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.