The meaninglessness of meaning, or Brexit as a metaphor

Yesterday afternoon during Prime Minister’s Questions, Theresa May was asked by one of her own MPs if she could ‘inform the House at what time it was decided that Brexit means Remain?’ The question capped a week of chaotic wrangling within the government about how this single, seemingly straight-forward word should be defined, and who gets to define it.

Theresa May’s mission statement for her role as the Brexit-era Prime Minister is now exactly two years old. When she first declared that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ back in July 2016, it was intended to signal her steadfast resolve as leader. As the months have gone by, and a detailed policy definition of Brexit continues to prove elusive, one might have supposed that the phrase would have aged about as well as David Cameron’s pre-Brexit assertion that ‘Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice – stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband’. Yet recently it seems to have gained a new lease of life, albeit mostly as a means of goading the Prime Minister by those on the right of her party. Not only was Andrea Jenkyns parodying it with her ‘Brexit means Remain’ jibe yesterday, but when Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the Chequers agreement by bombastically claiming it would lead to ‘the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200’, he defiantly signed off with the hashtag #BrexitmeansBrexit.

Such is the confusion over the whole process that it’s not only the ‘Brexit’ part of the phrase that seems to be perplexing people. The meaning of ‘meaning’ has also been put through the political wringer recently. It was less than a month ago that the main topic of debate in the country was whether Members of Parliament would get what was described as a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit bill. ‘Meaningful’, in this context, meant a vote which would allow parliament to veto the deal if they weren’t happy with it. In other words, a vote which could actually alter the outcome. As opposed, one assumes, to other types of votes which are mostly meaningless. In the end, the MP calling for the meaningful vote voted against his own amendment, thus condemning the whole convoluted process to rumble on without anyone quite knowing what it was all meant to mean.

In grammatical terms ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is a tautology: it expresses a proposition which is necessarily true. And while tautologies are vacuous from a strictly semantic point of view, they can be pragmatically powerful. Rhetorically, May’s catchphrase was meant as a mixture of calling a spade a spade, of saying things are what they are, and that enough is enough. Or at least, it might have had that effect if there was any consensus about what Brexit actually does mean.

In the absence of a concrete definition, debate over its meaning has been mostly conducted in metaphors. A metaphor is almost the exact opposite of a tautology. Rather than explaining something in its own terms, it creates meaning by yoking together two dissimilar things. Metaphors can help us understand something we don’t understand in terms of something we do. For an idea whose identity is vague or nebulous, they can fundamentally shape the way we perceive it. So how about the metaphors that have been used to describe Brexit? Can they help clear up the meaning of the concept? And is there a hidden pattern lurking within them that can help shed some sort of light on what’s going on in this country at the moment?

The most prevalent Brexit metaphors are the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’. In very basic terms, the former implies continued membership of the single market and/or the customs union, and the latter doesn’t. The trouble is, the two words aren’t simply descriptive – they also assign different values to the two alternatives. As William Davies writes in the New York Times, ‘[a]ny Brexiteer wanting to perform machismo will reach for the “hard” option’ – despite the fact that no-one really has a clear idea of what this would mean in practical policy terms. ‘Soft’, on the other hand, sounds like the weaker option, but has the advantage of being something that might actually work.

Of course, a great deal of politics isn’t about practical detail; it’s about symbolism. And the battle over Brexit has been fought from the very beginning almost entirely on symbolic grounds. This is apparent in the way that many of the Brexit metaphors draw on overarching narratives which have little to do with policy implications: narratives such as patriotism and national identity. Included in this category are Theresa May’s ‘red, white and blue Brexit’ and Boris Johnson’s ‘full British Brexit’, neither of which signify much more than that Brexit is about Britain. They are, if you will, tautologous metaphors.

The largest category of Brexit metaphors are those which simply make associations with ‘things that are bad’ or ‘thing that are good’. These include Jacob Rees-Mogg’s notion of ‘a punishment Brexit’ (one that keeps ‘us in the European Union in all but name’), or the European Research Group’s ‘worst-of-all-worlds black hole Brexit’. There have also been train crash Brexits, and Boris Johnson’s fear of a ‘bog roll Brexit’ which would end up being ‘soft, yielding and seemingly infinitely long’. The most pessimistic vision, however, was given by David Davis when he assured the population that Brexit won’t result in the country being ‘plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction’.

All the above, despite being coined by pro-Brexit politicians, create an unremittingly negative picture of the process. They’re meant as a warning, of course. But as any public relations specialist knows, the way in which one frames an idea is all important. By declaring that you’re ‘not a crook’, people instinctively associate you and the word ‘crook’ together.

Even when the intention has been to liken Brexit to something positive, the metaphors have been oddly ambivalent. For instance, Jacob Rees-Mogg compared breaking from Europe with entering heaven. But to get there, he conceded, we would need to pass through a transition period akin to purgatory. Then there was Boris Johnson’s oddly ambiguous forecast that Brexit would be a ‘Titanic success’.

These last two examples might in fact be better included in the category of existentially-challenged metaphors. Also in this category are the journalist Philip Collins’s notion of Schrödinger’s Brexit, and the Tory MP Charlie Elphicke likening Labour’s Brexit plans to the Hotel California where ‘we check out but never leave’.

All of which brings us finally to Boris Johnson’s evaluation of the current state of play, as expressed in his post-resignation statement to the House of Comments yesterday. The definition that Theresa May’s government was currently pushing, he complained, was a sort of ‘Brino’, or Brexit in Name Only. In other words, after two years of negotiations, the term and its referent were still distant strangers, with no immediate prospect of being happily reconciled.