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Brexit: how a single word became the most powerful rhetorical device in a generation

I’ve got the mandate right here and it’s very, very clear. cogito ergo imago, CC BY-SA

Democratic governments face a dilemma. On one hand they want to pursue policy – which is almost always contested – and on the other they need to retain support to justify their use of power and to boost their chances of re-election.

They try to achieve both by making a series of arguments over the years they are in power. These attempt to persuade enough of the electorate that they have a right to govern and that their direction for policy is best. At the heart of this process is rhetoric. That can mean empty words – but it has a longer established ancient sense as the art and science of persuasion.

Prime minister Theresa May famously asserted that “Brexit means Brexit”, but as we’re beginning to see, it also means an awful lot more. It is a tremendous rhetorical gift that can be used to justify all kinds of actions by the government.

Denying agency

In coalition, the Conservative party inherited a fiscal crisis but managed to frame its response – austerity – as something it had no choice over. The Tories positioned themselves as compelled to tackle “the deficit”. This, together with phrases like “clearing up Labour’s mess”, “balancing the nation’s books” and “long-term economic plan”, enabled them to implement severe budgetary constraints while still retaining enough support from the electorate.

The strategy was used to evade responsibility for spending cuts, even while large investments were protected in pet areas such as the HS2 rail project. “The deficit” helped them pursue a potentially divisive policy agenda without haemorrhaging support.

Brexit: for the sake of the asparagus. PA

Currently “Brexit” is being fashioned to press for policy choices that were never voted on. Rather than acknowledging this is a new, radically complex and enormous policy agenda, “Brexit” is being explained simply as “instructions” that are following “the mandate; the will of the people”.

Keeping it vague

“Brexit”, like “the deficit”, is an extremely complicated subject. No one can anticipate what the implications of leaving the EU will be, which model should be pursued, or what criteria should be used to count success. Despite an indication that Article 50 will be triggered in March 2017, no one really knows what the time-frame will be either.

Similarly, very few people understood what “the deficit” meant precisely. Even though it signalled an economic problem, and because of that there was attention on economic performance, it allowed George Osborne to avoid questions about economic strategy by focusing on the narrower question of public finances.

Now though, even with a Brexit minister, there is no one place to look to when evaluating the effects of leaving the EU. All parts of government will be affected and any Brexit-related policy – indeed any policy that can be packaged as Brexit-related – lacks a basis for scrutiny. That is a real gift to the party in power.

Making it a duty

“The deficit” sounded like something factual, technical and objective but it was actually shaped into something that became a moral responsibility. The Conservative party embedded in the public consciousness the idea that “the deficit” was a dereliction of duty. It was able to convince the public that it was not a global crisis but had been caused by the overspending and incompetence of the Labour government.

Similarly, the EU referendum is being fashioned into something sacred and unequivocal, “the biggest mandate given to a British government ever”. Brexit is something that we are told must not be denied by politicians. Yet some “mandated” promises by Brexiteers – an additional £350m per week to the NHS – have seemingly been abandoned, while other policy red lines have been invented.

It is useful for any administration to emphasise or invent moral responsibility because it does not then matter as much if consequent actions cause pain. Indeed, that is even expected because we know doing “the right thing” can be difficult. This moral edge can justify more strident policies and also lead to dark places if “the right thing” involves punishing a minority.

Finding people to blame

Both “Brexit” and “the deficit” throw up what the sociologist Stanley Cohen called folk devils. These are scapegoats who can personify and take the blame for problems that are in reality very complex. With “the deficit”, we saw, to a small extent, bankers being demonised, but much more prominent in policy terms were themes of public sector waste and benefit scroungers.

Brexit: because it’s on a really big bus. PA

“Brexit” is being read off as an instruction to curb the number of immigrants – though they are net contributors to society. A series of measures target higher education which is being recast as an illicit channel for immigration rather than one of Britain’s few world-beating industries.

Making it self-explanatory

Phrases like “Brexit” and “the deficit” can be used to establish relations of entailment. Unlike conventional argument – a series of connected statements supporting a conclusion – invoking “Brexit” or “the deficit” wraps the premises and the conclusion together.

A historical comparator was the question, “don’t you know there’s a war on?” This was so self-evident it did not require any answer. It underpinned many necessary actions, but it was also likely to be the explanation given for doing some things that were not necessary – used to support the exercise of a certain kind of power and authority, or officiousness.

Any government that deploys phrases to suggest they are self-explanatory and entail a particular course of action is essentially saying: “you don’t need to think about this policy.” We need to be alert to such uses of language and question them even more.

A common theme across these strategies is that they create distance between the exercise of power and the responsibility of exercising power. “Brexit” and “the deficit” are both crises but they are also great rhetorical gifts to the Conservative party because it is invaluable to pursue a strong policy direction at the same time as being able to blame others for any fallout.

The biggest rhetorical accomplishment of the Conservative party this century has been to position Labour as being responsible for austerity, rather than for this to be seen as the consequence of a global crisis, or as a policy choice (they could have cut differently, or chosen a strategy of investing). But that is as nothing compared to the opportunities for reshaping Britain brought by “Brexit”.

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