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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