When you’re campaigning for the status quo, it’s hard to muster the passion of someone who’s telling you that something must be doneby Sam Leith / February 21, 2018 / Leave a comment
It may not have been “the Sun wot won it,” when it came to the Brexit vote. But could it have been grammar? That is, at least in part, the argument of The Language of Brexit, an enlightening new book by the academic linguist Steve Buckledee. He has been riffling through the propaganda on both sides of the referendum debate since early 2016 to unpick the linguistic habits of both sides; and plunges back into the language of our relationship with Europe since the 1970s.
Here’s a f’rinstance. We were told, here and there, before the vote, that referenda tend to favour the status quo. After the result, of course, pundits performed the manoeuvre known in the days of Kelvin McKenzie’s Sun as the “reverse ferret.” Emphasis was placed on the way in which, when you’re campaigning for the status quo, it’s hard to muster the passion of someone who’s telling you that something must be done. “Stay put!” doesn’t have quite the oomph of “Charge!”
In other words, “Remain” campaigners have been charged with being half-hearted (and as in Jeremy Corbyn’s case, probably were). In attempting to appear honest about the EU’s shortcomings they went halfway to making their opponents’ cases for them.
Buckledee argues that this manifested itself in sentence-structure. Many prominent pro-“Remain” proclamations took the form: “The EU is faulty, but we’re better off in.” That is a co-ordinative construction. Compare the subordinating: “We’re better off in, even though the EU is faulty,” or “Even though the EU is faulty, we’re better off in.” In the second examples, our reservations are grammatically secondary to the mandate to stay: “we’re better off in” is the main clause.
Questions of grammar were central to the way the arguments were presented. Among them is our old friend “epistemic modality.” That’s the term given to those verbs that, as it were, shade a sentence with implications as to the authority of the information in it.
Coulda, shoulda, woulda—or did? May, might, could—or can and will? When you say “Leaving the EU could cost us billions in trade,” you’re admitting at the level of grammar that your prediction is speculative. If you say “Leaving the EU will free us to make trade agreements all over the world” you make no such admission. Buckledee’s contention—again, an observation about grammar rather than pant-igniting untruths—is that Vote Leave were much keener than “Remain” on the indicative mood. And, come to that, on imperative or “jussive” constructions. Vote Leave! Take back control!
Buckledee also pays attention to the very lexis of the debate. Overdetermined abstracts such as “democracy,” and “free” (usually contrasted with “shackles”) were mobilised to great effect by the “Leave” campaign.
Though he doesn’t couch it in rhetorical terms, Buckledee talks at length about the audience-shaping work done by the first-person plural. Both sides sought to vamp between “inclusive we” (we, the plain people of England along with me the politician) and “exclusive we” (we the plain people of England against them the unelected Brussels elite). How different, he wonders, things might have been had we access to the resources of the Papua New Guinean creole Tok Pisin, which distinguishes between yumi (“you+me”) and mipela (“me+fellow,” but not you).
A weakness of Buckledee’s book is that the reader must trust the many examples he offers. This is a qualitative rather than a quantitative analysis. But it does seem to chime with the vibe of the campaign—remainers half-apologising for what they advocated, and leavers offering categorical and untestable promises. And—given the subject—we’re well into cherrypicking territory already.
If only, I found myself wondering, there’d been such rigorous sentence-level scrutiny of the arguments before the election—rather than a year and a half afterwards. Woulda, coulda, shoulda…