In his great lexicon, Keywords, the New Left critic Raymond Williams urged us in 1976 to look for “networks of usage, reference and perspective” in language, to consider “interrelated words and references” in “a cluster”, and to heed “the explicit but as often implicit connections which people [are] making”.
As 2017 draws to a close, it is remarkable to reflect on the speed with which Brexit has spawned its own distinctive vocabulary, freighted with menace and denigration of dissent. No one word does the job. They work as a team.
In an article in today’s Sunday Telegraph, for instance, Theresa May declares that “we are proving the doubters wrong” and “amid all the noise” will not be “derailed” from the fundamental task of departure from the European Union. She frames the passage of her own EU (withdrawal) bill not as a parliamentary process, but as an evangelical battle to defend revealed truth against the heretics and the schismatics.
The word “doubters” recalls the “saboteurs” whom the Daily Mail urged the prime minister to “crush” in the general election. This she conspicuously failed to do, of course. But her yearning to proceed in a spirit of implacable certainty has evidently survived the loss of her Commons majority. The essence of parliamentary democracy is (or should be) debate, consideration, reflection. But the PM’s language instead channels the Vogon guard in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Resistance is useless!” (prefaced in her case by: “Let me be clear … ”)
There is nothing new in the compression, manipulation and violation to which political language is subject. The trick, as Williams warned, is to spot the connections in the network of words.
The latest addition to the Brexicon last week was “vassal state”: the fate that, according to Jacob Rees-Mogg, awaits Britain if we continue to comply with EU regulations during the transition phase. Apparently, we will become no more than “a colony of the European Union”.
Boris Johnson, increasingly seen by younger Tories as a Nokia to the Moggster’s iPhone X, plays catch-up, deploying an identical form of words in a Sunday Times article. What, the foreign secretary asked, would be the point of mirroring EU laws: “we would have gone from a member state to a vassal state”. To which one is sorely tempted to respond: what were you expecting, mate? The sound you hear is the oak beams of Brexit groaning and cracking under the weight of its internal contradictions. The true believers want simultaneously to escape the tyranny of Brussels but – somehow – to retain all the commercial benefits of the single market.
Their position is a hopeless confusion of insularity and expansionism: they insist that Britain be free to do as it pleases at home and abroad miraculously unencumbered by international duties.
What they call “vassaldom” is, in fact, the most probable outcome of their own ill-conceived project – Britain outside the EU, but shadowing much of its regulatory structure in a scramble to maintain access to as much of its trade as possible. Ah, well: Tories used to know all about unintended consequences. It’s just a shame they didn’t see this one coming, because it’s a doozy.
Worst of all in this new argot is the constant supplication to “the people”, an amorphous entity invoked as God is in theocracies: supreme, unquestionable, unchanging. Once again, the Mail was an early adopter – condemning, as it did in November 2016, the three judges who ruled that parliament must be consulted before article 50 could be triggered as “enemies of the people”.
Last week’s successful parliamentary rebellion, limiting ministers’ ability to make sweeping changes to the law before parliament has approved the exit deal, was condemned across social media as a treasonous defiance of the public’s explicit instructions. The PM, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, again reasserted her “fundamental duty to deliver the democratic will of the British people”.
It is not hard to see how we have reached this point: the proliferation of referendums and referendum promises since John Major pledged a popular vote on the European single currency in October 1996. Since then, there have been plebiscites on Scottish and Welsh devolution, the Good Friday agreement, the London mayoralty, an assembly for north-east England, the Westminster electoral system, Scottish independence and, of course, Brexit itself. Our collective taste for direct democracy has been further turbocharged by the digital revolution.
The snag is that this taste – this surge in visceral collectivism – does not match constitutional reality. Whether or not this counts for much on Twitter and Snapchat, the fact remains that sovereignty lies with the Queen-in-Parliament. That’s how the system still works – at the time of writing, at any rate. And it is to Westminster that sovereignty will return, gift-wrapped and with a bow on top, on 29 March 2019. Sorry, folks.
It is sensationally unfashionable to say so, but I am not sure that what is loosely called “the sovereignty of the people” is such a good thing. Since Rousseau hailed the “general will”, the history of those who have declared themselves its authentic voice has been, shall we say, patchy. The 20th century was an object lesson in the perils of populism and the autocracy and fascism it so easily leads towards.
“Out of touch”, the “political elite”, the dozy inhabitants of the “Westminster bubble”: MPs are called this and much worse. Indeed, some of them are now threatened with death and rape on a daily basis – and I hope those who encourage such threats, indirectly or otherwise, are proud of themselves.
Can you blame young, talented people who count themselves out of a political career? All the more credit, though, to those who do choose this life. Imperfect our parliamentary system may be, but it sure beats the populist babel that is the looming alternative.
Words count, which is precisely why free speech is so precious. But to be a citizen is to be vigilant and resilient – to understand the power of language and the cunning with which it is used. It is also to be what the PM calls a “doubter”, a sceptic in the face of certainty, a jealous guardian of the right to change one’s mind. The next time you hear someone claiming to speak for “the people” – and you will – be sure to count the democratic silver.