It’s become a truism to say that Brexit is a political conflict like no other in modern British history. For the past three years battles have raged over the specifics of our departure from the EU—customs arrangements, level playing fields, all sorts of other arcane details. There have been negotiations, debates and votes, all bitterly fought. But at times it has seemed like there is a parallel war going on: a linguistic one.
From the start, language has played an outsize role in Brexit. Why? Firstly, the immense complexity of the subject—what does extricating yourself from the most advanced supranational organisation in the world actually entail?—defies easy description. Instead it has to be boiled down, translated. And in that translation there is a huge opportunity to shape perceptions—some would say, to distort and manipulate. So leaving becomes simply “taking back control.” Only a Brexit that leaves us “free to strike trade deals around the world” will fulfil the “will of the people.” Alignment with EU regulations is “vassalage.” Arrangements that would ensure an open border on the island of Ireland are “a trap from which we would be unable to escape.”
Secondly, this is a project that has spent most of its life in the realm of imagination. In the absence of actual post-Brexit data—on GDP, employment, manufacturing—creative language has ruled the day. “Hard” and “soft” scenarios are envisaged, entailing either “striking out on our own” or “sticking close" to our partners. And then there is leaving without an agreement: one side has talked of “crashing out,” or striding over a “cliff edge.” The other has seen “managed no deal” as providing “a smooth glidepath” out of the EU, or invoked a “clean break.” Depending on who you listen to, it will involve walking into a slough of despond or clambering towards bright, sunlit uplands.
It’s almost impossible to talk about Brexit without using metaphors, to the extent that the line between the real and the imagined becomes blurred (did you even notice the metaphor in my opening paragraph? Brexit isn’t really a battle, or a war). For Veronika Koller, a linguist at the University of Lancaster, that isn’t so surprising. “In general metaphor helps us to understand or explain highly abstract things. Something like coming out of the EU and all the negotiations and agreements that go with that—that’s extremely complex. Using a metaphor makes it easier to relate to.” Koller has been conducting research on the language used by MPs during the Brexit process, and she’s struck by how “emotionally charged” the debates have been. “There’s also a very exaggerated use of language. Something is never just unacceptable, it’s completely, totally, 100 per cent unacceptable.” Since her fieldwork was carried out, the intensity has only increased. In a recent Commons debate, MP Paula Sherriff linked the inflammatory language being deployed to death threats received by her colleagues. Boris Johnson whipped up a storm when he dismissed her concerns as "humbug."
Beyond this, Koller has noticed that two metaphors in particular tend to dominate: one centred around freedom versus imprisonment, and one about Brexit being a journey. “You get a lot of ‘the EU will trap us in the backstop’ or ‘we will be free from the shackles of the EU,’” she says. “And I think that any narrative of a people breaking free from oppression is always very powerful at an emotional level. You can see that throughout history. It’s very visceral.” Does the Remain side have anything to rival this affective impact? “I’m struggling to see an equally powerful alternative narrative at the moment,” Koller says.
The journey metaphor is more complex, because it can be used to either side’s advantage. Journey is inherent in both the “crashing out” and the “smooth glidepath” metaphors.
“I remember an early leader article in the Economist,” says Koller, “which talked about the fact that the journey will be perilous, full of twists and turns and elephant traps, and they had a picture of Boris Johnson and Theresa May in a car with very complicated landscape stretching out in front of them. That was foregrounding the difficulties and the dangers of Brexit, but you could also spin it in a different way. You could focus on the destination, and imagine that it’s kind of the promised land.”
George Lakoff, the cognitive scientist and author of Metaphors We Live By, believes that much of our experience of the world is shaped by metaphors we barely notice. He has written that they “may create reality for us, particularly social realities. A metaphor may thus be a guide for future action. Such actions will, of course, fit the metaphor. This will, in turn, reinforce the power of the metaphor to make experience coherent. In this sense metaphors can be self-fulfilling prophecies.”
Brexit-as-journey could be a case in point. For example, it makes the idea of a revocation of Article 50 seem extreme, when in fact it simply maintains the status quo. “What the journey metaphor implies is that you want to reach your destination," says Koller. "You don’t just abort a journey, do you? If you set out, you want to arrive somewhere. You have forward momentum." With all the focus on that destination, there’s very little cognitive space for what comes next, or even the idea that it might not be a destination at all—but the start of a new, more complex round of negotiations.
Johnson’s premiership has seen a ratcheting up of the rhetoric. He has leaned heavily on the Brexit-as-battle metaphor, speaking of a “war cabinet,” of “surrender” to the EU and of “collaborators.” For Guto Harri, who was Johnson’s communications director when he was Mayor of London, “it’s very emotive and it’s very confrontational. There’s a real sense that if you’re not with us, you’re against us. The clarity of purpose, the direction of travel and the momentum is formidable, but almost frightening too.”
“Johnson has an inimitable way with words and he’s acutely aware of the power of words. The communication has been hugely effective.” Echoing Koller, Harri says “It’s not logic, it’s emotion. You know: ‘those who say that our best days are behind us are wrong’ for example. Crikey, you can’t counter that very easily with logic.”
Johnson may be an effective communicator—although the pressures of actually doing the job have exposed some of his weaknesses on that front. But does it matter that what is effective may be a blatant distortion of reality? “I don’t object to what they’ve been doing,” says Harri, who strongly backed Remain in the referendum. “It’s up to the other side to fight fire with fire. You know, the miserable failure of the 2016 campaign, maybe even in the name [Britain Stronger in Europe], was to sort of bring a knife to a gunfight. Boris is peddling an optimistic, upbeat, visionary, exciting future for Britain. Whether it’s actually a false prospectus or not, well—all is fair in politics. It is about inspiring people and getting them to follow you instead.”
Fighting fire with fire (another metaphor) is not as straightforward as it sounds. James Johnson was No 10’s in-house pollster under Theresa May, and advised Rory Stewart on strategy during his leadership campaign. He says the fusing of policy and patriotism, which Johnson has gone for in a big way, is particularly difficult to counter. To argue against leaving without a deal is now seen as traitorous. Distrust in politicians also means that, at least according to the focus groups Johnson worked with in Downing Street, warnings of food and medicine shortages actually increase support for no deal.
In spite of this, he says, “I do think there is an opening for actually just saying: look, we don’t have all the answers, it’s complicated, and it’s better to be straight with you than to give you a version of something that probably isn’t going to happen—which then leads to more lost trust. It’s not about saying here’s how difficult it is, here’s a list of 10 awful things, the public aren’t going to listen to that. But there’s got to be some way of being honest and up front.”
Stewart himself has framed this as acting like a “Trumpian anti-Trump”—using the populist style to communicate a decidedly anti-populist message. But although it won him plaudits from sympathetic politicians and commentators, it’s not clear whether it would win enough votes.
Is there any way to reverse Brexiteers’ weaponisation of metaphor? “First of all you need to understand what you’re up against,” Koller advises. Metaphors will always be with us, she concedes, but they can be challenged. One way to do this is by elaborating them. “So we can say things like: ‘Ok you say we’re trapped in the backstop and we’re shackled to the EU. So let’s imagine we break out of this prison Great Escape-style, what then? Who will be with us, where will we go?’” Another is by replacing one metaphor with another. Rather than thinking of no deal as breaking free, could it be more like getting lost in the wilderness, without a map or compass?
“The important thing,” says Koller, “especially with those subtle metaphors that we hardly notice anymore, is to make people aware: this is one way of presenting reality. This is one way of talking about our relationship with the EU. There are other possible ways of doing that.”
David Shariatmadari is the author of Don't Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language (W&N)