Three Unhelpful Metaphors For Understanding Brexit

A brewery, today

As you’ll have noticed, there’s a lot of comment about the UK leaving the European Union (EU) these days. Given that it is the most important and consequential piece of public policy since at least the Second World War, that should be unsurprising.

What is surprising is that so much of that comment and debate is so poorly-informed. Brits have long been among the least knowledgeable about how the EU works across the 28 member states, and both politicians and media have been driven as much by their prejudice as by any real understanding of what actually happens in the various institutions and decision-making processes.

Partly because of that, we see a lot of metaphors and analogies knocking about. Of course, it’s also because we tend to reach for such devices when talking about things: “this complicated/unusual thing is like that less complicated/more common thing”. We all do it and you can even argue that we have to it.

The problem comes in our choice of metaphor, because even though something is like something else, it’s not exactly like it; instead, it’s like it in some ways and different in others. But because we tend to gloss over the differences, we end up thinking about the broad areas of similarity, which we then extend into the areas of difference.

In the case of Brexit, this problem is rife, so it’s useful to think about why some of the big examples of metaphor fail to capture what’s going on.

Brexit is like a war

We do love a good military metaphor or allusion in British political debate. Prime Ministers heading off to Brussels to ‘fight’ for our interests, ‘battling’ their way through meetings, demonstrating some ‘Dunkirk spirit’ if they’re not successful. Think of the Beef War in the late 1990s.

There’s a lazy argument that says this is part of the national psyche because of our historical successes: we won the war(s), we stood strong in our darkest hour, and those white cliffs are part of our defence against a Europe that has always dragged us into fights and conflicts.

If we can set aside the deeply problematic notion of ‘us’ in all this, then it’s still a pile of rubbish: British exceptionalism joins the big pile of other national exceptionalisms. Everyone has a different story to tell, but it’s just that – a story.

Wars are typically existential, at least in the modern era: each side seeks to destroy the other, or to render some fundamental change. The main tool is that of coercive force, fighting and killing to impose your preferences on the other. That idea of coercion is central to all these metaphors and fits in with the wider idea that you get what you want by your strength and imposition on others.

A moment’s glance shows how inappropriate this is in the EU context. The UK freely decided to join the then EEC in 1973, which it then confirmed with a referendum two years later; each additional developmental stage was ratified by Parliament; and the country freely decided it wished to leave, again with the support of Parliament and a referendum. Even now, the process for leaving – the famous Article 50 – specifies that the UK cannot be prevented from going, but offers an opportunity to discuss the arrangements for this in an orderly fashion.

Likewise, there are no fisticuffs in the corridors of power (almost), just talking and debating. The closest anyone has got to deploying armed forces has been a former minister getting over-excited about Gibraltar. Less the Battle of Waterloo than the drunken cries after closing time.

Brexit is like a game

Now this one is less lurid, but much more widespread. Theresa May is always’ keeping her cards close’ or trying to ‘outwit her opponents’, just her predecessors were declaring ‘game, set and match’. Poker faces abound.

In essence, this is all just like the war metaphor but without the coercive force aspect. What remains is the notion of an opponent, someone to be tangling with and then beaten. It’s a very common way of seeing politics in general, hence the concern about ‘winning’ (or, at least, seeming to win).

Again, the issue here is that politics isn’t only about contestation, but also about cooperation. Just as one doesn’t go about reaching decisions by punching everyone into submission, so too one doesn’t do it by out-playing everyone else. You can certainly try, but you’ll quickly discover that not everyone disagrees about everything and that your own ideas might not be the best ones: it’s only through working with others, discussing things, that you will find sustainable and constructive ways forward.

And so it is with Brexit. The talk of ‘no deal being better than a bad deal’ is this metaphor taken to its worst excess: not only does it cut off the possibility of finding a collaborative solution, but it’s also palpably untrue, , at least given the amount of evidence the government has marshalled to back it up (i.e. none).

Here we fall back into how we see others and the vague sense that there will be punishments for leaving the EU. As European Council President Donald Tusk put it, leaving is punishment enough, so the aim now is to find the least painful way of accommodating everyone’s interests in the process. That means some give and take all round.

Brexit is like a divorce

All of which brings us to a final unhelpful metaphor. The UK’s off, leaving the relationship, so now we have to sort out the remnants of our time together. There’s money and people and possessions involved, plus lots of lawyers. It’s just like a divorce, right?

If you don’t think regularly about politics, then this is an attractive metaphor, because it feels roughly right and you probably have some experience of divorce, even if only in the general notion that they can be messy or complicated or nasty.

But a divorce is not a useful device here. It involves individuals with an emotional relationship and a pretty narrowly described set of issues to be resolved, all to be done within a framework of law and precedent.

Brexit is very different on all these points. It deals with the legal withdrawal from a legal relationship by a state, but with a necessity of an on-going relationship thereafter (Europe’s not going anywhere, and nor is the UK, so both will continue to be neighbours). There are liabilities and obligations, as well as extensive adaptations by government, the economy and society, across all areas of public life and public policy that will need to be unwound, or recast, or preserved. And all of this will happen with very limited guidance about how it works, because it’s something that has never happened before.

Put differently, Brexit won’t be solved by a night out with your mates and a resolution to ‘get back out there’.

So what, then?

I would pain me far too much to say that May had it right when she was in her ‘Brexit means Brexit’ phase, but inasmuch as it can be taken to made that metaphors are limited in helping us, there is something to commend it.

I’m not going to offer an alternative metaphor, for exactly that reason: whatever I suggest will have to be hedged around with so many caveats and cautions that you’d just ignore me in any case.

Instead, I’m going to ask to just think about the language and the ideas that you hear used when discussing this topic. Metaphors have problems, but they have insights too – they can pick up on some interesting or important truth. However, it’s be being alive to what they can and can’t do that you will really see and appreciate that.

So be like one of the kids that says ‘why?’ to everything, and ask whether someone’s trying to help or hinder with their metaphor.


This post originally appeared on the Elmbridge Politics site.