Just when you need maximally careful use of the uniquely human gift of language, everything goes to hell and people start throwing clichés around like ninja stars. Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, has just called a referendum for June 23 in which the electorate will address this question:
Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?
And immediately everything is slogans and fearmongering and soundbites and similes.
The wording of the question was adjusted last September to make sure neither side had “Yes” as its favored answer. Referenda are well known to show a strong tendency to come out with Yes winning rather than No if those are the options, so to be fair, the Electoral Commission required a polar (yes/no) question to be replaced by an alternative question, and the alternatives are going to be (i) Remain a member of the European Union or (ii) Leave the European Union. But that was just fiddling with the question that would eventually be put. Now the actual campaign has started.
The most prominent locutions are leap in the dark and the synonymous leap into the unknown. It would be a leap in the dark for Britain to exit the EU (a scenario universally known now as “Brexit”), Cameron and other Brexit opponents constantly repeat. What would be the effect on Britain’s relations with its former EU partners, its balance of trade, London’s pre-eminence as a banking center, the defense of the realm, the threat of terrorism?
These interrogatives are of course offered as rhetorical questions, aimed at provoking nervousness about change. If instead they were sincere questions, an answer could easily be given: Yes, of course, we cannot foresee the future, so by leaving the EU, Britain would be making a move whose consequences 10 years down the pike cannot be predicted. But the future always has that property. Remaining in the EU would similarly have unpredictable consequences for coming decades (look at the way the Greek crisis, the financial threat to the euro, and the recent floods of Syrian migrants into southeast Europe blindsided the EU). Promising to stay in would be a leap into the unknown.
People making the remain-in-the-EU choice are referred to contemptuously by the other side as “remainians": a word contrived to sound almost exactly like Romanians, so as to conjure up images of Balkan gypsies making use of their EU guarantee of free movement to cross the English Channel and beg in British streets or sponge off the welfare system — for the anti-EU brigades think that is exactly the sort of thing that the EU’s principles facilitate.
There isn’t a similar mocking term of abuse for those who want to leave the EU, though “outers” is one term used for them. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, had claimed in the past that he had “never been an outer,” but on Sunday he announced he was going to campaign for Brexit. (The pound sterling immediately slumped from $1.44-something to $1.40-something, revealing what international investors think about Britain going it alone.)
The way Johnson put things in an unscripted announcement to journalists outside his house, it sounded as if he wanted the electorate to vote to leave and then negotiate a better deal for getting back in. Cameron promptly ridiculed him with a divorce analogy. He knew couples who had instituted divorce proceedings, he said, but none who instituted divorce proceedings as a prelude to renewing their vows. It got some laughs in the House of Commons.
That is the kind of fare that is being served up to the British public: clichés about leaping into the void, scornful nicknames, metaphors about marriage breakup. What is needed is copious careful analysis followed by meticulous and lucid explanation in layman’s terms, and that’s not going to happen.
The EU is surely the most powerful allied bloc of independent states in the world. A referendum on whether it should drop from 28 countries to 27, with Britain (the fifth largest economy in the world) going it alone like Switzerland or Norway, is extraordinarily important because of its long-term consequences. It is not like a presidential election in the United States. If (to take an obviously fantastic scenario) a loud-mouthed, self-promoting, nonchurchgoing, populist bigot — famous from two divorces, several bankruptcies, and a TV show — were to win the presidential nomination for a major party, and ultimately win the presidency, it could be undone in four years. The negotiations and upheavals and permanent adjustments if Britain ceased to be an EU member, by contrast, would occupy decades.
The Brexit issue, which splits parties (the Conservative Party is rent asunder by disagreements over it), calls for quantitative empirical analysis and very serious discussion in carefully framed, neutral language. And I don’t think that’s what we’re going to see between now and June 23.