The Language of Brexit
Yesterday, when Parliament re-opened after the prorogation that wasn’t, MPs accused the Prime Minister of using intemperate language, designed to stir up division and hate.
It is impossible to tell what, if anything, is in the Prime Minister’s mind when he is speaking. Often, he seems unprepared, which could mean he is unprepared. Jeremy Vine, however, tells an engaging anecdote that suggests Mr Johnson’s unpreparedness is, in fact, very carefully prepared indeed.
That suggests he is no careless abuser of language, and when he talks about his opponents ‘betraying’ the ‘will of the people’ and ‘undermining democracy’, he is doing so deliberately.
Students of history will recognise the fascistic overtones in those phrases. His accusation that Parliament’s elected house of representatives is, in a Parliamentary representative democracy, undemocratic is clearly absurd. As his accusation that the Supreme Court can be wrong on a matter of law. These things are literally impossible. He might as well say a fish isn’t fishy. But never mind, his MPs applaud and the Tory Social Media machine puts more money in the slot, and adds the lines to the scripts.
Once the damage is safely done, he can produce a hint of leadership. A word of regret about the heated nature of debate. But he takes no responsibility. There is intemperance on ‘both sides’, he says, neatly echoing the words of Trump after a person was killed at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. It didn’t matter to Trump that the his far-right supporters had murdered someone. There was blame on ‘many sides’. And so it didn’t matter to Johnson that the murder of Jo Cox had espoused his Brexit cause. There was blame on ‘both sides’.
That language is designed to slough off responsibility. It does more than that, though. It enables, and even excuses, murder. It says, in effect, that his supporters can’t be blamed for their actions if they’re opposed by his opponents. Which is the starting assumption of every totalitarian dictator in the bloody history of the 20th Century.
Brexit wasn’t always like this. It began with a referendum which, being narrowly divided, suggested a political compromise would need to be found. At least, it did until the following morning, when the hollow sham of the Leave campaign was laid bare by Nigel Farage himself who, on national television, admitted the promises shouldn’t have been promises. They had won the right to do a thing they didn’t know how to do. In the immortal words of Danny Dyer, they’d won a vote to deliver a ‘mad riddle that nobody knows what it is’. And, even though they hadn’t a plan, any rumours that they hadn’t were swiftly quashed.
The following three years have been a very painful procession through all the things that Brexit cannot be. It cannot deliver the ‘exact same benefits’, the manufacturers of Europe are not knocking on Macron’s and Merkel’s doors. We do not ‘hold all the cards’.
But that did not stop the ERG, the Tory leadership or the shape-shifting swamp of right-wing, and far-right, think-tanks, parties, campaign groups and troll-farms. Because it did not stop their backers, the gilded few who are spending literally millions pushing the Brexit button, despite not knowing what it does. We do not know, exactly, who they are or what their agenda is but, today, the Prime Minister’s own sister has given her opinion that it’s large investors keen on betting against Sterling. There are also clear, proven links between Brexit’s promoters and the American far-right and the Putin government exposed by the tireless, but much abused, Carole Cadwalladr.
Instead, the forces behind Brexit have simply moved the goalposts. To the point that, last month at least, ‘No Deal’ was the clear, favourite and much-trumpted policy of the government, which cranked up the civil service to promote (with £100m of taxpayer’s money) that outcome. While also hinting it was just a negotiating strategy, just in case the EU27 couldn’t hear.
Which brings us to this point, where we can look back and see how those goalposts have moved, and how, crucially, language is being used.
The millions of ordinary voters who backed Leave or Remain three years ago, and more-or-less grudgingly accepted the result, have been utterly and totally ignored. Their voice is unrepresented entirely, for there is no middle ground any more. There is the blind, undefined Brexit, of whatever form the Prime Minister chooses, or there is Remain. There is literally nothing in between. The the language of ‘both sides’ deliberately disenfranchises each and every one of them.
But, although there are only two options, Leave or Remain, that doesn’t make it a matter of ‘both sides’, because Brexit isn’t symmetrical. It’s not a this or that thing. On the face of it that makes no sense, so I’ll try to explain.
There is either Brexit or there isn’t. And, though we don’t know what Brexit is, we know some of the things it will do. And one of the things it must do is strip UK citizen, and every EU citizen in the UK, of certain rights.
I would suggest there are, broadly, two groups of people in the UK.
First, there is the group that has, over the past forty-five years, knowingly taken advantage of the rights of EU membership. They have, in one way or another, invested, worked, lived and/or raised families in EU27 countries, and with EU27 citizens. This also includes those that, though they may have taken advantage indirectly – having, perhaps, a Greek uncle or a German grandparent or an EU27-based business partner – are aware of those connections.
The second group are those who haven’t knowingly exercised those rights at all. They have benefited from EU membership, but indirectly or unwittingly. This may very will be a larger group.
This second group probably hasn’t noticed what the EU does, either. Nobody, after all, pays attention to the minutiae of supranational regulations. Nobody notices when food prices don’t go up. Workers don’t complain when they’re not exploited. Phone users don’t holler about charges that have been abolished. But they do notice screaming headlines about a ‘migrant crisis’ juxtaposed with articles about housing shortages. They do notice amusing articles about the madness of Brussels bureaucracy, even as they don’t notice their taxes have been cut because the UK no longer needs to maintain a Ministry of Labelling or a Fisheries Protection Force.
In short, Brexit takes something from those who have something to lose, and gives false promises to those who don’t. And, after a decade of austerity, in which the debts of banks have been slowly shifted first to government, and then to households, there are a great many people with nothing to lose.
Not only do they have nothing to lose, they don’t realise what the first group has to lose.
That’s because the problems of Brexit are caused by the instant disentanglement of forty-five years of cooperation based on the assumption that EU membership would continue. The assumption that the UK and Ireland would continue to remain in the same Single Market, bound by the same rules on capital, goods, services and labour, is the implicit underpinning of the Good Friday Agreement.
The same assumption underpins the lives of millions of families, based on choices made two or even three generations ago, who are now faced with sudden, painful disruption to how and where they live.
For example, before Brexit, an elderly retiree in Spain might hope for regular care in their old age, either from relatives or from Spanish social care providers. Brexit will make that very difficult. UK citizens will not be able to stay indefinitely in Spain, nor will they necessarily be able to support themselves. They will have to apply for visas and work permits and driving licences and prove their financial status and, if it’s possible at all, arrange to have their qualifications converted. They may need to take language tests, too. And, if they manage all that, what happens to their families in the UK? A UK retiree in Spain could, instead, return to the UK. But where can they afford to live? Having no ‘home’ council, they won’t be eligible for help with housing, or for social care.
That’s what the ‘both sides’ narrative is designed to cover up. It’s designed to paint those having their lives and livelihoods and peaceful co-existence put at risk look like the aggressors in a confected battle, rather than ordinary people whose whole ways of life are being chiselled away on behalf of a slight majority who, on the whole, never meant them any harm.
And that’s what I mean by Brexit being symmetrical. It is not a choice between one trade deal or another. It’s not about whether we should drive Japanese or Chinese cars. It is about whether millions of families, and thousands of businesses, should be allowed to continue as they are, or not.
The scale of that imbalance is staggering, yet it’s nowhere reflected in political debate which, in an orgy of false equivalence is attempting to balance the ‘will of the people’ against not just the legal and practical impossibility of delivering Brexit safely, assuming Brexit is ever defined, but the rights of those very people.
Nowhere are concerns even being addressed, except by governmental bluster and the bland advice of a civil service that’s currently instructing citizens and businesses to ‘wait and see’. Instead, all the problems are being heaped on the heads of “Remoaners”, while the government claims to be negotiating with “the enemy” to deliver a “fantastic deal” which, at best, will be nothing more than a divorce bill and, at worst, doesn’t exist at all.
Those ‘Remoaners’ are, indeed, protesting and petitioning in their millions. The Brexiteers, on the other hand, are gathering in, at most, their hundreds to chant Johnson’s name and jeer at their opponents. Yet the government is calling ‘both sides’ just the same.
That’s not just a false equivalence, but the snide enabling of something far more sinsister. When Farage or Johson or Baker, or any of the busload of Brexit Party MEPs, complain that Leave voters are being called ‘stupid racists’, check where those words are coming from. You won’t hear them from any Remain MP, or the campaigners for a People’s Vote or any genuine protestor. You will hear them only from the Brexiteers themselves. And the thousands of bots and trolls on Twitter, paid to be divisive, and never who they claim to be). All deliberately, and irresponsibly, stirring up anger, and hatred, amongst their followers. Stirring up hatred against opponents who just want peace, and the chance of prosperity, to continue.