1. Theresa May initially made the claim ‘Brexit means Brexit’ twice in quick succession: first on 11 July 2016, following her selection as leader of the British Conservative Party, and then again two days later in her inaugural speech as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has haunted the public debate about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union ever since. For the BBC journalist Mark Mardell, it brought to mind a Zen koan; others have treated it as an object lesson in the linguistic distinction between semantics and pragmatics. From a semantic point of view, it is an empty tautology; understood pragmatically, however, its use for May at that particular moment was fairly clear. It enabled her to appear unequivocal in her support for the majority decision to leave without committing herself to any specifics. This mattered in part because May had herself voted remain in the June 2016 referendum.
2. The semantic vacuum did not stay void for long. Among the many meanings that have filled the space since 2016, two stand out in part because they were added within days of each other in the immediate run up to the UK’s formal departure from the EU on 31 January 2020. Radically different in style, substance, and purpose, to say nothing of context and legality, each in its own way reflects some of the anxieties about language, culture, community, and the state — or, rather, particular conceptions of all four and their interrelations — that fuelled Brexit.
3. The first began its public life in the early afternoon of 29 January 2020 as a debut parliamentary speech by the newly-elected Conservative MP for Devizes, Danny Kruger (and, yes, his surname indicates a complex family history). After giving a lyrical description of his Wiltshire constituency, which he called ‘the ancient heart of England’, Kruger turned to his central theme: the meaning of Brexit. It was, he said, reading from a prepared script, ‘a response to the call of home.’
It reflects people’s attachment to the places that are theirs. Patriotism is rooted in places. Our love of our country begins with love of our neighbourhoods. Our first loyalties are to the people we live among, and we have a preference to be governed by people we know. That impulse is not wrong; it is right.
He offered this analysis in part as a challenge to ‘some of the traditional views of both left and right’, construing the latter as a version of (Thatcherite?) liberalism, the former as some kind of statist (Corbynite?) socialism. Or, as he put it, the ‘main actor in our story is not the solitary individual seeking to maximise personal advantage, nor is it the central state enforcing uniformity from a Department in Whitehall; the main actor in our story is the local community.’
3.1 Under all this, Kruger noted, shifting into a more ‘abstract’ mode for his conclusion, lay ‘the issue of identity.’
We traditionally had a sense of this: we are children of God, fallen but redeemed. Capable of great wrong but capable of great virtue. Even for those who did not believe in God, there was a sense that our country is rooted in Christianity and that our liberties derive from the Christian idea of absolute human dignity.
‘Today those ideas are losing their purchase,’ he claimed, largely, it seems, under pressure from some kind of multiculturalism: ‘we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity based not on our universal inner value or on our membership of a common culture but on our particular differences.’ How to redirect this misguided search for the new? Not by appealing to an idealized, supposedly monocultural era long gone — he acknowledges that ‘Christianity and the western past are badly stained by violence and injustice’ — but equally not by any wholesale rejection of ‘the inheritance of our culture’:
As we advance at speed into a bewildering world in which we are forced to ask the most profound questions about the limits of autonomy and what it means to be human, we may have reason to look about for the old ways and to seek wisdom in the old ideas that are, in my view, entirely timeless.
3.1.1 Kruger did not sketch the background to his ideas or reference the thinkers he admires — the English philosopher Roger Scruton is one, and he wrote his Oxford History doctorate on Edmund Burke and the constitutional crisis, 1778-1784 (2000). Picking up on the latter, Nick Timothy, former Conservative adviser and current London Daily Telegraph columnist, commented a few days later that Kruger evidently owes much to ‘the great conservative thinker, Edmund Burke.’ By way of illustration, Timothy cited the following from Reflections on the French Revolution (1790):
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.
Timothy could equally well have looked to another neo-Burkean, T.S. Eliot, who shared Kruger’s distaste for individualist liberalism and his wariness of the state as well as his commitment to localism and the Christian tradition. Yet, unlike Kruger, Eliot combined all this with a passionate, if often deeply questionable, belief in what he called ‘The Unity of European Culture‘. Eliot also had a more nuanced and challenging conception of ‘the old ideas’ and the ‘timeless’ .
4. A further, almost simultaneous intervention in the debates about the meaning of Brexit emerged on the morning of Friday, 31 January 2020 as an anonymous, cheaply produced A4 poster entitled ‘Happy Brexit Day’. Copies were displayed on all 15 floors of Winchester Tower, a block of council flats in Norwich, England. Once photographed, it rapidly found its way on to social then traditional media provoking widespread protest. Local police also opened an investigation into it as a racially motivated public order incident.
4.1 Designed primarily to threaten and alienate local residents, the document also captured some of the undercurrents of pro-Brexit feeling: an absolutist belief in state sovereignty (and in the EU as a colonizing force); patriotism mixed with, even defined by, hostility to immigrants; an idea of lost greatness, etc. At the same time, it recycled the most invidious of old anti-immigrant metaphors — foreigners as infection — and Trump-inspired political slogans (‘British first’ and, by implication, making the UK great again). Nothing particularly new in the emphasis it put on ‘the Queens English’ either. This too is a staple of inflammatory anti-immigrant rhetoric, which has a history long preceding Brexit. What the focus on language reveals, however, is the author’s (tellingly lazy? calculated?) conflation of the multinational UK state with an insular, monolingual English culture. Evidently the ‘once great island’ the author has in mind does not include Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, nor is it a place where Welsh is upheld by law, where Sinn Féin is campaigning for equal rights for the Irish language, or where around 30% of Scottish residents speak Scots.
5. Danny Kruger rightly recognizes that ‘we are trying to find a new set of values to guide us, a new language of rights and wrongs, and a new idea of identity.’ He is also surely right to anticipate a future, even ‘a bewildering world’, where ‘we’ (who exactly?) will be ‘forced to ask the most profound questions about the limits of autonomy and what it means to be human.’ A no less profound question: will ‘the inheritance of our culture’, to say nothing of Kruger’s ‘timeless’, ‘old ideas’ — think only of Burke’s militaristic metaphor of ‘the little platoon’ — be equal not only to the challenges of that future but to the energies at work in the present, which the ‘Happy Brexit Day’ poster displays in all their menacing clarity? Or will we all be wiser to look elsewhere and to other cultures for inspiration too?
The garden of the manor, the forested orchard, lay partly on the site of one vanished hamlet. Such building-over would have occurred many times before. The duplicate name of the hamlet or village, Waldenshaw — the same word (for forest or wood) in two tribal languages, both long since absorbed into other languages — the very name spoke of invaders from across the sea and of ancient wars and dispossessions here, along the picturesque river and the wet meadow.
V.S. Naipaul describing the Wiltshire landscape in The Enigma of Arrival (1987)
For more on the UK and multilingualism, see Britain must address its linguaphobia now to survive post-Brexit, How a brilliant 18th century linguist linked the Celtic languages, and Wales wants to make the Welsh language part of every lesson under new curriculum.