Who are “the people?” Language games in Brexit and beyond

brexit-e1547639192542Many of us in the UK are sick of Brexit, and it hasn’t even happened yet. We have been living through the Brexit referendum and its aftermath, Brexit as process, for more than three years. Keen political observers and pundits may be among those who are fed up, though they keep a closer eye on matters, and some of them have reporter’s duties to uphold.

One of the aspects of this whole business which is not often examined, with regards to Brexit and politics more generally, is the use and abuse of political rhetoric. I have chosen a few terms that are over-used by our politicians and try to unpick them below. Since they generally pass without question, and are key to how we are persuaded, or otherwise, I thought it would be a helpful exercise. This is part politics and economics, part semantics.

When others are trying to persuade us using rhetoric, one must keep in mind that words are not the same thing as that to which they refer. Words are not reality. Words are symbols used in communication to convey meaning. While it is both inconvenient and practically impossible to contest every word as it is uttered, it should be remembered that ideas and concepts, however we name or describe them, miss out much of the related information that we can potentially perceive with our senses, as well as much that we cannot.

Our sensory experiences are mediated by our nervous system and the ways in which it is structured and has learned to process information. We tend to believe that what we perceive is equal to reality, whereas whatever reality might be, it has been filtered by our often biased and very human brain. Snakes can perceive heat waves, allowing them to “see” in the dark. Humans perceive things differently. This does not make either perception the “correct” reality, rather each one is partial.

Following this digression, I discuss some of the language games of Brexit below. Calling them games may rather trivialise the serious issues involved, so please forgive me for that.

The people

The original referendum was won by 52% in favour of leaving the EU. More than 17 million voted this way. These must be “the people” that those in authority favouring leave refer to. Of course this was a majority of those who voted, but it leaves an awful lot of people whose views are being neglected in the event of leaving. I know that this is how referenda work, and of course in this case only a simple majority was required for victory. But politicians favouring leave seem to talk about the people as if this includes all the people that matter. They use it as a blanket term, one that is unquestioned.

Particularly if the UK leaves via a hard Brexit (see below) rather than a soft one, a choice which was not on the ballot paper, and one that may be poorly understood and whose consequences are deeply uncertain and may be highly disruptive to many, it is not clear to me that the option being pursued would command a majority if a new and different referendum were held. Who knows?

17 million sounds impressive as a mandate, but it is certainly much less than the whole electorate, which is surely closer to what a reasonable definition of “the people” might include. The phrase is used far too often in order to silence opposition with a simple unspoken appeal to populism, which, in a similarly unspoken manner, is equated with democracy. These are not only different words, but they refer to different things, and represent concepts that are contested.

There is so much about using “the people” as a rhetorical device that is unsaid and presupposed, that it has become a dangerous weapon in the debate. Popular sovereignty or direct democracy are not the same as parliamentary or representative democracy. It seems that, from each side, the prerogative of using one or the other appears to appeal to what is right and good, with little likelihood of reconciliation between the two.

Hard versus soft Brexit

One hears almost nothing of these two terms these days, either from politicians or campaigners. Perhaps the negotiations of the UK government with the EU put a stop to their use, as some sort of soft Brexit deal emerged from them, which was apparently the best that could be offered. This deal enraged many from the anti-EU camp, who increasingly argued for what they used to call a hard Brexit, or what is now called a “no-deal”.

Theresa May’s deal failed to satisfy both remainers, who obviously still want the UK to remain in the EU, and many leavers, who wanted a hard Brexit and nothing else. The deal has to date been rejected by parliament three times.

A hard Brexit appeals to many because it promises to sever many ties with EU institutions and restore greater UK sovereignty.

Or does it? One point of the EU is to pool sovereignty via common institutions in order to gain power and control at the regional and global levels. Many on the centre-left who are generally pro-EU see this as a way to restore a kind of social democracy, aspects of which have been lost in the wake of neoliberal reforms and globalisation. These are held to have weakened the power and sovereignty of the nation state to regulate the market, and the institutions of capital and labour, in order to reduce inequality and insecurity. In short they believe that the balance can be shifted back towards labour, or the poorer majority, and away from those at the top, whether they are excessively remunerated CEOs or those involved in finance, broadly conceived, in order to produce a fairer society.

Thus the centre-left see the EU as a progressive project, at least when compared with the neoliberalism that they dislike. The policies that flow from this project may no longer be achievable at the national level, particularly for small, open economies. This is key to left wing support of the EU.

By contrast, and seemingly in contradiction with the view of the centre-left, right wing supporters of the EU, which at one time included Margaret Thatcher, view it as a way to expand the reach of free markets and free trade across Europe. The completion of the single market was seen to be part of this process, which aims to remove barriers to trade between EU member states, by reducing both tariff and non-tariff barriers. Thus all sorts of market regulations have been harmonised across the EU. This makes things difficult for the free-market right, who typically equate aspects of freedom with less regulation. Those who have turned away from the EU have a vision of sovereignty which is at odds with EU regulatory harmonisation, even if that means increasing barriers with the largest market in the world.

Some on the left of the UK’s Labour Party have long been opposed to the EU, seeing it as preventing the achievement of socialism at home and beyond, which they believe requires far greater state control of the economy than is permitted by EU law. However, there are many more among the UK political class in favour of Brexit from the libertarian right, who see it as an opportunity to “complete” the Thatcherite project begun in the 1980s, which would mean as much deregulation and downsizing of the state as possible, in a country which, in European terms, is already pretty deregulated. This has not prevented the UK’s productivity performance falling behind much of “over-regulated” continental Europe, particularly since the financial crisis.

Brexiteers or Brexiters?

As noted by economist Simon Wren-Lewis, Brexiteer sounds a bit like Musketeer, the soldier romanticised by Alexandre Dumas. This makes it seem almost heroic, akin to those fighting for what is right, so he suggested that it would be better to use the more emotively neutral term Brexiter. Clearly he understands the power of language, particularly when it comes to political and media rhetoric.

Crashing out without a deal or a clean break with the EU?

Both these phrases refer to the same process: that of a no-deal Brexit. I say process because even if no-deal became law, that would not be the end of it, as many hope or believe. It would probably create much disruption to those aspects of life currently governed by EU regulation. Untangling (another loaded word; they seem hard to avoid with Brexit) the UK from many of its international relationships and replacing them with new relationships, both with the EU and the world beyond, will surely take years and consume many hours of further negotiation and bureaucratic activity.

So which is it? For remainers who respect the result of the referendum, “crashing out without a deal” is clearly to be avoided. It does sound pretty bad after all. For those in favour of a no-deal, and as already mentioned, it seems unlikely that they are a majority, among politicians or the wider population, a “clean break” sounds positive, easy and rapid. For them, it leads to some sort of freedom to pass into the sunlit uplands beyond the whole Brexit shebang.

Incidentally, no-one has called for a dirty Brexit, which is perhaps a more appropriate way to refer to the whole shenanigans, from the campaign prior to the referendum onwards. Referring to a clean break with the EU truly ignores all the complications of the process, both before and after.

Project fear

This one is a bit like “fake news” and alludes to the presence of some sort of grand conspiracy. Each time it is uttered and the “fear” story is either accepted or dismissed, those who hear it become a little more numb in response, and accepting of it as legitimate in what it refers to. It becomes part of the accepted dialogue, inspiring reactionary emotional responses and shutting down rational debate.

Take back control

This is more controversial than it sounds. As already alluded to above, there may be trade-offs between national sovereignty and control in terms of economic and social policy in a globalised world. Pooling a degree of sovereignty may increase control at the supra-national level and empower individual states in some ways, but at the cost of relinquishing that sovereignty at the national level.

Freedom to strike our own trade deals

This may strictly be an outcome of leaving the EU, but trade deals typically take years to negotiate, and if there is pressure on the UK side to agree deals quickly, this will tend to reduce her negotiators’ bargaining power. The EU, as a large regional block, has far more bargaining power in such negotiations, as it is able to offer improved access to a much larger market and potentially greater economic benefits. While the UK may gain a certain “freedom”, it loses a great deal of bargaining power, with consequences for the nature of the deals struck.

Further, final thoughts

A more recent bugbear which EU supporters in the UK seem to ignore is the eurozone crisis. Its causes and handling by EU institutions revealed deep flaws in their structure and have produced economic and social disaster for millions across the continent who have lost their jobs and seen wages squeezed. This has vindicated the UK’s decision not to join the euro at its inception.

Changes in economic policy, particularly in Germany, where large economic imbalances fed the crisis and its aftermath, could go a long way to improving prosperity and social cohesion across the EU. But its political class have displayed a mixture of ignorance and pig-headedness over the issue and have failed to act.

Much of the problem with the operation and legitimacy of EU institutions comes down to the trade-offs involved with membership. Dani Rodrik refers to this as the globalisation trilemma: a nation-state cannot sustain democracy, national sovereignty and hyper-globalisation together, and will be forced to choose two of them at the cost of relinquishing the third to some extent.

In the case of EU membership, countries have a degree of democracy at the supra-national level and hyper-globalisation or a path towards deeper economic integration. But they forgo some national sovereignty. A hard Brexit would allow the UK to regain this, but the pursuit of hyper-globalisation could well lead to a “race to the bottom” in terms of labour rights and environmental standards, which would arguably undermine aspects of democracy.

The most desirable alternative for those wishing to restore a social democratic basis for policy would be to forgo hyper-globalisation by placing greater limits on capital and labour mobility. This would allow for more control over domestic economic and social policy so that measures to reduce inequality and stabilise the economy would be more effective and sustainable.

Another theoretical possibility is for a pan-European social democracy, which would require deeper political integration and greater policy-making capability at the EU level. It would need a much larger EU budget in order to provide a counter-cyclical buffer for those states suffering greater falls in demand and employment during recessions.

In terms of the trilemma, this would mean further losses of national sovereignty for EU member states in exchange for greater state intervention at the federal level in order to encourage greater continental prosperity and equality. However, at present there seems to be neither the political will nor sufficient political legitimacy for this, so it seems unlikely at the moment.

In other words, there are no utopias. Given the ubiquity of such trade-offs, there are difficult choices to be made. The presuppositions of the political rhetoric which often dominates debate in ways that attempt to shut it down make this process that much harder.

4 thoughts on “Who are “the people?” Language games in Brexit and beyond

  1. You’re right to underline the fact that discourse matters. And ruling out utopias is always sensible. However, the relationship of the manufactured Brexit crisis to the problems in the Eurozone is hard for some of us to think through. This is because the Great Recession seemed to be largely triggered by flaws in Anglo-Saxon capitalism, with subprime mortgages having a big impact on the British economy. It would appear that the Conservative Party played people for fools by claiming that holding a referendum on the European issue would bring about a new model of capital accumulation, unite the divided Conservative Party and defeat UKIP.

    The accession to power of Donald Trump made this triple ambition impossible to deliver. Post-referendum economics would be influenced by the erratic United States, the Conservative Party would become more divided not less, and the vanquishing of UKIP would be followed by the dramatic rise of the Brexit Party. To top it all, the geniuses in charge would suspend Parliament and fail to respect the conventions of the British Constitution. For me, the democratic deficit in the European Union can no longer be criticised, given the battering that our fragile democracy has taken. My contention is that Brexit is not actually about Europe, it is about establishing a cultural war that attempts to block the rise of progressive politics in the UK.

  2. Nicely laid out. Thanks. Of course, Brexiteer also brings to mind ‘privateer’. in Elizabethan times they were state-sanctioned criminals masquerading as patriots. No that sounds familiar….

  3. Dodgy use of the term “the people” is ubiquitous and frequent among virtually all factions of the political scene.

    More pertinently, perhaps, I don’t think it is wrong to say that “the people” support the Brexit-vote (however close it may have been) in that a majority of the electorate accept the fundamental rule of democracy: the outcome of an election is to be honoured — something numerous members of the parliament seem to be indifferent to.

    The EU is so popular with politicians because it is a welcome vehicle to circumvent the national demos and to make unaccounted-for deals with their political clients.

    I’m absolutely in line with the Marxist Tony Benn concerning the undemocratic nature of the EU.

    Not enough, the EU is anti-social.

    In sum, the EU is anti-social and undemocratic, hence, anti-social-democratic — but this does not seem to bother today’s so-called left.

    I agree, any reform of the EU — or rather the way European nation states engage in collective operations — requires inspiration and guidance from the left — from social democracy: BECAUSE the EU is a decidedly anti-social-democratic, monetarist and neo-liberal institution.

    A better Europe calls for the return of social democratic objectives to the political agenda. But I am afraid today’s so-called left prefers compliance with the elitist-corporatist EU-bureaucracy to a revival of its former values.

    One is being charitable in calling the position of the so-called left vis-à-vis the EU merely contradictory.

  4. “The British election saw an abject rejection of the party of the workers by the workers.”

    Apparently, the workers are sick and tired of the so-called left, which is in fact the opposite of a progressive or social democratic left,

    Below are two articles (one linked to within the article that I am linking to) which should be noteworthy to anyone with a particular concern for inequality.


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