Should the UK mark Brexit with a special coin? While the design is not yet known, the text on the reverse side will say Friendship with all nations. Is it desirable to have such a coin, with this text?

There are various special 50p coins in circulation, including EU-related ones. In 1973, a coin with joining hands symbolized the strengthening ties between the UK and other nations of the European Economic Community. The UK’s membership of the EEC was endorsed through referendum of a supermajority of 67% in favour. By contrast, the 2016 referendum result is quite close, at 52%, and more people now think it was wrong to vote Leave than people who think it was right.

As the march for a People’s Vote with 700,000 people attending from all parts of the country demonstrates, many people are not reconciled to the idea of Brexit. Below a representative tweet of what Remainers think of a Brexit memorial coin:

One could argue that it’s important to mark a momentous event like Brexit even if the majority of people oppose it because of its historical importance.

Yet, looking at monuments, statues and memorial coins that we currently have, historical significance by itself is usually not the reason for commemoration. Rather, the act of symbolizing a historical event or person in art or coin is a political act, very often it is an act of recognition, a form of celebration, or an endorsement.

Putting drawings of Beatrix Potter on 50p coins says something about her perceived importance as an artist and children’s author in the canon of British children’s literature.

It’s also illustrated by controversial monuments, such as statues of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford. Should such monuments be torn down? That’s a different question from: what monuments and commemorative tokens should we create now?

Cecil Rhodes statue, Oriel College

We do not know the shape Brexit will take, but what we do know is that it was fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment, including anti-Muslim and anti-refugee sentiment, exacerbated and carefully massaged by the tabloid media.

The Brexit campaigns (Vote Leave and Leave.EU) used dark ads that directly spoke to those concerns, calling EU citizens exercising freedom of movement “EU killers”, and linking them to crime, rape, and overpopulation (hence liquid metaphors such as “swarms”, “floods”).

Daily Mail

In the aftermath of Brexit, EU citizens were declared bargaining chips to be used on the negotiating table, and human shields to protect the British in Europe (which the UK has otherwise shown a callous disregard for, for instance, by refusing to meet with spokespeople of lobby groups for British in Europe rights in the EU).

Only very recently did the UK say it would give some unilateral provisions that would allow EU citizens (if they apply and are successful in their application, and pay a fee) to continue to remain in their own house.

In the light of all of this, “Friendship with all nations” does not sound authentic.

We can further think of the implicatures of the speech act “Friendship with all nations”. Here, because of the shapelessness of Brexit, it is difficult to see which of these implicatures are intended.

In the philosophy of language, implicature is the act of meaning one thing by saying another thing intentionally. Examples include metaphors, understatements or hyperboles. You can say something, without saying it explicitly. For example, Nick Muzin, senior advisor and deputy chief of staff of Republican senator Ted Cruz tweeted in 2014:

Nick Muzin tweet ”Before Obamacare, there had never been a confirmed case of Ebola”

Note that Muzin is not saying that Obamacare caused ebola, but he implies it — it is thus possible to lie using implicatures without telling anything that is strictly speaking false.

Another example:

Parent: “How is Henry getting on at St Edmund’s?”

Headteacher: “Well, he hasn’t been expelled yet.”

Again, what is relevant here (that Henry isn’t doing well) is not outright stated, does not logically entail it, but it is implied.

What are the implicatures of “Friendship with all nations”?

A charitable reading might be, “Although we are cutting ourselves off from a close relationship with 27 countries, we still mean to be friendly.”

But it might also imply, “Now we are out of the EU, it is possible for us to finally be friendly with all nations.” This sentiment is echoed by, for instance, Theresa May who argued that thanks to Brexit, the UK would be able to become a truly global trading nation, before hampered by being part of the EU.

Or it might imply the full phrase from the inaugural presidential speech by Thomas Jefferson, from it is clearly borrowed: “Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none.” Alliances? Not our sort of thing. They’re messy, they entangle us. The implicature is clear: finally we’re out of the entangling alliance with the EU. We got our country back.

It’s also notable that the EU is not, and probably never will be, a nation. It’s a union. So, by saying “Friendship with all nations”, the coin is saying “We only want to deal in a friendly way with nations, and we do not recognize the EU as an entity to deal with”, echoed in the divide-and-conquer strategy with which the UK has tried to steer the Brexit negotiations, trying to use the German car industry to get a better deal.

As such, the coin is not an olive branch offered in a gesture of reconciliation, but a stick they brandish to the EU — we don’t recognize you as a political and economic authority.

In a sense, the conflicting implicatures of the phrase “Friendship with all nations” echoes the very shapelessness of Brexit, the deliberate ambiguity of it. Whatever the coin will do, it will not bring the nation closer together or heal divisions.

If a coin is to commemorate Brexit, the phrase on the coin should ideally not just reflect the thoughts of the elites (global trade, not recognizing the EU as an entity to deal with) but the population at large. I do not see how that can be done on the side of a coin.🔷


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Belgian philosopher and Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University who specialises in philosophy of religion, experimental philosophy, and philosophy of cognitive science.