The “debate” about Brexit makes for an interesting study into the use of language, and maybe also into the intellectual capacity of many of those advocating it. Here’s my observation on how the Brexit camp uses emotive clichés to support its case rather than engage in sensible discussion. Please note that one of my favourite TV comedy characters is Bernard Woolley, the Principal Private Secretary to PM Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister, which may explain my readiness to seize upon details and nag at them.
Before starting with the real fun I should mention that the only obvious “Yes” cliché I can find is “Project Fear”, which harks back to the many attempts in the past to win arguments or elections by scaring the pants off the undecided. The tactic is normally associated with right-wing organs like The Sun or The Daily Mail, whose readers are sufficiently uncritical to accept as fact anything printed in the pages of those alleged newspapers. Trouble is that although it may be unpalatable, grubby and underhand, fear may also be the best tactic in this case.
Referendum voters are split fairly evenly into 3 groups. Two of these – one pro, the other anti – are people whose minds will never be changed; not by reason, fear, Cameron’s successful renegotiation or even by bribery. I confess to being in one of these groups myself.This leaves the one-third who are genuinely undecided, and it’s this group that Project Fear seeks to address. Expect to see all sorts of apocalyptic pronouncements about everything from EasyJet raising their holiday flight charges, to Scotland tearing apart the Union, or to the lights going out when the French cut off the cross-channel link. Some of these are possible outcomes about which fear is quite justified and others may be speculative or even exaggerated, but they’re all fair game when there’s a referendum to win.
Now on to what I like to call the Brexiteers, most of whom have a reluctance to engage in rational debate, relying instead on a truckload of clichés. I don’t intend to list them exhaustively (it would take too long) so here are 5 of my favourites.
1. “Bloated Brussels Bureaucracy”
According to The Daily Telegraph (whose figures are suspected by many to be wildly inflated), there are about 170,000 “bureaucrats” working for the EU. Seems quite a large number, though looked at another way it’s a little over 6,000 per country. By comparison, in 2014 there were about 248,000 civil servants in the top 4 Whitehall departments (DWP, HMRC, MoJ and MoD). That’s 40 times more than our share of the EU “bloat”. Also note the difference in terminology; ours are civil servants (good) but theirs are bureaucrats (bad).
2. “The dead hand of Brussels Bureaucracy”
It’s a wonderful, resonant phrase but what does it mean? The complaint is usually that laws are being enacted by Brussels that go against British interests. How exactly does a “dead hand” actually enact a law? And where did you get the idea that Brussels bureaucrats enact laws in the first place? Do UK civil servants enact laws? No, it’s the Government that does that, and the EU Council of Ministers (government), just like ours, is elected and fully accountable to the people of Europe. In short, bureaucrats don’t make laws. Not here. And not there, either.
3. “European Super-State”
This one at least has some basis in reality. It was, and still remains, the Utopian pipe dream of lunatic-fringe idealists with little understanding of human nature or political reality. The idea was that we’d all become one happy family, governed by Brussels and probably speaking Esperanto, and there is absolutely nobody in any position of power in a European country or the EU itself who believes such a thing could even happen, never mind that it could be forced upon unwilling participants. That doesn’t stop the Brexiteers wheeling out the phrase with tedious regularity, under the apparent belief that only the British have any national pride. The idea that Germans are proud to be German and French to be French seems never to have occurred to them.
4. “Control of our borders”
Now we get to one that we can actually have a reasoned argument about. People who use the phrase are referring to one of two things. One is the influx of EU citizens to Britain, seeking to steal our jobs and live off our benefits (how is it possible to do both?). The other is the flood of refugees washing across much of Europe, who must not be allowed entry to Britain as we can’t afford to look after them. Both groups, it’s predicted, will destroy our national identity and way of life, which makes me wonder why Britain is imagined to be so lacking in confidence about its national identity and the ability of its institutions to withstand such pressures. Other countries have taken in huge numbers but Germany is still recognisably German and Italy has yet to feel anything but authentically Italian, in spite of the numbers arriving from across the Mediterranean.
The uncomfortable truth is that Brexit will most likely either make no difference to incoming numbers or will actually cause them to increase. Most of the first category of migrants are Eastern European people coming to work and without them many of our systems would be under intolerable strain. It would be more accurate to refer to them as expats rather than migrants. Although some remain here, many eventually return to their home countries and the rest are balanced by a significant exodus of British nationals seeking to work or retire elsewhere.
As for the migrants in Calais, the reason they are not arriving in Britain in huge numbers is because our customs border is in Calais itself so they never get the chance to leave French soil. So now imagine, post-Brexit, a French government heavily influenced by Marine Le Pen. It’s most likely such a government will demand the border to be moved back to Dover and will turn a blind eye to migrants climbing on lorries, trains and ferries. They’ll all arrive in Dover and the French government will then refuse to take them back. Why should they? We’re not part of Europe any more. Think it through, people, before you trot out the clichés.
5. “Our once great country”
This, as applied to the UK, expects the reader to accept the premise that Britain has gone to the dogs as a direct consequence of EU membership and nothing else. Users of it have no awareness of world history beyond the simple fact that we joined something they dislike utterly. For them, undoing that single “simple” mistake will return us to the glorious days when the map of the world was mostly red. Other changes are ignored; like the doubling of the UK population in the intervening years, the rise of China and India as major world powers, the huge growth in income levels (most of it going to the already rich) and the digital revolution, all of which have had effects that transcend national borders and will remain whether Britain is a member of the EU or not.
The acceptance of inferiority implied by the use of this phrase is quite telling, as it displays an unwillingness to take responsibility for our own path through life, preferring to blame others when things don’t turn out exactly as we wanted. This is behaviour normally associated with children and immature adults seeking the safety and security of their comfort blankets. We should help these people to take charge of their lives and achieve the greatness they crave by learning to cooperate with their neighbours.
There are many other clichés in common use, but five is enough for a start. We who want Britain to remain part of a dynamic continent must counter them whenever they are used and demand clarification about what is actually in the minds of those who use them. Sloppy thinking leads to actions taken without due attention to detail, and this can prove disastrous in a competitive international context. The referendum represents the biggest decision Britain has made for decades and it’s essential to go in with eyes wide open, not blinded by meaningless slogans whose only strength is in endless repetition.