The meaning of Brexit

3rd January 2017

“Brexit means Brexit” has quickly passed from a convenient political slogan to something approaching a national joke.

Any discussion of the meaning of Brexit is haunted by what is now a stock catchphrase.

Like a game show host, one only has to ask what Brexit means to get the Pavlovian, chucklesome response of “Brexit means Brexit”.

But there are still good reasons to try to define what is (and is not) meant by Brexit.  The exercise is not altogether futile.

This is not least because those seeking to give effect to Brexit use the term so as to justify whatever they want.  The people voted for Brexit, and so in the name of Brexit, these things must be done.

One should always be wary of potency of short political words.  As Madame Roland was supposed to have asked, “O Liberté, que de crimes on commet en ton nom!” (O Liberty, what crimes are done in your name).

The more those deploying a political word demand from others, the more scrutiny there must be.

We can all giggle at the absurd tautology of Brexit meaning Brexit.  But until the meaning of the word is addressed then there may be little check on what it can be used to legitimise.

Soon it may be too late to ask of Brexit what idiocies are done in its name.

Brexit will mean whatever its proponents can get away with.


The main problem of defining Brexit is one of breadth.

There is a narrow meaning which most people will agree: Brexit is about the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

But if this was all that Brexit meant to those debating the future of the UK and the EU then there would be no scope for serious dispute.

To see whether Brexit had been achieved would require one looking at some official list of EU member states and, when the UK is no longer on that list, then Brexit would have happened.

Brexit would be something one could verify with a simple binary test.  Brexit would be a technicality.


But Brexit invariably means more than this, especially to its supporters.

Brexit can mean the UK no longer participating in the EU “single market”.  Brexit can mean a cessation of freedom of movement.  Brexit can mean an end to EU budget contributions.  Brexit can mean a rejection of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Brexit can mean the UK leaving the EU customs union and being able to set its own tariffs.

Brexit can mean all of these things, or any combination of them.

And for that permutation of Brexit, the supporter will insist adamantly that Brexit must mean Brexit.


The cause of the terminological difficulties is, in my view, that the simple, factual definition of Brexit (of the UK’s membership of the EU) has been tied to the unstable but powerful political notion of a mandate, which in turn comes from the referendum result.

The majority vote for Leave in effect “super-charged” the meaning of Brexit.

Those with a wide view of Brexit now have every interest in the word meaning as much as possible, whilst those opposed to (or unhappy with) Brexit now have the corresponding interest in the word meaning as little as possible.


Interestingly, the Oxford English Dictionary has published its definition:

“Brexit (noun): The (proposed) withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union, and the political process associated with it.”

This accords with the narrow definition offered above.

But significantly, this is not the entirety of the OED definition, for added in smaller print is  this elaboration:

“Sometimes used specifically with reference to the referendum held in the UK on 23 June 2016, in which a majority of voters favoured withdrawal from the EU.”

Brexit places the demand that the UK leaves the EU in a specific time and place: as a consequence of the 2016 referendum vote.  This is why the second part of the OED definition is important, and the OED was right to add it.


I am not opposed to Brexit in principle.  I am largely indifferent to whether the UK is a member of the EU or not.  I am in favour of the single market (a great UK political and economic achievement of the 1980s, and its architect Lord Cockfield is in my mind the second most significant Tory politician of the period).  I am also in favour of freedom of movement.

On the other hand, I believe the EU institutions are too powerful and the teleological “genetic code” of “ever closer union” is misconceived and illiberal. I have opposed every treaty and major treaty change since Maastricht, and I am flat against the Euro.

(There used to be a word for this sort of view – “Eurosceptic” – but it fell out of favour.)

So, for what it is worth, on some definitions of Brexit I am neutral, and on others I am opposed, and on some I am slightly in favour.


The lack of precision over the meaning of Brexit suggests that there will never be an agreed end to the process.

The UK leaving the EU will not be enough for many Brexiteers, especially if it is a BEANO (Brexit existing as name only).

Brexit will always mean something else needs to be done.


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14 thoughts on “The meaning of Brexit”

  1. To what degree would you agree that Brexit, especially for those who are in favour of ‘hard’ or ‘red white and blue’ Brexit, is more cultural than legal or political? A rejection of Europe and European values, including the restraint on economic and law enforcement power that the EU has represented through human rights law, etc?

  2. “Brexit means Brexit” is most potent when coupled to fatuous assertions commencing “People voted Brexit because…”

    Actually people voted Brexit for many reasons, some principled (Britain should be more like Singapore / more like the GDR), some mistaken (£350m for the NHS), some absurd (too many Pakistanis). See Lord Ashcroft

  3. The political absurdity is astounding. There is no form of Brexit which will satisfy the majority of the 17m. If on the other hand the 16m who chose to Remain would have been fine with nothing being done at all. Ergo the best way to please the largest number of voters is to do nothing.

  4. Even apparently the most quoted of the PM’s ‘red lines’ ie an end to freedom of movement being the ‘will of the people’ is potentially dubious. We can safely say that the 48% may have had doubts about freedom of movement, but the doubts were not strong enough for them to wish to leave the EU. So they effectively voted to accept its continuing. However, it is not possible to be so sure about the 53%. Some avid Leavers, like Tim Martin of Wetherspoons, have said they do not wish to see an end to freedom of movement. There are likely to be others like that. From the referendum numbers, it is quite possible that there was/is a majority in favour of retaining freedom of movement. There really is no certainty about the “will of the people” as expressed in a referendum which did not ask more than a very simple question.

  5. Thank you JoK – an excellent post.

    I particularly liked your summary of your position on Brexit, the EU and the euro. That used to be my position – until the term Euro-sceptic came to mean something rather unpleasant (rabid, fanatical and thoroughly illiberal).

    I voted Remain – not out of love for the EU but because no one was proposing a coherent alternative. There was no clear ‘Brexit’ mandate. When asked, the two Leave camps came up with numerous, frequently conflicting views.

    It could mean this (EEA/EFTA) or that (Switzerland/Canada) – or all the cake you can eat and more beside. I was not prepared to take such vague promises on faith (which seems sensible in hindsight since leading Brexiteers were quick to disassociate themselves from many ‘aspirations’ on the morning of 24 June).

    I still think there might still (just) be an option for ‘Portia’s Defence’ – a pound of Brexit but not a drop of free trade, free movement blood. We leave the political structure – give up our seat at the table and that’s it – we are no longer members of the club but we still have access to all the facilities as a paying guest. Somehow I doubt it will be anything like that clean – or quick.


  6. Your conclusion puts it in a nutshell: no definition of Brexit means no one will ever be happy. Far from silencing his Tory eurosceptics David Cameron has in fact opened Pandora’s (European) box… now assorted disgruntlements lurk under every proposal, vying to be the first to pull it down. How can any government proposal ever move forward?

  7. “I am also in favour of freedom of movement.”

    What does this mean in a post-referendum world? You think that freedom of movement is a good thing full stop, and peoples everywhere free to move where they like? And is that freedom of movement only open to people who have a job? Can people bring their families and obtain full social security, free health and education?

    Or are you in favour of freedom of movement for people in the other 27 EU countries but not from anywhere else? And if so is that because we got something in return? And if that thing in return was the other freedoms then why are you not outraged by Germany’s refusal to implement the free market in services?

    Just saying you are in favour of Freedom of Movement sounds like virtue signalling without any notion of consequences. I think it needs a little more explanation.

    1. I cannot answer for Jack of Kent, but it’s obvious what we got in return for Freedom of Movement. That was Freedom of Movement for UK citizens to live and work in the other 27 EU countries. Many have taken up that opportunity, and currently are numbered in millions . In the 1980s, many unemployed building workers went to Germany and worked there. There was even a fictional TV series based on their experiences ‘Auf Wiedersehn Pet’. If we abandon Freedom of Movement for EU incomers to the UK, then we are throwing away a valued freedom for our own people, with little chance of replacing that anywhere else in the world.

      1. thanks Stuart S. That doesn’t seem much of a trade to me. Lots of our pensioners go to Spain, but they still get their pensions paid by the UK so bring money with them, whereas many who come and work here are sending money they earn here back to their base countries. I know a few people who have emigrated to work in other countries, but none to work in the EU. In contrast many communities feel Freedom of Movement has landed them with reduced wages and social problems over which they have no control.

  8. The fact that the 52% have different ideas about what post-Brexit UK should look like is a bit of a diversion. The thing all Brexiters agreed on was that UK parliament should be the sovereign body of the UK, not the European Parliament. We were voting for the return of a process which means our differing opinions and views are represented in our domestic parliament.

    And what were the 48% agreed on? Remainers were very quick to say that the EU needed to be reformed, but there was no coherent plan of reforms put forward, and the only comment from Juncker on reforms to the EU was that there would be no further reforms. So there was no more agreement amongst the 48% than there was amongst the 52%.

  9. The 48% did agree that the best chance of reform was to stay in the EU. Many probably also thought that, despite the 6 yrs of negativity that they had endured from UK governments concerning the EU, they would on balance prefer to stay, even if no reforms were forthcoming. No institution is perfect, but things often change. For instance, the current UK government has a majority in Parliament based on 37% of the vote. Not at all perfect, but we live with it.

  10. Lewis Carroll nailed this in 1872, 100 years before we joined the EEC:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

    So there we have it. Brexit means whatever a person chooses it to mean; the real question is, who is to be master (that is, taking back control). And that is all.

    There is just one data point here: a bare majority voted in favour of the proposition that the UK should leave the EU. Anything more is driven by personal preference and inclination.

    A corollary of the lack of precision about what Brexit actually “means” is the ability to project the reasons why people voted for Brexit.

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