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.

I am actually the patriot

Yes, I already know what is coming next, what will inevitably follow from the last post. The Brexiteers will accuse me of being unpatriotic. That I don’t believe in Britain. Well, frankly, I think the Brexiteers are unpatriotic. It is precisely because I am patriotic, because I served this country for most of my career and have seen what good it can do in concert with its European allies that Brexit has left me so heartbroken. Brexit has already diminished this country and weakened its economy. It has become more insular, small-minded, mean, closed, poor and xenophobic.

What happened to the Britain of five years ago, when we welcomed the world to our Olympics, when we showed off our sense of humour and joy and fun, when the world came together in our capital city and we were at its heart? Brexit has shut the door to all this. We have become a laughing stock with Boris at the helm of our diplomatic efforts and with a damaged Prime Minister supposedly at the helm of the rest of government. My sense from my international travels and reading local press is that the rest of the world pities us and cannot understand what we are doing. To boot, France is now the main European power at the United Nations, and the rest of the Eurozone is leaving our economy in the dust.

Ah, but at least we have our freedom and our sovereignty back! No more Brussels bureaucrats telling us what to do! But, hang on, what do we even mean by sovereignty? Does being sovereign mean that you can never strike agreements or join alliances? Because any agreement or alliance will require a certain sacrifice in autonomy in exchange for greater rewards — that is how any club works. You pool your resources for the common good, and in exchange, you abide by certain rules that you all agree upon. That is what the EU is. There aren’t any dictators sitting in a golden palace in Brussels telling us what to do. We sit in conference rooms and office buildings and talk, negotiate, discuss, compromise, agree.

The UK always had a very influential role in setting these agreed rules, because we were a strong European power and people respected our expertise and opinions. And in exchange, we were free to trade, to move, to exchange resources with our closest friends and allies. We shared our intelligence to keep each other safe, we cooperated in higher education and research to find cures for diseases and stretch the boundaries of science. We British had the freedom to learn about new cultures, to fall in love and settle and raise families across Europe, to take that job promotion in Paris, Barcelona or Rome. We were already free and sovereign in the EU! The collective failure of the Brexiteers to see this is just one of the many tragedies of Brexit and one of the many tragedies that is being inflicted upon the UK.

So, yes, it is precisely because I am a patriot that I oppose Brexit with every fibre of my being. I want to see a return to the open, tolerant and joyous country we were in the summer of 2012. When international connections were an asset, and not something to be ashamed of. Where I was free to move and love and travel across the most beautiful continent on earth, Europe.

No matter what happens at a political level, no matter if my government turns my passport blue and rubs out the words “European Union”, in my heart I will always be British and European. Because being both is not incompatible, it does not mean I have “split allegiances”, as Boris would accuse me of. I simply refuse to be a part of this Brexit tragedy and I will never sign up to the values that the Brexiteers espouse — my patriotic liberal metropolitan elite self won’t allow it.

I want my country back

I want my country back. And I also want to take back control. I’m not asking for complete control, just an iota would be nice at this point. Because right now, I feel like an alien in my own country and like I have no voice at all. Yes, I am a Remainer, a Remoaner, a certified member of the liberal metropolitan elite. I speak four languages, have lived in five countries and have been fortunate enough to travel to many more, and on top of it all, I live in Islington, that north London liberal stronghold. So despite my burgundy British passport, I am officially a citizen of nowhere, at least according to our current Prime Minister.

In another universe, the one that existed prior to 23 June 2016, being liberal and metropolitan and understanding other cultures and countries was actually seen as an asset. I felt that I could build links with other people, that I could advance British interests in other parts of the globe and that I could bring the best of what other places had to offer back home. Win-win, right?

Brexit is an attack on everything I stand for and my entire way of life. I can only begin to imagine how unwelcome EU citizens here must feel, but I can assure you, there are plenty of British citizens like me who feel similarly unwelcome and despairing, even if we do not face the threat of having to leave the UK.

It is difficult to accurately convey what Brexit feels like. How it has ripped me apart, torn up my identity, made me less proud to be British, made me feel sorry for my European friends and sad for my fellow British citizens, many of whom will end up bearing the brunt of our nation’s inevitable decline towards second-rate status. I do not understand how to even begin choosing between my Britishness and my Europeanness — the two are just elements of what makes up my varied identity, elements that have melded together to form who I am. Brexit is forcing me to choose, but I cannot, it’s completely impossible. It feels like being asked to split the blue and yellow colours out from a green bucket of paint: you know there is blue and yellow in there, but they are forever fused.

As a result, since the morning of 24 June 2016, I have been in a state of some confusion, constantly torn in different directions and trying to make sense of the steady stream of incomprehensible madness coming out of Westminster and much of the press. Sometimes I feel like I must be living in a parallel universe. For how can our politicians, who are supposed to know better, be taking us down this path of destruction and be condemning us to a future of struggle and irrelevance?

Everything feels out of control. Whether you voted Remain or Leave, surely we can all agree that the government has no plan. No plan at all. And seen from here, Brexit has already inflicted irreparable damage to our country’s reputation, the fabric of our society and the pillars of our democracy. We need to come together to stop any further damage and to reunite this deeply divided nation. We need to fight to get our country back.

Why we aren’t giving up

I’m not going to lie (unlike Boris and his mates) — the thought of giving up the fight is sometimes tempting. It’s all just too difficult. We have a cabal of incompetent and delusional political leaders in charge of the process, they are going to make a complete mess of it and we are now condemned to a less than bright future outside of the EU. A small, friendless island floating off in the Atlantic somewhere, possibly minus Scotland and Northern Ireland, shouting into the void: “Please do a trade deal with us! We have Stilton!”

But we cannot just give up. We Remainers need to keep up the good fight, support one another through the tough moments and wave the blue flag with the yellow stars. We might be able to stop the worst excesses of Hard Brexit if we stay loud and united. There are already signs that some Cabinet ministers are realising that we will not be able to thrive outside the single market. And even if not, even if we go down the hardest of hard routes, there is still one very simple reason to stay involved: we are on the right side of history. Even in the darkest moments of these long, arduous months since 23 June 2016, I have held on to the thought that when all this is history, I will be able to tell anyone who asks that I was a Remainer, that I fought for what I believed in, that I wanted Britain to stay connected to Europe, to be strong and proud and open. I can look at myself in the mirror and know that I am doing what I can, even if it is a mere drop in the ocean, to stem the horrible tide of Hard Brexit.

What is it that we are doing as Islington in Europe? We are keeping the conversation going: organising street stalls, hosting public debates at Union Chapel, attending meetings and conferences, leafleting, organising support for marches and coordinated protests — you name it, we’re there. And we are not just working in pro-Remain Islington. We are also talking to the Leavers in their strongholds. It’s not always an easy conversation to have — I have been called everything from a Nazi to a traitor and in between — but these exchanges really matter. We want to convince them — through debate, through argument, through sharing experiences — of the merits of staying in Europe, or as close as we possibly can.

We are also taking practical and meaningful steps: writing letters to our MPs, writing letters to our newspapers, coordinating with other pro-European groups and movements across the country. We are also organising regular events for EU nationals to obtain free legal advice from our immigration lawyer volunteers. We want our European friends to know that we want them here, that we value them and also that we care about them as people, whose lives are being plunged into needless and callous uncertainty over Brexit.

If you’re one of us, a proud Remainer and a citizen of Europe, there is so much you can do to help. Email us, tweet us, find us on Facebook. Come to our meetings, write letters, do as much or as little as you like, whatever time you can spare, from home or elsewhere. There is a role for everyone. And together we will be so much stronger and we can raise our voices against this madness. We all have moments of pessimism and thinking we might as well just get on with the misery, but we have to resist these moments. We have to keep fighting. We want to be on the right side of history — the side of peace, unity and collaboration, the side of openness and vibrancy, the side that stood up to being insular, to turning our backs on our friends and allies, to racism, to mean-spiritedness.

Get involved!