Brexit and the manipulation of language

In my last entry, I quoted liberally from Orwell’s essay on Politics and the English Language in support of my argument that imprecise language is contributing to a debasement of our political discourse and pulling the wool over people’s eyes. Orwell wrote in this essay that a lot of political speech and writing was “in defence of the indefensible.” As a result, political speech was littered with euphemisms, platitudes, metaphors and “sheer cloudy vagueness.” I believe this explains rather a lot of the political language that has emerged from the Brexit camp, most notably the tagline to “take back control.” We still do not know what we are taking control of. Instead, we know that things seem pretty out of control. We also know that there were never £350 million a week to take back, that Turkey is not even remotely close to joining the EU and that the process is not going to be “easy.”

We all know that politics is full of spin, but this campaign and its aftermath have opened up our political discourse not just to imprecision, but above all to dishonesty and outright lies. Language is distorted in a way to make these lies sound truthful. The inevitable pain of Brexit is masked in a rhetoric of glory, triumph and confidence. And if you dare expose these lies, this farce, then you are a Remoaner at best and unpatriotic at worst. The Brexiteers are already setting up the Remainers as the next scapegoat after the EU — it will eventually be our fault that Brexit is not turning out to be a roaring success.

Language is also manipulated to dehumanise anyone who disagrees with the set path or is merely seen to do so — look no further than the Daily Mail front page branding our top judges “enemies of the people.” And let us not forget how language has been used throughout human history to dehumanise “the other”, anyone who differs from the majority. This happens anytime a politician uses the word “swarm” to refer to a group of migrants, when leaders label anyone with a migrant background “foreign” without any consideration for the multitude of reasons and motivations for people to come here and the many positive contributions that migrants make to this country. It happens anytime the media refers to “us” and “them.” History shows us that the gap between dehumanising words and actions is precariously small, and anyone who believes in a liberal, free and tolerant nation needs to counter this language as soon as it emerges, lest we endorse it by our silence or inaction.

All of us have to play our part in reversing this trend of dishonesty and obfuscation and in bringing facts and clarity back into political discourse. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, hold the Brexiteers to account. Ask them constantly where the £350 million a week for NHS is. Ask them why they never told us about the tens of billions we will pay just to exit the Union. Ask them when Turkey is joining. Ask them why your holidays have become so much more expensive. Ask them why there are no longer enough nurses in the NHS, no workers to pick our fruit, no staff available for care homes. Ask them why your wages haven’t gone up. Hold them to account for their lies, so that it no longer pays politically to deceive the British people. Because this deception goes far beyond the issue of Brexit, it threatens to undermine the very fabric of our democracy.

Dishonesty and language in British politics

With Boris earning a deserved rebuke for restating his £350 million lie again, I have been thinking about the levels of dishonesty that marked the campaign and everything that has followed since. Because we are still being fed lies every single day by our government and by the Brexiteers, who still cling on to the notion that behind the Brexit wall lies a land of milk and honey. I have yet to hear anyone be truly honest about the trade-offs and sacrifices that will result from Brexit. And I have yet to hear just one single convincing argument about what will be better outside the EU. Trust me, I’ve looked. I’ve read pro-Leave articles, spoken to Leave voters and tried to pick apart government proposals on Brexit. Not. One. Argument. Most of the supposed benefits are based on fantasy, delusion or downright lies.

I do not need to repeat the most damaging lies here, including the fact that we already could control immigration as EU members, but we chose not to. Rather, I want to reflect briefly on what the growing levels of dishonesty and the distortion of the English language is doing to our political and civic discourse.

I am far from being the only one to think about this. In 1945, George Orwell published his essay on Politics and the English Language, in which he writes, “[the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” He picked out two main flaws among his contemporary political writers, the “staleness of imagery” and the “lack of precision.” He argued that political orthodoxy “seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style” and that when listening to politicians “one often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy.”

This surely strikes right at the heart of what is wrong with our current political discourse. It is the perfect characterisation of our Prime Minister, who carried out the most dismal election campaign by never veering from her “strong and stable” platitudes. And even now, all she is doing is “getting on with the job of government”, while we pursue a “red, white and blue Brexit” for a “global Britain.” What does any of this actually mean?!

Take the “Global Britain” strategy of the Foreign Office, headed by none other than Mr £350 Million A Week Johnson. When quizzed about how our future relationship with the EU might look, he answered that the UK would be “a flying buttress, supportive of the EU project, but outside the main body of the church.” Boris may not be lifeless or stale, but he certainly lacks precision. Our foreign policy priorities must adjust to the new reality of Brexit, but the “Global Britain” strategy retains many of the same old pillars: global stability, peace and order, free trade and projecting our values. However, in the context of an ever-shrinking Foreign Office budget, how can the UK successfully deliver on all of these foreign policy aims without any EU support?

Or does “Global Britain” mean forming closer ties with illiberal regimes, promoting trade with certain countries at the expense of human rights? We have seen the PM travel to Turkey and Saudi Arabia and hold hands with Donald Trump. Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Fox has travelled extensively in the Gulf and countries such as the Philippines, where he appeared with President Duterte, who has overseen the most egregious violations of human rights in his country. Has the impending loss of our trading relationships with the EU and the rest of the world through the EU forced us to cozy up to regimes that are in many ways not aligned with our interests? Will we need to accept inferior trade deals with these countries just so that the government can claim — dishonestly — that Brexit has been a success?

Well over a year after the referendum result, none of these questions have even begun to be answered, at least not in the public domain. And I’m only asking questions about one single area of government. We have a similar lack of clarity and precision across all the vast policy areas which will be impacted by Brexit, from nuclear energy to the environment to labour rights.

No matter which way you voted in the referendum, this lack of clarity from our government is dangerous. It suggests, at best, that they do not know what they are doing and, at worst, that they do know what they are doing but do not want the public to know. It is therefore up to each and every citizen to demand answers from our politicians, and to force them to provide the clarity and precision that a policy course of this monumental consequence demands.