Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 17 October 2019

What would FR Leavis make of today's toxic Brexit language?

We should be taking a leaf out of the literary critic's book and paying close attention to what politicians say – and what they really mean

Boris Johnson, right, interacts with European Parliament president David Sassoli. How will Brexit get done by October 31 when negotiations have only just begun? AFP
Boris Johnson, right, interacts with European Parliament president David Sassoli. How will Brexit get done by October 31 when negotiations have only just begun? AFP

One of the peculiarities of humankind is that when we cannot fix big things, we obsess about the small ones. We cannot easily fix climate change, so some obsess about 16-year-old Greta Thunberg and whether she is right or wrong in her campaign for children to protest when they should be at school. Donald Trump cannot stop migration so he obsesses about building a wall and who should pay for it. In Britain – to state the obvious – we cannot easily fix Brexit and so some politicians and media types have begun to obsess about the “toxic” atmosphere of politics and the words which politicians use to attack each other.

It is true the vocabulary of “betrayal”, “surrender”, “quisling” and “enemy of the people” – with obvious echoes of the Nazi period – is unpleasant. But the world of politics – messy, noisy, rude and divisive as it is – is very lively. We need to get used to it.

In asking us all to pay close attention to the meanings of even just a few words, FR Leavis did the world of scholarship a great service

The debate about language brought me back to my student days, when I studied English, American and Irish literature. My guide for a time was the work of the famous literary critic FR Leavis. I was very impressed by what he called "close reading”. It meant an exceptionally detailed analysis of a few words on the page. I confess that one of the reasons I liked Leavis was that “close reading” meant I could study the opening and closing paragraphs of a long novel and skip a lot in the middle (don’t tell my professors). But listening to the debate about toxic Brexit language made me wonder: what would happen if we used Leavis's techniques to look at Brexit through the prism of literary criticism? What do the words in the lexicon of Brexit lit crit really mean?

Let us leave aside abusive phrases and instead concentrate on more “positive” political visions. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s current slogan is “get Brexit done”. His predecessor Theresa May preferred “the will of the people”. Over the past three years, we have heard various descriptions of Brexit – “Norway plus”, “Canada plus”, “managed no deal” and “a clean Brexit”. The one that always struck me as unwise was "will of the people”. A Leavis-type close reading would involve asking why Mrs May would describe Brexit as “the will of the people” since the referendum was only won by a narrow majority of 52 per cent, compared to 48 per cent of Britons who voted against it. It was the will of some people – but what of the 16 million who voted to stay in the European Union?

Leavis would have concluded that Mrs May’s language meant they were not considered “people”. And what of “Norway plus” and “Canada plus” as the deal Britain could aspire to? Leavis might have noted that Norway and Canada are two countries British people view positively – but the word “plus" is problematic. Plus what? Plus a cup of coffee every morning? A free trip to Disneyland? If a car salesman was selling a terrible car – let us say an East German Trabant – but offered to sell you a Trabant Plus, would you think it would be a Porsche or a Merc? Probably not. Leavis would have rationalised that tacking on the word “plus” was simply a sales technique designed to make you think you were getting more than the shoddy deal that was really on offer.

As prime minister, Theresa May promised to deliver the 'will of the people' even though only 52 per cent of the population favoured Brexit. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA
As prime minister, Theresa May promised to deliver the 'will of the people' even though only 52 per cent of the population favoured Brexit. Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA

“Managed no deal” falls into the same category. A "managed jump from a plane" might involve a parachute, so presumably a “managed no deal” would not be entirely suicidal. And a “clean Brexit” sounds infinitely preferable to a dirty Brexit, although what either of those truly mean is unclear. And that brings us to the latest slogan: “get Brexit done”. What does “done” mean? William Shakespeare offered some interpretations in the scene where Macbeth contemplates the murder of King Duncan. He muses: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly." Macbeth means that if the assassination could be carried out quickly and efficiently, he might as well get on with it.

Unfortunately getting Brexit “done” and finished by October 31 is impossible. Even if the UK leaves the EU on that date, which is becoming increasingly unlikely, the really difficult negotiations will have only just begun. Like the consequences of murder for Macbeth, the repercussions of Brexit will go on well beyond the act itself.

And that leaves the word “Brexit”. What does it actually mean? Even now, nobody knows. After more than three years, the people of Britain, the British parliament and even the ruling Conservative party have not completely agreed with themselves what Brexit really means. You cannot get anything done until you decide precisely what it is.

Leavis himself has gone out of fashion. He was a contentious, difficult and divisive figure. But in asking us all to pay close attention to the meanings of even just a few words, Leavis did the world of scholarship a great service. Instead of trading abuse with each other in British politics, perhaps we should just listen very carefully to the words politicians use about the future and ask a simple question: what do they mean? Do they even know what they mean? And can they deliver it?

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and presenter

Updated: October 10, 2019 05:03 PM

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