Whoever controls the language of a process shapes the outcome of that process. This is something the Remain Establishment understands very well. We have a post-Enlightenment culture in which religion has been privatised and truth has been relativised. Such is our depressing Nietzschean legacy: seek not truth but power, and secure that power by using language more effectively than your opponent.
The catalogue of linguistic chicanery deployed by the Remain side does not make pretty reading. We’ve had the introduction of false contrasts (‘hard Brexit’ vs ‘soft Brexit’); we’ve had the rhetorically impressive but intellectually dishonest (‘leaving the customs union was not on the ballot paper’); and we’ve had the persuasive but irrelevant (‘nobody voted to be poorer’). We’ve had talk of a ‘common rule book’, which is no such thing. And, most disgracefully of all, we’ve had talk of a ‘hard border’, which exists only in the imagination of those who want to neutralise the wishes of 17.4million people.
The Remain Establishment has deployed its linguistic artillery in an attempt to recreate and then dominate the debate that we’ve already had prior to June 2016. Granted, it has made a nominal concession that we are ‘leaving’ the EU but it has then proceeded to control the discussion about how we leave in a way that has revivified the possibility of staying. And the people who actually won the referendum have colluded in this in a number of ways.
First there was the incompetence in the Leave campaign over who should replace David Cameron when Gove and Johnson indulged themselves in an exercise of ego competitiveness which was grossly irresponsible at a time of national opportunity. It was an egregious error to allow a Remainer to take charge of this process. Theresa May has not responded to the instruction of the referendum; she has preferred instead to respond to the Remainer responses to that instruction, no matter how histrionic. Hence the mess we are in now. But far more important has been the failure to push back against the appropriation by the Remain side of the language of our disengagement from the EU structures.
But there is a way forward.
A major argument of the Remain Establishment is that (a) it was unclear what we were voting for and therefore (b) outside a purely formal departure from the EU, all options for a future relationship should be up for discussion (a discussion that they will control, of course). But (b) does not follow from (a). Even if it were the case that people who voted to leave were neutral about our future membership of the customs union, for example – and we know that they weren’t – it does not follow that continuing membership of it can be a legitimate option, one that is up for debate. Why? Because that would be to look at only our side of the relationship. Instead we can ask: is there anything intrinsic to the character of the EU project that makes it impossible to leave it while remaining implicated in its structures? And the answer to that question is an emphatic Yes.
We are frequently told that the EU is a system of rules. But it is also a set of political and legal structures with a stated telos: ever-closer union. And those rules are subservient to this telos. The integrationist agenda of the European Union carries within it a set of historicist assumptions. One is that this ever-closer union is not merely desirable but inevitable. It is a sort of neo-Hegelianism. History for the architects of the EU project (and for its successors) is not simply a series of events subject to a narrative interpretation. It has its own internal dynamic and any attempt to arrest that dynamic must be resisted at all costs – the processes of history, whilst inevitable, need the occasional bit of help. The real-life needs of those over whom it governs are a sort of irritant; and when that irritant becomes an impediment to its historicist agenda then the people can go hang.
But the metaphysics here is extremely dubious. Why should history have that structure, not just progressive but also inevitable? There is a religious objection to Hegelianism: it identifies the Creator with what He created, it ascribes to history certain qualities that only God can have. And if religion is not your thing then the same objection can be made in more secular terms: Hegelianism and its offspring demand of the contingent what only the transcendent can supply.
The European Union’s agenda going forward for ever is predicated upon a metaphysical assumption that is a busted flush. It carries with it an intellectual virus and that virus is present in all the structures that define it – including the customs union and single market. To ‘leave’ the EU and yet to remain implicated in those structures will be to inherit that virus. Boris Johnson is partly right and partly wrong: in this situation we would be a vassal state but not for ever. We would very soon be pulled back in. The black hole analogy is the more appropriate one.
There was no status quo option in 2016. The options were: leave completely and accept temporary disruption (and yes, possibly take an economic hit); or remain in and accept the active subversion of our national identity in service of a historical idea that itself takes no notice of the lessons of history.
Our response to the referendum result should not involve engaging in any silly attempt at reconstructing the intentions of the hypothetical leave voter. That is a distraction and one that gets the focus all wrong. Given that we have voted to leave, and given that any evaluation of our future relationship must take into account the history and character of both sides of that relationship, how much of our current relationship can remain intact? The answer is: very little.
It’s time to reclaim the language of this process. We have been supine too long.