It is not a good idea to watch Question Time on BBC1, but Newsnight was depressing, so I switched over. Bad call.
Then this morning I let myself listen to a little of the phone-in on 5 Live, followed by a bit of James O’Brien on LBC. Luckily I have a modern, super-intuitive radio. The battery died.
But I’d heard enough. There are parallel languages in use in this country, both purporting to be English, but mutually unintelligible. James O’Brien tried to decode Bringlish, as I suppose we must call the Brexit dialect, by inviting the froth-mouthed Brexiphiles to call him to explain exactly what it is that makes them so angry. Few of them took up the challenge, preferring to send him texts and tweets making graphic threats of violence against him and his family. So I’m taking on the task for myself.
The Question Time exchanges between Zanny Minton Beddoes of the Economist, and an apoplectic man sporting a giant poppy illustrate the problem. The poppy man said these words – “Democracy doesn’t exist. It’s in name only. We voted out and they still don’t accept it.” Beddoes said these words – “What the High Court said was there has to be a vote in Parliament, because we are a parliamentary democracy. There’s a difference between direct democracy and referendums, and parliamentary democracy. We are a representative democracy. You elect an MP to form a government.”
Note the vocabulary. Words like ‘vote’, ‘democracy’, ‘parliament’. They look like the same language. But behind them lie entirely different architectures of meaning.
I understand the language of Beddoes, because I read GE Aylmer’s The Struggle For The Constitution when I was at school. I came to understand how, why, and in what circumstances this country gradually, often grudgingly, evolved its political system, and how its constituent parts, including the courts, fit together.
But if my first introduction to Britain’s political system had come not from Aylmer, and Christopher Hill, and later from other historians and philosophers – ‘experts’, to use a term from the Bringlish lexicon of derision – what might I think?
This is the key to understanding Bringlish. We must understand its roots. How do we get “High Court judges” to be a synonym for “enemies of the people”? How does “the rule of law” come to mean “democracy doesn’t exist”?
On one level, it is simply a matter of “doublespeak”, where Brexit leaders manipulate language to obscure, deflect, or compel, to achieve their desired political outcomes. But that isn’t enough. Bringlish goes beyond that.
The man on Question Time cannot hear what Zanny Minton Beddoes was saying to him. She may as well have been speaking Yoruba, for all the sense it made.
In Bringlish, “democracy” means “the side that won a vote in a referendum (but obviously not the one in 1975, which doesn’t count)”. The important word there is “won”. It is “won” in the same sense as in ‘winning the lottery’, or ‘winning a gold medal at the Olympics’. To ‘win’ is to get a thing (money, medal, Brexit), and then to own it wholly, and completely, to the exclusion of others who did not “win”.
That’s a very simple concept to grasp. They won. Get over it. Suck it up. Loser.
‘Democracy’, as Beddoes was using it, is not a simple concept. It is subtle, complex, delicate in many ways. It is a culture and a process, forever mutating in response to historical events, but anchored by first principles, such as the sovereignty of parliament and the rule of law.
‘Democracy’, in English, and in Britain, may not be simple, but it is not hard to understand if you inhabit a culture which promotes it. There was a time when someone like the man on QT would have been a member of a trade union, a working men’s club, and the Co-Op. He’d have attended meetings where they’d vote on a show of hands, sent off ballot forms to elect the general secretary, or voted over a pint for the club committee. Such everyday experiences of democracy meant that when it came to general, or local elections, the average person had an innate understanding of the mechanisms of democracy, even if they’d never read Walter Bagehot.
Yet we still live in a world of votes. Vote for Strictly! Get voted off Bake-Off! Vote to make a has-been ‘celeb’ eat a slug! Every newspaper website uses ‘polls’ as click-bait. Vote! Vote! Vote!
But it is shallow, binary, ‘win/lose’ stuff whose terms are set by powerful oligarchs, and the clever people whose mouths are stuffed with silver to do their bidding.
It is no accident that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson were such prominent figures in the Leave campaign. These two journalists are the poets of Bringlish literature, smiting experts and having cake and eating it. Nor is it any accident that the Tabloids of Terror continue in their quest to make High Court judges into public enemies. They are doing more, much more, than simply stating opinions or reporting news.
They are constructing a form of language that means that we cannot talk to one another because our common words no longer have common meanings.
Brexit means Brexit.
Have we sunk to this?