of Discontent' when 29.5 million working days were lost due to strikes.

    Strikes during the Winter of Discontent led to mountains of rubbish being left on the streets as public sector workers refused to clear it.

    Trade union

    An organisation formed to protect the rights and ensure workers have acceptable labour conditions

    With the backdrop of a faltering economy, the race issues that had begun rearing their ugly head in the United States during the 1960s came to the forefront in 1970s Britain. The Notting Hill Carnival in 1976 was an example of the Afro-Caribbean community, marginalised and victimised, pitted against the police (who represented the establishment). It ended with the arrest of 66 people and the injury of 125 policemen. Other race riots occurred across the country, such as those in Bristol in 1980.

    The final, loudest, most enduring and angriest of all the anti-establishment

    movements in the 1970s were the punks. It was a youth movement, just like those in the 1960s, that centred around music and anarchy. As young working-class bands such as the Sex Pistols began to understand their social context, this morphed into fury.

    Anti-establishment Johnny Rotten StudySmarterFig. 2 - Johnny Rotten

    The yells of 'NO FUTURE!' from lead singer Johnny Rotten on one of their most controversial tracks 'God Save The Queen' (1977), captured the restlessness, boredom and disillusion of many young people.

    Anti-Establishment Conservatism

    We can trace anti-establishment conservatism back to the premiership of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, who was a Eurosceptic. The introduction of the single market left some conservatives wondering where the line would be drawn; would the European Union soon be governing participating nations?


    Someone who is opposed to giving the European Union increased power

    Single market

    A trade agreement between participating countries, allowing them to trade without tariffs

    A split within the Conservative party developed and a crack soon became a fissure, largely down to one man: Nigel Farage.

    • He echoed the concerns of Thatcher, who was worried about a European super parliament filling the chasm left by the collapsed Soviet Union.
    • Disgusted at Prime Minister John Major's decision to join the EU in 1992, Farage left the Conservative party labelling them elitist and just an 'old boys' club, in reference to many of their member's private school origins.
    • By the end of the 1990s, his use of nationalism and populism gained him a platform on the European Stage, with rhetoric urging the masses to topple the establishment.

    The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), led by Farage, began to become a force in the European Parliament in the early 2000s. Farage's criticism of the European project became an emblem of the frustration some people felt.

    Tim Montgomerie sums up the appeal and myth that Farage successfully cultivated:

    He deploys the victimhood tactics long used by the left... Farage builds his base by suggesting that the native patriotic Britons are victims of an establishment that has surrendered the nation to immigrants, rule by Brussels and self-serving political elites. 2

    Anti-Establishment Brexit

    With the free movement that the European Union brought, the existing divide in the Conservative party became even deeper. In 2012, the number of EU migrants to the United Kingdom was less than 200,000, a couple of years later, it was almost 300,000. 3

    Anti-establishment David Cameron StudySmarterFig. 3 - David Cameron

    Prime Minister David Cameron was caught between a rock and a hard place. He pledged to reduce immigration but the United Kingdom was still part of the EU.

    This, coupled with austerity, meant trust in the establishment was really on the wane. Cameron miscalculated and called a referendum, asking the British public to decide to stay in or leave the European Union, expecting a decision to stay.

    Farage was a prominent face of the Leave campaign, in cahoots with influential Conservative members Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. In 2016, the voters decided to leave with a 52% majority and more than 17 million votes, sending shockwaves across the world and characterised as a victory for the 'little man' by Farage. Brexit had become a reality and the anti-establishment had rocked the elite.

    Despite this victory, there is now the sense that Brexit was a mistake. In many ways, it can be viewed as a protest vote, a desire to be heard. A majority of people surveyed on YouGov say that they think the Brexit transition has gone 'very badly'. 4


    A difficult economic situation that is caused primarily by a lack of government spending

    Anti-Establishment Slogans

    Though 'NO FUTURE' captures the mood of the punk movement, it was definitely not the only slogan that captured the anti-establishment sentiment. Let's examine some more quotations that went against the established order.


    That's why I'm a Mod, see? I mean you gotta be somebody ain't ya or you might as well jump in the sea and drown.

    Franc Roddam, Quadrophenia (1979).

    Quadrophenia is a rock opera film with music written by The Who that details the lives of disillusioned Mods and Rockers.

    All You Need is Love

    Title of a 1967 song by The Beatles, which epitomised the Swinging Sixties

    Black Panther Movement: Black Oppressed People All over the World Are One.

    A sign from a British Black Panther protest in 1971

    Fester Square

    The name given to Leicester Square in London during the Winter of Discontent when no bin collectors cleared the waste

    I don't want to be rude but, really, you have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk [...] I can speak on behalf of the majority of the British people in saying that we don't know you, we don't want you, and the sooner you are put out to grass, the better.

    Nigel Farage to EU Council Minister Herman van Rompuy, European Parliament (24 February 2010).

    These quotations demonstrate a disconnect with the establishment. Despite the different values of each anti-establishment group, each shared a necessity to find an outlet. Be it the Mods' preoccupation with fashion, the race pride of the British Black Panther Movement, or the peace and love of the Beatles, each anti-establishment ideal found something to give it hope.

    The Leicester Square quotation symbolises how the country was left to rot by the ruling elite, who did not take care of their population. Finally, Farage appealed to the desire of the masses to bring down a leader with whom they cannot identify.

    Anti-Establishment - Key takeaways

    • The first anti-establishment movement was in the 1960s, primarily made up of university students able to think critically about the way that things were.
    • They fought against war, campaigned for civil rights and found new ways of self-expression where music was important in counterculture groups such as the Mods and Rockers.
    • In the 1970s, the economic turmoil, resulting unemployment, and racial inequality meant that trade unions, punks and the Black community in the UK rallied against the establishment in various ways.
    • Anti-establishment conservatism developed because of the European Union. They were concerned about law-making, the single market and free movement.
    • UKIP, headed by Nigel Farage, used populism to create a split within the Conservative Party and eventually cause the UK to leave the EU in 2016.


    1. Nigel Farage, EU referendum "victory" speech, London (24 June 2016).
    2. Tim Montgomerie, 'Britain's Tea Party', The National Interest, No. 133, KASSINGER'S VISION: How to Restore World Order (2014), pp. 30-36.
    3. The Migration Observatory, ‘Briefing: EU Migration to and from the UK’, EU Rights and Brexit Hub (2022).
    4. YouGov ‘The EU transition period ended on Dec 31st 2020. Since then, do you think Brexit has gone well or badly?’, Daily Question (2022).
    5. Zoe Williams, ‘Nigel Farage’s victory speech was a triumph of poor taste and ugliness’, The Guardian (2016).
    Frequently Asked Questions about Anti-establishment

    What is anti-establishment?

    Anti-establishment is a term used to describe ideas or groups that are against the established order or authority.

    What does it mean to be anti-establishment?

    If you are anti-establishment, it means that you want to disrupt the current order because you believe the system of rule is not working.

    Why are so many people anti-establishment?

    People from all sides of the political spectrum are anti-establishment because they believe that their interests have been overlooked by those who govern them. They also question the values that the ruling class seek to uphold and believe in another way of governance.

    What was the counterculture of the 1960s and the 1970s?

    The counterculture of the 1960s centred around music and fashion and was borne out of the desire for peace and social freedoms. This was predominantly a middle-class movement with origins on university campuses.

    In the 1970s, a punk counterculture developed lamenting unemployment and the decline in industries that left the youth behind in a far angrier manner than previously. This was predominantly a working-class movement.

    What led to the counterculture movement?

    The original causes of the 1960s counterculture movement were a desire to breakaway from the spectre of World War II, anti-Vietnam war sentiment, the death of John F. Kennedy and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Increased affluence and education allowed for young people to think critically about their society.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The anti-establishment movement of the 1960s was angry with the death of which United States President?

    Which group drove scooters?

    How did the Swinging Sixties stimulate anti-establishment feeling?Choose three ways


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