Leave-supporting MPs have been accused of using “inflammatory language”, which is alleged to incite violence, in their debates with the opposing side. Currently, the two main targets of these accusations are the labelling of the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 2) Act as the “Surrender Act” and Johnson’s response to a speech by the MP Paula Sherriff (pictured above) in the House of Commons, when he said that he had never heard such “humbug” in all his life.
Generally, commentators from the Leave side have been robust in defending the sobriquet “Surrender Act” but more cautious about Johnson’s “humbug” response. This distinction is the right one, I think, because in the former case the phrase employed carries a political point whereas “humbug” carries the implication that the speaker was being disingenuous. It is always better to address the content of an argument, rather than impugn the integrity (or the intelligence) of a political opponent. Those Remain supporters who wish to reverse the outcome of the 2016 referendum have, however, got off remarkably lightly in this respect; attacks on the personal qualities of Leave voters in general, as well as their leaders, have played a big role in the prosecution of their goal.
The accusation, notably by Amber Rudd, that “Surrender Act” transgresses the bounds of civilised debate is baseless. The phrase contains a political message, namely that the opposition has handed all the advantage to the EU side in the negotiations over a withdrawal agreement. The notion that “surrender” necessarily implies a context of violent confrontation is not true. The word, as with lots of other terms that came originally from warfare, is used metaphorically and in all sorts of ways, as in “He surrendered his passport on arrival”, for example, or “They surrendered to the inevitable”. If someone stated that the Prime Minister had been subjected to a “barrage of criticism”, would she be accused of using violent language because of the word “barrage”, historically associated with artillery bombardment? Surely not.
Johnson’s “humbug” response was unfortunate because it suggested that Paula Sherriff was not being sincere and it was open to the interpretation that her indignation about threats of violence towards Remain-supporting MPs was manufactured. In fact, from reading the record in Hansard, it seems most likely that Johnson was only claiming that Sherriff’s specific attempt to connect his label “Surrender Act” to threats to MPs was bogus, an allegation that should not provoke outrage.
Whatever exactly Johnson meant (and it is hard to know, given that he was immediately shouted down), his words were certainly not as reprehensible as the use by the Liberal Democrats of the slogan “Bollocks to Brexit”, probably the worst example so far of the use of inflammatory language by either side. Johnson’s was a spontaneous response during the cut and thrust (if you will pardon the metaphor) of a heated debate, probably the most heated debate that has occurred in Parliament in living memory. “Bollocks to Brexit”, on the other hand, was calculated. It is rude and it contains no propositional content at all. The slogan is not even “Brexit is Bollocks”, which, however crude, would at least contain a substantial claim. Instead, the Liberal Democrats’ slogan is not designed to convey any message of substance. It is merely the verbal equivalent of a V-sign, which is designed to inflame.
Indeed, Leave voters en masse have frequently been the target of verbal abuse, being described, in more or less subtle ways, as racist or stupid, or both, for over three years now. It has become commonplace to conflate a wish to control immigration (a wish shared by a majority of those who voted Remain, by the way) and racism. It is not unlike conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. Why not just present arguments against a policy of immigration control, rather than rushing to accuse supporters of such a policy of racism?
The least subtle allegation of stupidity comes in the form: “The wicked people lied to the stupid people,” as an explanation of the outcome of the 2016 referendum. David Runciman quoted it (critically, I should emphasise) in a Guardian article of 1 May 2018; it is popular, apparently, in intellectual circles, in private. It wittily and pithily encapsulates the view that the Leave victory was achieved by evil populists taking advantage of the mentally inadequate. One can picture the dons chortling over it in the senior common room. In public, the word “uneducated” tends to be used instead of “stupid” in observations of this sort, but the effect is hardly less insulting, implying as it does that people voted Leave because they were not mentally equipped to make a judgement on the issues involved. Why not debate the issues instead of making these snide assertions?
The answer is that they could not thereby change the awkward fact that Leave won the vote. For those on the Remain side who won’t accept that Leave won, their only means of getting around it is through personal attacks, both individual and collective, in the hope that these will have the cumulative effect of undermining the perceived legitimacy of the vote, a point that is well made by Philip Cunliffe in a previous article on The Full Brexit (see Analysis #24 - The Myth of “Weimar Britain”: Why Soubryism, not Fascism, is the Future). The tactic of denigrating people in order to undermine a policy they support is inflammatory. And it has been used primarily not by Leavers but by Remainers, for the past three years.
Nigel Hewlett is a retired Senior Lecturer in Linguistics.