Did the name ‘Brexit’ impact votes in the referendum? Of course it did. Language matters. If we’d been voting on a ‘Brexodus’, instead of ‘Brexit’, many people would feel different about the future now. Here’s why:
The record of events in parliament may be considered a work of fact and fiction, but it is always accurate. If you examine Hansard for instances of ‘Brexiter’ and ‘Brexiteer’ to date, then you’ll find the cavalier language of Dumas is by far the most popular term. In the House of Commons there have been fewer than 75 spoken references with the Financial Times’s preferred monicker, Brexiters, but over 500 spoken references of Brexiteers and their intent.
By contrast, over the last couple of years, the Remainers are in excess of themselves with over 200 mentions. In that place, at least, the term Remoaners has struggled to make the same impact.
Michael Gove was reported as saying, ‘The word Brexiteer brings to mind a buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer … it lends a sense of panache and romance to the argument,’ — panache being a word coined by the man we love to love, of course: he of the remarkable duelling ability and the extremely large nose.
I’m talking Cyrano de Bergerac now. Not Gove.
‘Brexiteer’ brings to mind a positive quest, it’s true, and that’s from a woman who voted Remain on the basis of DUH, and COMMON SENSE EVEN IF IT’S A BIT PANTS and HAHA, LEAVING THE EU, EH? THAT WOULD BE FUNNY, AND I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THE LOGISTICS – BUT NO THANKS.
One for all and all for one. There’s a real sense of derring-do about being a Brexiteer. It reeks of an energised campaign to go forth and succeed. If not due to Dumas directly (he of Ethos, Porthos, and Logos fame [sic]), then perhaps down to Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, who’ve been an ingrained part of our middle-aged, eligible voters’ popular culture for years.
It is easy to see why the word ‘Brexiteer’ has slipped into common parlance. Boris’s swashbuckling Etonian mukkers were (are) the manifestation of a great, band of chaps striking out on a Great British adventure. Huzzahs! Pip-pip! Flashman, to the barricades!
The remains of anything, however, is a phrase that’s loaded with connotations of demise, leftovers, remnants, and death. And who wants to be associated with that? It is human nature to be unsatisfied with our lot in life, but to remain infers staying in the same situation we have today.
The Remainers, bless our pathetic cotton socks, have simply never had an affective slogan. Affect vs. effect, take note.
‘Take Back Control’ on the other hand (which, incidentally, was recycled in part from the campaign to keep the pound), has always been a stronger motif. That said, is it a coincidence Take Back Control is intrinsically linked with ‘tbc’, or ‘to be continued’, thus throwing a dark shadow on the details of what we’ll take back control of, how, and perhaps when?
Who knows. And I digress.
Brexit, Brexiters, Brexiteering — it’s a bold portmanteau in any guise. Our current country-cousins have similar options open to them if the urge strikes and I’m waiting to see how Italy’s inexorable progress will manifest itself.
Quitaly, perhaps. Splitaly, for a better future. Pasta la Vista baby.
As a word of two worlds though, the term ‘Brexodus’ would have given today’s protagonists the same liberty with its derivations — drawing on the same root of linguistic logic as ‘Brexit’ — but in terms of imagery, of metaphor, and of a platform from which to espouse a most powerful, vote-winning rhetoric perhaps … a Brexodus would now be beating Brexit, hands down.
Politics are a petri-dish for language. Metaphors may be ideologically biased, but if you can choose the right metaphor for your narrative then your point springs to life. It lives on, being told and retold with consistency and ease — thus selling your story as well as if not better than you’re telling it.
There’ve been some excellent attempts to introduce metaphors with longevity or scope to the Brexit debacle — sorry, Brexit debates, to date:
“Half my task is running a set of projects that make the NASA moon shot look quite simple.” That’s David Davis there — setting the scene there for discovery, adventure, an intrepid journey and the advance of man, before tripping into the nearest crater.
“This is like agreeing to a house swap without having seen the other house.” Tony Blair — who’d have gone on, no doubt, to talk about foundations for the future; pillars of the economy; the justice system being our bricks and mortar, and our view of the future from windows on the world… only to be rebutted with quips about drains, rubble, and Polish builders.
Our European partners aren’t averse to a little linguistic imagery, either.
“If you are ordering 28 beers in the bar, and some of your colleagues want to leave without paying, that’s not possible. They have to pay.” Jean-Claude Juncker — for whom the simplest visual constructs are the most powerful: you can’t leave the club and still play the game.
I wonder if, in comparison, anatomical metaphors would be more successful in illustrating a ‘we’re off, we’re leaving’ process as a cure for our ills? Britain, no longer being ‘at the heart of Europe’? Probably not. Conservative Prime Minister John Major was the first to use that phrase in context, in 1991, while speaking to affairs on the Maastricht Treaty. He pushed for and got an opt-out that let us keep the Great British Pound (hurrah), telling his audience that “Our government will work at the very heart of Europe with its partners in forging an integrated European community…”
Language ‘with body’ or ‘with heart’ could have been connected to many aspects of the leave challenge. Finding treatment for something that’s not working, thinking about different parts of the body etc. But the negative spin would have been instant. Surgery. Blood clots. Disease. As for homeopathy — don’t get me started on futile changes while ignoring bigger problems —
— where was I. Oh yes. Back in 2016 (aeons ago), voters were introduced to a word that invoked ‘getting out of a situation’. Exiting the European Union. Brexit, exit, and that’s fair enough. But an exit, an exit to anywhere, is a detached concept for us. It is a third-party subject. It would have been much better to say ‘exodus’, intimating that we’re going along too, as a nation of engaged citizens. The language of a Brexodus could have been omnipotent.
Barack Obama invoked the flight from Egypt during his 2008 presidential campaign; Margaret Thatcher was a great believer in drawing on theological references: “we gain a view of the universe, a proper attitude to work, and principles to shape economic and social life…”; and Martin Luther King referenced many passages from the Book of Exodus in his Dream speech, echoing the struggle of those fighting for greater rights and a different place in society.
Water may be the most frequently used metaphor in the Old Testament, but a subliminal link to the Book of Exodus would have provided a very broad and vivid narrative — a raft of appropriate metaphors relating to our current and quite dire situation. Think about the language (we’ll gloss over the plagues).
Oppression; dissent; dissatisfaction. A paradigm of revolutionary politics; departure; new commandments; a journey through the wilderness. Movement; a change in position; uncertainty; courage and conviction; progress and preparation for a nation’s departure from the status quo — even if that vision of a promised land turns out, eventually, to be flawed. Too much? Possibly.
In a political campaign what matters is not what is accurate — ie, the facts — but the perceptions of voters for whom you’re painting a picture of a different situation, and who you need to follow you, like disciples, anywhere.
Brexit may mean Brexit. Who knows what May means now. But if you wanted to capture the attention of die-hard Remainers, then talk of a Brexodus could still mean much, much more.