Chris Johns: Semantics of Brexit means nobody knows what’s going on

Choice facing UK is whether to shoot themselves in foot or in head

Prominent Brexiteers are giving up the claim that leaving the EU will produce immediate economic benefits for the UK.

Prominent Brexiteers are giving up the claim that leaving the EU will produce immediate economic benefits for the UK.

 

Anyone doing business in or with the United Kingdom needs to take some lessons in semantics. Since the Brexit referendum, words and phrases have been parsed within an inch of their life in order to find their true or probable meaning.

But no amount of language study would have shed any light on UK prime minister Theresa May’s catchphrase, the one now gradually being chiselled on to her political tombstone. Empty of any content whatsoever, “Brexit means Brexit” never meant anything at all. Most of us now wonder whether May had any idea about what her own words might have meant

Not quite as vacuous was “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Although repeated many times by many people in the immediate aftermath of the referendum it is significant that Brexiteers occasionally demand that the prime minister once again utters this phrase.

This one is not quite empty since it is dead wrong: it has a kind of parallel-universe meaning. All Brexit potential deals are bad, their only saving grace being that most of them will end up being a whole lot better, for the economy at least, than simply crashing out next March without any withdrawal agreement.

Economic benefits

Prominent Brexiteers are giving up the claim that leaving the EU will produce immediate economic benefits. Both foreign secretary Boris Johnson and former Ukip leader Nigel Farage are giving passable demonstrations of how to row backwards. Johnson has even muttered about how even a “meltdown” in the short term would somehow be worth some nebulous longer-term benefits.

If all sorts of phrases have bedevilled Brexit it is almost poignant to see the whole process impaled on a single word. Backstop means backstop. So it is vital we understand what that word means.

The dictionary says it is a thing placed at the rear of something to offer a barrier or support. It used to have a very British meaning, something that I suspect has encouraged a generation of middle-aged UK politicians to adopt it with such alacrity. Years ago, kids playing impromptu cricket would nominate someone to be the backstop – more formally known as a wicket keeper.

Whichever definition is used, it is important to highlight one nuance and one immovable obstacle. First, the nuance: the idea of the backstop as a stopper – a word used in many sports. And in this context it usefully reminds us that if the backstop is operative it stops a certain kind of Brexit. Indeed, it is so effective a stopper that it really permits only one kind of Brexit, the one that has conjured up a new word, Bino – Brexit in name only.

It’s still heavily odds against but a flutter on a second referendum might be worth considering

If there is to be no border on this island and no border down the middle of the Irish Sea then the UK has to remain within both the customs union and, most of all, the single market. That’s what those words mean. No matter how hard the British try, the words can’t be made to mean anything else.

There aren’t many ways the UK can do all this, save embracing the old “Norway option”, namely join the European Economic Area or some close variant. Or admitting that the whole thing is simply a waste of time and money.

The immovable obstacle is that a backstop is permanent, at least for as long as the game is played. You can’t play cricket without a wicket keeper: that’s a very bad deal, one that makes no sense at all. The backstop stops hard Brexit – unless the UK crashes out without any kind of deal at all.

Coded messages

Most of the Brexiteers have worked this out. Which is why some are issuing coded messages to the effect that crashing out is what they now desire, or is a price they are prepared to pay to achieve their dream. Some are even quite explicit with their words: “Just leave” is becoming a new slogan.

A different metaphor might help. The choice facing the British is whether now to either shoot themselves in the foot or the head. Or maybe just put the gun down.

Most serious analysts concluded some time ago that Brexit, no matter how obviously harmful, is unstoppable. That’s largely a function of the original democratic vote (albeit dangerously flawed) and the fact that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is as hard a Brexiteer as they come. Without any effective political opposition in Westminster to Brexit is hard to see how it can be stopped.

But now we have a backstop, a stopper – maybe. For the first time in a while I am beginning to wonder whether logic, semantics and a looming deadline might produce that most unexpected of outcomes. It’s still heavily odds against but a flutter on a second referendum (third if we want to include the original 1970s version) might be worth considering.

More generally, it can’t be stressed enough that the UK’s political situation looks extremely unstable. Everything from the status of the prime minister to the position of Northern Ireland in the union looks to be in play.

That, of course, is economically damaging: so much is not being done, particularly capital investment. Economics, as it often does, may force fantasists to confront reality.

@skiduffer

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