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The language of Brexit: From the fanatical to the inane.🔷

How politicians do and do not talk about Brexit has huge implications.


Politicians talk about Brexit in one of two ways. There are the hard Leavers who talk only in absolutes: we must leave at all costs, we must get out now, we must not pay anything for access to the EU. They speak in imperatives, directives, superlatives. They use the language of the fanatic. Then, there are the soft Leavers. They talk only in the abstract: continue to be a good friend, a strong partner, have a long transition period. They refuse to be drawn into specifics. They say what they do not want, but never what they do. Their words are empty, their sentences inane.

The hard-leavers have their champions in Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, one blunter in terms of language than the other, but both talk strictly in the absolute language of the fanatic. Neither will admit of any grey areas, any shades of Brexit. For both men, Brexit means Brexit! Neither seems aware that one must not define a word in terms of itself or the definition is meaningless. What is a circle? A circle is a circle. What is a tree? A tree is a tree.

On Sept. 15, we were treated to the tub-thumping loquacity of Johnson in his 4,000-plus-word treatise on leaving the EU. A precious few days later, on Sept. 22, we had the negotiations reset speech from Prime Minister Theresa May in Florence. Both should be scrutinized properly, not for content for that is either woefully lacking, or potentially false, but for the ways in which they twist meanings, intentions and truth to further self-interest.

Boris Johnson at the Informal meeting of ministers for foreign affairs in Tallin, Estonia, 8 September 2017.
(Flickr / Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE))


Boris Johnson’s Article, Sept. 15, 2017, The Daily Telegraph.

In common with many lazy classicists, Johnson opens with a reference to the great oratory of Shakespeare’s Marcus Antonius:

“My friends, I must report that there are at least some people who are woefully underestimating this country.”

Johnson is quite single-minded in getting his British, or more likely English, pride tropes in quickly with references to Dickens (‘… Jarndyce and Jarndyce legal proceedings…’) and ‘Hampton Court.’ He moves quickly to castigate those who doubt ‘our resolve’ or believe that those who voted Leave are stupid; they are not. How could 17.4 million people be wrong? He then begins the fallacies in earnest.

[…] I hope you agree that it is our duty, as democrats, to fulfil the mandate they [Leave voters] gave us.’

[…] we all know that it is far too simple to divide this country into leavers and remainers.’

‘Before the referendum, we all agreed on what leaving the EU logically must entail: leaving the customs union and the single market, leaving the penumbra of the ECJ; taking back control of borders, cash, laws.’

It is the use of the first person plural in these instances that should give the greatest cause for concern. It pushes individual culpability or action into the domain of us all. Do we agree? Do we all know? Did we all agree? At the time, did even Boris? He moves to the ‘arc of history’ and a facile reading of the U.K.’s motivations for joining the European project in 1973, by then the European Economic Community. To clarify, the European Coal and Steel Community was set up in 1951 by ‘the six’: France, Germany, Italy and Benelux. At the time, Britain had no interest in joining, being far more involved with its Commonwealth. Britain was similarly not involved when The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, which in turn produced the European Economic Community (EEC), or the Common Market, in 1958. Britain was only involved in a peripheral European Free Trade Area from 1958 until 1973, during which time it tried twice to join the full EEC, finally being accepted in 1973. This horribly abbreviated synopsis of the life of the EU and Britain’s relations with it misses all the motivations for the project, its moral qualities, its explicit, from day one, ambitions to forge ever closer union. All these were facts on the ground when the EU finally accepted Britain’s application. Johnson claims that:

[…] why we wanted to join you have to remember […] the way in which this post-imperial future was sold to the people — a common market, a way of maximising trade.’

‘ Then came the gradual realisation that this was a very different agenda, an attempt not just at economic but political integration of a kind that the British people had never bargained for […]

But this is simply untrue. A twisting of the truth to further his agenda. His essential point being: we were always lied to, now we have a chance to get out and get back to our glorious Imperial heyday.

He moves to talk about his relationship with the EU ‘I was there when […] , and the fallacies begin again: […] if only we were there we could somehow reform it all […] But we are there; we can reform the institutions. The United Kingdom is a part of the European Union. The U.K.’s diplomats, in common with the diplomats from the other 27 member states, draft legislation that affects every one of those member states. If the UK numbers only 3.6 percent of the current total of EU diplomats, as Johnson claims, then we need to more fully resource our EU mission, not cry over a lack of influence. Further, the Court of Justice over which Johnson spills so much ink is comprised of a single member from each state. The U.K.’s is called Eleanor Sharpston who has been Advocate General at the Court of Justice since 2006.

The first half of his article concludes with remarks that ‘it is wrong for us to be there’, its ‘plan is simply not for Britain.’ and that being part of the EU has ‘not helped us to address the real challenges this country faces.’ All of which are deeply contestable.

His second half begins in earnest how being out of the EU will help the UK. But it is the way he says it, the way he occludes the real and emphasises the false. The language that makes any who doubt him a Cassandra.

[…] unemployment is at record lows, and manufacturing is booming […]

[…] after Brexit we will no longer be able to blame anyone but ourselves […]

‘Our destiny will be in our hands […]

[…] we will be able to diverge from the great accumulated conglomerate, to act with regulatory freedom.’

[…] we will make sure that business gets the skills it needs […]

‘No one would want a tax that discouraged international investment […]

‘This is our chance to catch the wave of new technology, and to put Britain in the lead.’

He weaves, he bobs and ducks, he flatters himself and others. He chastises and ridicules. And all the while his sentences leave no room for doubt. Even his counterfactuals read as though they were declaratives.

‘If we had been asked to design the EU ourselves with a blank sheet of paper we would have nothing like the body that exists today.’

[…] do I really believe that if we had stayed in, we would have produced a more devolved a more decentralised a more free trading European Union?
I am afraid not.’

In conclusion, there is something deeply disturbing about this article and the language that Johnson uses. There are no facts, no grounding in truth or reality. In every instance where there might be, they are bent to serve his agenda, not left for impartial analysis. His fanatical style is dangerous and harmful. His role as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gives him a patina of respectability and the authority of office. They should not be so abused.

Theresa May at the Tallinn Digital Summit, in Estonia, 28 September 2017.
(Flickr / Annika Haas (EU2017EE))


Theresa May’s Florence Speech, Sept. 22, 2017.

The speech by British Prime Minister Theresa May is a further instance of the misuse of language in order to confuse.

It begins with an appeal to shared history and a flatterers entreaty to the hosts.

‘It’s good to be here in this great city of Florence […] It was here, more than anywhere else, that the Renaissance began — a period of history that inspired centuries of creativity and critical thought across our continent and which in many ways defined what it meant to be European.’

This may well be true, but it is vacuously true. She goes on:

[The Renaissance was] a period of history whose example shaped the modern world. A period of history that teaches us that when we come together in a spirit of ambition and innovation, we have it within ourselves to do great things.’

I am not sure that the Renaissance teaches us any of those things, but it is hard to dispute that ‘when we come together in a spirit of ambition and innovation, we have it with ourselves to do great things.’ And that is precisely the point. Saying something so empty draws you in. Even the ardent Remainer finds herself nodding in agreement. That is where the linguistic trick begins. Observe the following:

‘The British people have decided to leave the EU; and to be a global, free-trading nation, able to chart our own way in the world.’

Clearly this is at best half-truth. The ballot last year asked nothing about wanting to be a global, free-trading nation. But it is this appeal to ‘globalism and free trading’ that twists and turns. Remainers, as pro-Europeans, were ever globalists and free traders. So conflating the two, one is left wondering where to go. Again the sophistry of treading the finest of lines between the arguments:

[…] we want to be your strongest friend and partner as the EU, and the UK thrive side by side.’

Being a member of the European Union is the only way to be the ‘strongest friend and partner’ of the EU. ‘Strongest’ is a superlative. The UK can be a ‘strong friend and partner’ of the EU if Brexit is successful, but the only way to be the ‘strongest friend and partner’ is to remain in the EU. Not an option, of course. There follows a huge amount of talk about Britain ‘stand[ing] with its friends and allies’, of Britain’s ‘determination to defend the stability, security and prosperity of our European neighbours and friends’ all of which would be equally applicable if last year the vote had gone the other way.

Next, she explains the decision of the ‘British people’ as a desire for ‘control and the direct accountability of their politicians’ which is then tempered by mentioning the advantages of the pooled sovereignty of the European project. So far, the entire speech has consisted only of dull explanation and observation. She talks about the spirit of the talks, their shape, the deliberately vague consequences of them not coming to the right conclusion. She mentions some of the explicit challenges, Ireland, European nationals resident in the UK, the Court of Justice but she gives those comments no flesh, no content. And as though her speech is aware of this content gap, it just repeats the same inane platitudes over and over.

The final section, in theory, deals with her vision for Brexit but of course, it doesn’t. She mentions models, options, possibilities, warnings but never once mentions anything concrete. The conclusion is as empty as everything else.

[…] if we get the spirit of this negotiation right […] then at the end of this process we will find that we are able to resolve the issues where we disagree respectfully and quickly.’

‘And if we can do that, then when this chapter of our European history is written, it will be remembered not for the differences we faced but for the vision we showed; not for the challenges we endured but for the creativity we used to overcome them; not for a relationship that ended but a new partnership that began.

You can read it again and again and at the end realise that you have read nothing.


Fanatical vs Inane

These two very different ways of talking about Brexit are equally worrying. The fanatical talk of Johnson for its disturbing fervour, and the inane platitudes of May for the vacuum it leaves. With no real content from her, the concern is that the content will be provided by the fanatics.🔷


(Cover: Photograph by Flickr / Gage Skidmore - Nigel Farage speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, 24 February 2017.)


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British, currently living in the USA and viewing British politics with nearly as much alarm as the US version.
Los Angeles, USA