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On 24 June 2016, shortly after the full results of the referendum were known, the online edition of the Financial Times quoted the senior Labour MP, Margaret Hodge, attacking the leader of her own party, Jeremy Corbyn, over his allegedly inadequate campaign for Remain: ‘The EU referendum was a test of leadership and I think Jeremy failed that test. He came out too slowly. He was very halfhearted about his attempts to campaign and Labour voters simply didn’t get the message’ (Pickard et al. 2016). In the same article, Lord Mandelson, a key figure in Tony Blair’s government, is quoted as saying of Corbyn’s campaign, ‘At best his voice was curiously muted but when he did say anything, there were mixed messages.’ Over the next five days twenty-one members of Corbyn’s shadow cabinet resigned, all citing dissatisfaction with their leader’s lackluster performance in the build-up to the referendum as a major reason for doing so, while the shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, displayed such disloyalty that he left Corbyn with little option but to sack him.
It is true that less than two weeks before voting day Jeremy Corbyn announced on Channel 4’s comedy show The Last Leg that his enthusiasm for remaining in the EU could be rated at ‘seven, or seven and a half out of ten’ (Jeremy Corbyn on the Last Leg 2016), but, he was hardly alone in damning the EU with faint praise.
Although the Leave campaign had been expected to do well in certain parts of the country, Labour MPs were genuinely shocked when it emerged that the proBrexit vote had also been strong in Labour’s traditional heartlands in the north and Midlands, but instead of asking themselves why their own constituents had ignored advice to vote to stay in, they made a somewhat disingenuous attempt to lay the entire blame at the party leader’s door. In reality, no individual could have swayed the result one way or the other, while Remain supporters of the right, left and centre have a certain collective responsibility for not employing language more convincingly.
Remain, a construction that actually concedes that the Leave camp also has a credible argument themselves. Further investigations of grammatical and lexical features, conscious linguistic strategies and the sometimes fuzzy distinction between rhetoric and spin aim to show that on a series of fronts the Brexiteers won the language war. What is highly persuasive may not be highly truthful, however, and it could be argued that Remain campaigners were more honest in using language that acknowledged the complexity of the issue at stake. A referendum requires a binary choice while the European Union, an institution that encompasses twenty-eight nations (still, at the time of writing) and well over 500 million permanent residents, is such a complicated amalgam of the good, the bad and the perplexing that it is practically impossible to either love it or hate it unconditionally. If Leave won the language war they did so partly by simplifying matters in keeping with the essential in-or-out question on the ballot paper, while Remain paid the price of openly admitting that the EU was far from perfect.
There is no simple answer to the question of when (or whether) it may be justifiable to practise a certain judicious selection of truths in order to achieve greater exhortative efficacy, and it is probably fair to say that we demand different levels of sincerity from different writers or speakers: we want historians to favour impartiality and truth over ideological issues, hope but do not really expect journalists to do the same, and in the case of politicians, fully expect them to put a spin on what they are pleased to call facts. David Runciman (2010: 9) argues that since politicians have a series of conflicting loyalties – to their heterogeneous electorate, to their party and factions within it, to their principles but also to their assessment of what is feasible – they cannot possibly be 100 percent truthful with all interlocutors at all times. However, the same author makes a provocative distinction between lying and hypocrisy:
A lie creates the immediate impression that one believes something that happens to be false, but that does not mean that one is not what one seems (indeed, people who have a well-deserved reputation for lying may by telling a lie be confirming exactly who they are). Hypocrisy turns on questions of character rather than simply coincidence with the truth.
If politicians who sincerely believed that leaving the EU would be an enormous mistake had ‘sexed up’ their message for the good of the cause, they would, by Runciman’s distinction, have been true to themselves, and therefore anything but hypocritical, even as they uttered half-truths and total lies. Indeed, the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has made no attempt to sue or even contradict journalists who have reported on his propensity to lie to achieve his political objectives (Jean-Claude Juncker’s most outrageous political quotations 2014). The primary aim of this work, however, is not to evaluate the honesty of those actively involved in the Brexit debate, but to consider the linguistic features that distinguished the Remain and Leave campaigners in order to gauge the relative efficacy of each side’s message.
The following three sentences provide the same information but with different syntactic constructions:
(i) I had done a first-class job but the boss did not thank me.
(ii) Although I had done a first-class job, the boss did not thank me.
(iii) Although the boss did not thank me, I had done a first-class job.
Sentence (i) is an example of coordination (sometimes referred to as parataxis) while sentences (ii) and (iii) are examples of subordination (or hypotaxis). Huddlestone (1984: 382) explains the difference with admiral conciseness: ‘In coordination the terms in the relationship are of equal syntactic status, insubordination they are not – one is subordinate, the other superordinate.’ Coordination creates syntactic parallelism: in (i) the two clauses on either side of the coordinating conjunction but has equal weight and each could stand alone as a short sentence in itself. Subordination creates the syntactic hierarchy: in (ii) and (iii) the clauses containing the subordinating conjunction although could not be stand-alone sentences because they are clearly incomplete and need to be linked to a main or superordinate clause.
In sentence (ii) the fact that I had done a first-class job is expressed in a subordinate clause and is therefore assigned reduced importance, while the stressed information, the fact that the boss did not thank me, is placed in a main clause. The focus of the sentence is on the boss’s ingratitude. In sentence (iii) the situation is reversed: the boss’s refusal to thank me is less important and the main focus switches to the high quality of my work. Assigning a piece of information greater importance by expressing it in a superordinate clause can be a double-edged sword, however. As Lesley Jeffries notes (2010: 86): ‘Putting something at a higher syntactic level may mean that it is more important, but it is also likely to make it more susceptible to questioning, so that text producer who wish their ideas not to be questioned too closely may well make something quite uncontentious the main proposition of their sentences.’ Sentence (iii) would probably not be uttered by someone who harboured doubts as to whether his/her claim to have produced top-quality work could really stand up to close scrutiny.
In written and spoken texts produced by Remain supporters during the referendum campaign, the following structure was used with extraordinary frequency: Finite clause critical of EU + BUT + Finite clause presenting Remain as preferred option In the language of anti-Brexit politicians, journalists and bloggers this coordinative construction was ubiquitous and even occurred in the headlines or leads of articles. In the following examples, the first two are the headline and the lead respectively of two articles written by George Monbiot (2016) for The Guardian. The third quotes both the headline and the lead of a piece written by Adam Ramsay (2016) for the website of openDemocracyUK. (iv) I’m starting to hate the EU. But I will vote to stay in (v) The EU is a festering cesspool. But it’s a crystal spring compared with what the outers want to do – surrender Britain’s sovereignty to the United States
(vi) I hate the EU. But I’ll vote to stay in it The European Union is an undemocratic corporate stitch-up. But leaving would be worse Although most of us can remember a teacher of English telling us that you cannot start a sentence with but, here we have four cases in which a journalistic convention prevails over the grammatical rule that a conjunction should not be placed in initial position. By making the clause that precedes the word but a sentence in itself, these two writers stress the fact that the two clauses on either side of the conjunction are of equal syntactic status. Had they opted for subordination, the subordinating conjunction although in initial position would have immediately signalled to the reader that the proposition of the first clause would be overridden by that of the main or superordinate clause (in as much as language as strong as ‘festering cesspool’ and ‘undemocratic corporate stitch-up’ can be overridden).
In their less-than-ringing endorsement of the European Union, Monbiot and Ramsay appear to be practically in agreement with the central argument of the Lexit campaign, that is, the EU is fundamentally undemocratic and has come to represent the interests of multinational corporations rather than those of the public at large. Their unenthusiastic vote to maintain membership is based on nothing more than the fear that stepping out of the frying pan will lead to somewhere even hotter, so it is hardly surprising if they do not present their case with a great deal of fervour. One would expect a little more vim from professional politicians known for their pro-EU stance or from an online newspaper that supported the case for remaining a member from the moment the referendum date was announced, but in the following examples the same coordinative construction is evident: (vii) is the concluding sentence of an open letter written by five senior figures in the Labour Party, including Jack Straw, a minister in Tony Blair’s government and father of Will Straw, executive director of the Britain Stronger in Europe movement ; (viii) comes from an article written by Labour MP Yvette Cooper (2016); (ix) is from an unsigned editorial in The Independent entitled The right choice is to remain (2016). (vii) The EU is not perfect and improvement is always worth making, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. (viii) Europe’s not perfect and there’s plenty we should keep campaigning to change. But we still get a better deal if we work together than if we walk away. (ix)
The institution is not without its flaws of course – there is bureaucratic inefficiency and the maintenance of Strasbourg as the official seat of the European Parliament is wastefully expensive. But membership of the EU benefits our economy, boosts global security and aids our connectivity with the rest of Europe.
The ‘five Labour heavyweights’ (The Mirror’s description) – Neil Kinnock, David Blunkett, Margaret Beckett, Jack Straw and the rather more middleweight Hilary Benn – might argue that in ending their twelve-sentence open letter as they did, their intention was to show that they had reached their pro-EU position after an honest appraisal of the merits of both sides of the issue, and had elected to eschew the simplistic and exaggerated approach of the Brexiteers. That they were capable of understanding the Leave supporters’ point of view is clear from their admission at the start of the letter that in the 1975 referendum all five had voted against Britain’s continued membership of what was then the European Economic Community. Given their political history, it is remarkable that so little of the zeal of the convert entered their prose that in their concluding sentence they did not even downgrade the reference to the EU’s imperfections to a subordinate clause.
In content as well as in structure, Yvette Cooper’s words in (viii) are similar to those of the five heavyweights: in both cases the first clause acknowledges the EU’s imperfection and the need for improvement while the second features a comparative (outweigh and better deal respectively) to illustrate the advantage of staying in. There is no sexing up of the message to make it more persuasive, which once again can be seen as either admirable honesty or ineffectual campaigning by an experienced politician.
In (ix) it could be argued that the first sentence actually has more impact than the second in that it contains a highly specific example of one of the EU’s flaws – the cost of maintaining Strasbourg as the seat of the European Parliament – while the second mentions general benefits without saying anything concrete. Indeed, it is not even clear what is meant by ‘our connectivity with the rest of Europe’.
David Cameron’s great gamble was that he could emulate Harold Wilson in 1975 and convince a majority of voters that he had renegotiated Britain’s conditions of membership to such an extent that Eurosceptics’ worries had already been addressed. On 19 February 2016, in an official statement to the media just one hour after the conclusion of talks with the European Council, he began by reassuring TV viewers in the UK that ‘Britain will be permanently out of ever closer union – never part of a European superstate’, then made his case for voting to stay in the EU. Given that he had failed to make any headway on the one issue that might have persuaded some Brexit supporters to change their voting intentions – the thorny question of the free movement of citizens within the Union – he could hardly assume a gung-ho attitude. Instead, he emphasized his ‘hard-headed assessment of what is in our national interest’, but in doing so he also found himself admitting that he could understand public discontent with the EU: (x) Like many, I have had my doubts about the European Union as an organisation. I still do. But just because an organisation is frustrating it does not mean that you should necessarily walk out of it, and certainly not without thinking very carefully through the consequences. (Cameron 2016)
One has the impression that Cameron would not even give the EU a mark of seven and a half out of ten. He conceded that the doubters were not an insignificant minority and that his own misgivings had not been completely assuaged. After the coordinating conjunction but, a subordinate clause provides more negativity concerning the EU, then the advice not to walk away is hedged by the adverb necessarily. The concluding nonfinite clause creates an interesting implicature: perhaps it is all right to walk away from the European Union if you have carefully thought through the consequences. Ross Clarke (2016) in the Daily Express reports that two days later, Cameron’s defence secretary, Michael Fallon, sounded even less enthusiastic when speaking on BBC radio’s Today programme: (xi) No one likes commissioners, harmonisation or directives. It has its faults but if you were outside the European Union it would still be there.
The subject of the first sentence makes dislike of three aspects of the EU universal, while the clause after but in the second sentence presents the existence of the European Union as just a disagreeable fact of life that we must learn to live with because it will not go away. Posters designed by the German fine arts photographer Wolfgang Tillmans were among the most effective propaganda materials used by the Remain campaign. Tillmans focused on themes to which the Brexit camp had no real answer, such as the emergence of a de facto European identity as greatly increased mobility, particularly among the so-called Erasmus generation, has led to a situation in which huge numbers of Europeans live and work in nations other than that of their birth and the continent is now home to more mixed-nationality couples (with their bi- or trilingual children) than ever before. One poster from his Between Bridges pro-EU collection (Tillmans 2016) follows the same structure of acknowledging the EU’s defects before saying something positive (the graphical layout has been modified): Flawed? Yes, Slow? Yes, Attractive? Uhh So, why?
The EU has brought peace to 28 member states.
In Poland and Hungary, the EU is seen as the last defence against their authoritarian governments. Don’t leave them alone. Tillmans presents the view that the 1957 Treaty of Rome set in motion a process that has brought nearly sixty years of peace to countries that were twice ruined by the war in the first half of the twentieth century. Like the politicians and journalists discussed earlier, Tillmans also acknowledges the EU’s faults before making the case for voting Remain. The difference, however, is that the second part of his message is a great deal more powerful than the less-than-inspiring appeals to opt for the lesser evil in the quotations considered previously. In texts (iv) to (xi), the second part of the coordinative construction presents staying in the EU as being in Britain’s interest. In Tillmans’s poster, the issue is not Britain’s interests; it is Europe’s interests and the multinational project that has guaranteed peace and democracy in the greater part of the continent, which takes the debate to a higher level than calculations of benefits outweighing costs or securing a better deal. It is actually a claim that can easily be challenged – some would argue that peace in Europe has had more to do with NATO and the mutually assured destruction of the nuclear arms race than with developments following the signing of the Treaty of Rome – but it is a theme that can raise passions in a way that appeals to maintain access to the single market cannot. By repeated use of coordinative constructions, anti-Brexit politicians and journalists showed that they had sufficient confidence in their pro-EU arguments to allow them to be ‘susceptible to questioning’ (to repeat Jeffries’s words) in the main clause, but the question remains as to why they decided to give equal prominence to the Brexiteers’ views, not even relegating them to the lower syntactic level of a subordinate clause. It is difficult to believe that career politicians were so committed to telling the unvarnished truth that they elected to forego even mild subterfuge and spin to downgrade the validity of the case for leaving the EU and render more persuasive the counterargument. In the short texts quoted here, very little editing would be required to make the case for staying in the club a little more convincing; in (vii) and (viii), for instance, it would be sufficient to insert a factive verb, that is, a verb such as know, learn, realize or regret that presupposes the truth of its clausal complement: (xii) The EU is not perfect and improvement is always worth making, but we have realized that the benefits far outweigh the costs. (xiii) Europe’s not perfect and there’s plenty we should keep campaigning to change. But we know that we still get a better deal if we work together than if we walk away.