The language of ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ in the EU referendum

by Craig Evans

Voting day is upon us. After months of campaigning, the voting public will make their way to the polling stations to determine whether or not the UK will continue to be part of the European Union. For some, the choice they will indicate on the ballot paper may have been made long ago. For others, the decision is not so clear-cut, and it is these voters who political activists on both sides have been most keen to reach in the final weeks and days of the campaign. This means that, rather than preach to the converted, activists have needed to be more strategic in convincing the undecided that their position – be it leave or remain – is the right position.

One way to sway a wavering voter might be to appeal to emotion (‘pathos’, in Aristotle’s terms). For example, the fear of something that isn’t known (e.g. the precise economic effects of leaving the EU) or something that can’t be controlled (e.g. immigration). Regardless of the reality of either situation, this fear might be just enough to nudge voters one way or the other. Little wonder then that politicians have been shamelessly repeating expressions like ‘keep our seat at the table’ (Remainers) and ‘take back control’ (Brexiters). The first appeals to the fear of being shut out from a place of influence, the second to the fear of being powerless.

Of course, there are plenty of undecided voters whose indecisiveness does not just come down to fear of the unknown. Other reasons will have a bearing on why they have yet to make up their minds. For example, a moderate Brexiter with reasonable concerns about the extent to which the EU is democratic might feel uncomfortable being on the same side as groups who are anti-immigration. Likewise, a voter who has been won over by the economic arguments of ‘remain’ might be reluctant to fully commit to this position if they feel it is somehow unpatriotic and at odds with their sense of national pride.

In such cases, campaigners will need to appeal to reason (‘logos’, Aristotle again) to address particular reservations voters may have. With the examples provided here, this could take the form of presenting an EU exit as logically pro-immigration. This occurs when Brexiters argue that stopping uncontrolled EU migration would allow for more migration from elsewhere in the world; they even sometimes contend that it would mean ending what is currently a discriminatory practice against people from non-EU countries. As for the view of ‘remain’ as unpatriotic, an argument that has been made is that the UK’s standing in the world is bolstered by its membership in the EU. As a senior member of a large political and economic union, Remainers have argued that the UK commands more respect on the world stage than it otherwise would as a detached nation.

For anyone who has caught even just a small fraction of the referendum’s widespread media coverage, these kinds of argument will probably seem very familiar. No doubt, when the referendum results come in, political strategists, social commentators and linguistics students (perhaps) will be chewing over what went right for the victors and wrong for the losers. Will it come down to the arguments made? Did that side or the other employ the most effective rhetorical strategies? How about specific language choices – is there anything that the Brexiters or Remainers could’ve / should’ve done differently?

To pick over the bones of what has happened, some data is needed, and below I have gathered some samples for your consideration. These are taken from the speech of two leading figures from opposite sides of the referendum campaign. Perhaps they will help provide a flavour – linguistically at least – of what debating the issue has been like. In the week or so leading up to the vote, Michael Gove (leave) and David Cameron (remain) each appeared on separate one-off episodes of the BBC’s flagship political debate programme, Question Time. Here, they fielded questions from the audience, composed of members of the public, on the topic of why the UK should leave or remain in the EU. The quotes included below are taken from those TV appearances.


DATA-SNAP – Gove and Cameron on the EU

For anyone combining drinking games with the occurrence of political slogans, Michael Gove’s use of language may’ve been cause for a complete loss of control:

Let’s take back control and restore our democracy

If we vote to leave we can take back control and we can ensure that our NHS is under less strain

I think we should vote leave so that we can take back control of that money

To maintain support for our multi-racial, multi-ethnic success story, we need to take back control

The awkwardness of the repetition, like a nervous tic, was probably calculated – the acceptable cost of eloquence for any subliminal effect it might have on undecided voters who deep down fear being invaded by the ‘other’. While taking control is not necessarily about immigration, the topic is never far away, be it to relieve the strain on the NHS or to appease those may who want to un-multi-racialise / ethnicise the country. And for those who might still not be getting the message:

The only way we can control the number of people who come into this country is by voting to leave and taking back control of our borders

At this fairly late stage of the campaign, despite the question-and-answer format of the programme, Gove clasped hold of the sledgehammer that was his own single-minded strategy: repeat over and over the same key messages. One: ‘we need to take back control’. Two: aren’t British people just the best?

The one thing that you can trust in this debate is the instincts of the British people

I have confidence in the ingenuity, talent and generosity of spirit of the British people

Manufacturers, entrepreneurs, industrialists – they have confidence in the British people. Why don’t the Remain campaign?

The case for leaving is an optimistic case about the potential of the British people to achieve even more

And try as they might, the Question Time audience could not shift Gove from this uncomfortable obsession he seemed to have with the British people. Like, for example, when someone tried to call him to account for his past sympathies towards an insurance-based system for the NHS, but all to no avail.

The institutions that we love in this country, which are an expression of Britishness, deserve to be supported and defended. No other country has a health service like the National Health Service.

If we vote to leave and we take back control, the amount of additional money that we have as a result of that, the hundreds of millions of pounds, will be spent by us on our priorities

Through his repetition of the social actor, the British people, and an action that needs to be performed, taking control, Gove casts his hypnotic spell: British people take control, British people take control. But he can’t help himself, and the slippery politician suddenly emerges from behind the clear, simple message: our priorities. An ambiguous expression that he repeats several times: our priorities. What does he mean? In fact, British people? Take control? Who is he suggesting takes control and what exactly are their priorities?

The people negotiating on our behalf aren’t people who put Britain first

I want our trade and our economic policy to be decided by people who are patriotic and who put Britain first

‘Britain First’: a far-right nationalist group started by former members of the BNP. At best, an unfortunate slip of the subliminal tongue for Gove.

As for David Cameron’s EU referendum Question Time appearance, the British Prime Minister seemed keen not to be out-manoeuvred on the patriotism front:

If we choose to leave, we can leave. But let’s be clear: if we do leave, that’s it! We’re walking out the door. We’re quitting. We’re giving up on this organisation

I don’t think that Britain is a quitter. I think we stay and fight. That’s what we should do. That’s what made our country great, and that’s how we’ll be great in the future

Certainly a rousing call to arms, but you can’t help but feel that the ‘fighting is enduring’ metaphor has somehow gotten tangled up with the ‘EU is a room’ metaphor, and now Gove’s British people are having a punch up with some ‘others’.

Back to the PM for clarification:

[Churchill] didn’t quit. He didn’t quit on Europe, he didn’t quit on democracy, he didn’t quit on European freedom. We want to fight for those things today, and you can’t win, you can’t fight, if you’re not in the room

Cameron is clearly facing an uphill struggle as he tries to encourage a sense of action when asking voters to choose more of the same. While ‘leave’ means change, ‘remain’ can only offer continuity. In his effort to animate the proposition of staying in the EU by channelling Churchill, it perhaps comes across as slightly ridiculous: We shall fight in the corridors, we shall fight in the boardrooms and by the vending machines. We shall never surrender.

Perhaps a more effective rhetorical strategy for the remain campaign is that of repeating a word that succinctly encapsulates a positive idea to rival Gove’s taking control.

I think one of the strongest arguments for remaining in the European Union is that we’re stronger together, we’re safer together

Working together against terrorism, working together against Putin and his aggression in Europe

It must be better to try to stay together to work together rather than to be separate

And should the natural ingredient of a simple notion like together not be to everyone’s taste, you can always spice it up with some fear:

The terrorists that want to do us harm: they want the West to be divided. They don’t want Britain and France and Germany to work together to defeat terrorism. They’d like to see us separate from each other

For the most part during his appearance on Question Time, David Cameron resorted to using analogies as if explaining to someone who is deliberately being stubborn the blatantly obvious logic for remaining in the EU.

The ‘leave’ campaign say let’s not listen to the experts, but if we’re about to get into a car and drive our children on a motorway, and the mechanic says the brakes don’t work, the petrol gauge is faulty, the steering isn’t working, we wouldn’t get in the car

[On leaving the EU]- You can’t, as it were, jump out of the aeroplane and then try to scramble back into the cockpit hatch

When I’m thinking of buying a house I’d listen to an expert, if I’m thinking of getting into a car I’d listen to the mechanic, if I want to build a bridge I want an engineer

It is hard to know for sure what influence, if any, the language choices of Gove and Cameron will have had on the outcome of this EU referendum. What is certain is that we will soon know what that outcome is, and that whichever way it goes, the UK’s relationship with the EU will continue to be a hotly debated issue for a long time to come.








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