Language for a second referendum

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At the time of writing, we don’t know whether there will be a second referendum on the UK leaving / staying in the EU, let alone what the questions in that referendum would be. But the possibility of such a ‘people’s vote’ focuses attention on the issues of language and discourse that have surrounded the debate since the campaign around the 2016 referendum.

The first victory for the Leave campaign was the coining of the noun ‘Brexit’. As a commentator on my blog at the time said, it is so much easier to vote for something than against it, so recasting the issue as for or against Brexit gave that campaign an advantage. The derived noun ‘Brexiteer’, by analogy with ‘musketeer’, has a rakish, even romantic air to it. Like the devil having the best tunes, the Leave campaign had the best nouns.

Finding or coining a good ‘remain’ noun is not easy. We tend to have words for change, not for maintaining the status quo – there is a word for ‘divorce’ but not for ‘staying married’, a word for ‘emigrating’ but not for ‘staying in the same place’. ‘Solidarity’ conveys something of the emotion but not the specificity to EU membership. Does anyone have any ideas?

Since the 2016 referendum, discourse around the EU/UK relationship has settled into a disturbing pattern of ‘head’ versus ‘heart’. Wishing to remain in, or closely aligned to, the EU is talked about in terms of economics: we will be ‘better off’, membership of the common market is good for manufacturing, business, the financial sector. The economic argument for leaving, which is largely to do with hypothetical ‘trade deals’, is less often mentioned than the ‘sovereignty’ argument. The mantra is ‘taking back control’, and Jo Johnson’s mention of ‘vassalage’ has hardly helped. In other words, supporters of Leave are represented as the patriots, ruled by the heart, and supporters of Remain are the bean-counters, ruled by the head. Heart wins out every time. As someone has said, there is no scene in the film Braveheart where Mel Gibson sits down and works out the fiscal consequences of independence. Freedom is its own rallying cry.

So the argument for reversing the current slide towards Brexit has to be about head as well as heart. Cards on the table: I am very proud to be a citizen of the multilingual, multicultural collective of democracies known as the European Union. I love the EU passport that declares my unity with friends in France, Italy, Greece and beyond. At a time when we reflect on the incessant warfare of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I am deeply appreciative of the extraordinary vision that said ‘we will henceforth be one’. My patriotism is for a United Kingdom that has its home in this wider union.

If we do get a second referendum and a chance to vote for remaining in the EU, I really hope the argument for Remain can be about this vision and patriotism as well as the economics. Suggestions for slogans are very welcome!

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