Has any other recent political process generated so many strange comparisons? Asks Christopher Greyby Christopher Grey / October 19, 2018 / Leave a comment
Perhaps because Brexit is such an unprecedented event, it has spawned an ever-growing array of metaphors to try to make sense of it. But metaphors are rarely innocent, and the different images that Remainers and Leavers invoke are one part of the ongoing divisions and debates around Brexit.
Often the metaphors are sporting, and when deployed by Leavers serve to demonstrate the immutability of the referendum result—with Brexit likened to a football score or losing the toss at cricket. Remainers respond that drug cheats lose their medals or race jerseys. When it comes to the negotiations, sports give way to games: for Leavers, it’s usually poker, with cards kept to the chest, for Remainers it’s more likely to be chess, the latter available in numerous dimensions. Or maybe Blind Man’s Buff.
Food metaphors abound. Cakes and cherries are the most obvious. More colourfully, we’re swapping a three course meal for a packet of crisps, according to a former, ahem, mandarin, or creating a fragile chocolate orange, according to a present one. Jacob Rees-Mogg thinks Brexit is like boiling an egg, whereas Remainers remark that it is like trying to unscramble an omelette. Or perhaps it is just a dog’s dinner. At all events, there is a bar bill to be paid on leaving, or a mess bill for the more military-minded.
Indeed, mentioning the war—or a war—is almost compulsory. For Brexiters, Dunkirk—that strangely ambivalent moment of defeat and triumph—has pride of place, and their leaders also yearn for a fight on the beaches, if only to dust down their dodgy impersonations of Churchill. For Remainers the mindless idiocy of First World War generals urging us over the top, often interpreted via the historian Blackadder, provides a more “salient” image. An alternative is the doomed Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean war. Waterloo is a less popular choice on all sides, presumably because no one is quite sure whether it connotes a great victory or a final defeat, or just an Abba song that May could dance to (the alternative Brexit sound track metaphor being the less danceable Hotel California).
Closely linked to war are ideological references, with the EU featuring, curiously, as both Nazi and Communist in the lexicon of the Brexit Ultras. Meanwhile, those Ultras are compared with the Jacobins of the French Revolution, Cambodian Year Zero zealots, Reformation dogmatists or—back to the war—Kamikaze pilots. In turn they denote Remainers as Quislings or Fifth columnists.
Family events provide another tranche of metaphors. Divorce is the most frequent, though whether it leads to a new friendship with benefits or ready meals for one in a bedsit is disputed. For many Remainers, Brexit is a deeply-felt bereavement. Teenagers leaving home but still wanting their washing done jostle to be heard over toddlers having terrible tantrums and their juniors throwing toys out of the pram. Less cosy are comparisons of the EU with the Mafia, with Jean-Claude Juncker or perhaps Jean Monnet as the Godfather.
Families remind us of homes, with Brexit being likened to buying a house, possibly without a survey, or selling one without knowing where to move to. Or selling up but expecting to go on camping in the garden. Away from home we’re on a journey, destination unknown, possibly ending in a car crash, a train crash, a cliff edge leap or the sunny uplands. Or we’re on the Titanic, approaching the iceberg, singing hymns or rearranging chairs on the deck (also known as fiddling while the Treaty of Rome burns). Or we’re at leisure, leaving the golf club or giving up our gym membership, with our expectation of continuing to use the facilities being denied us by bullies.
All of these and many other metaphors serve as ways of trying to explain Brexit to ourselves or others and to make something that is hard to grasp in its entirety more comprehensible. Sometimes they seek to explain how their users see the logic of the situation and, often, to reveal the emotional meanings Brexit has for them.
Most strikingly, Brexit is now being used, especially amongst the young, as a metaphor for any enterprise or decision which has gone horribly wrong (“you’ve made a right Brexit of that”), with, according to the urban dictionary, some extremely obscene variants. So perhaps Theresa May’s much-mocked phrase “Brexit means Brexit” turns out to be highly apposite after all. Brexit, having generated metaphors with such fecundity, has become a metaphor for itself.