Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told his officials to stop using the word “Brexit” after the UK leaves the EU in January.
It is always a danger sign when politicians reach out to ban words and phrases that they do not like. It is an insidious and dangerous form of censorship which, once embarked upon, is difficult to control.
Now in parliamentary terms, the progress of the EU Withdrawal Bill does mean that this particular phase at Westminster has drawn to a close: no more blocking amendments, disputatious points of order and procedural devices to ‘stop Brexit’. But does it mean that Brexit is truly finished?
Complex, arcane and interminable negotiations now begin on trade and tariff agreements with EU officials: yet more video news footage of UK Cabinet ministers doing the ‘perp walk’ as they step out of their limousines at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels. Several new models of on-trend electric car may be worn through before these are completed.
It is thus neither legally nor politically correct to suggest ‘Brexit is done’ and that the word should now be purged. However, not all in the euphoric ranks of Conservative backbenchers might be in a mood to stop here. Good riddance, many will say, to the most disputatious and depressing word in modern English usage.
And now they have the bit between their teeth, why stop at Brexit? Lots of other words, unpleasant to Conservative ears, could now be blocked from the Hansard record and booted into history.
Ban ‘independence’ and ‘austerity’?
How about “independence” as a word many Tory backbenchers would like to see the back of? Few sounds irritate them more than that of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon grinding on about it. Was this not all resolved in the 2014 Scottish referendum when there was a vote – 55 per cent to 45 per cent – to stay in the UK, a vote which the SNP leadership said was settled for a generation?
But here some backbench unease may be discerned at any proposal to ban the word “independence”. Was this not what the majority across the UK voted for in the 2016 EU referendum – and emphatically confirmed in the emphatic victory for the Conservatives in the “Get Brexit Done” general election? Best not to get tangled up in that contradiction, some might feel.
But here’s another word that should surely be consigned to the Johnsonian rubbish bin of history: “austerity”. Does this not continue to haunt the Conservatives? Have they not been long dubbed the “austerity party”? And have they not made clear their intention to open the fiscal spigots and embark on all manner of public spending?
But there is also the objection of the Thatcherite Conservatives: there never really was “austerity” over the past nine years, certainly nothing comparable to the ration-card miserabilism of the immediate post-war period. What we have had since 2010 was only a moderation in the pace of increase in spending. True, when the figures are adjusted for inflation, there may have been in some areas “cuts”. But across-the-board ‘austerity’ is something else altogether. What other words can be discarded? The term “Bercow” should certainly disappear from usage. But how about “Labour” as a party united around a coherent set of policies acceptable to the electorate? It has all but disappeared.
A similar case for future Johnsonian non-usage could also be applied to members of the Shadow Cabinet and indeed all other dissident spokespeople such as the remnants of the Liberal Democrats, independent rebel Tory MPs and others who set themselves up in opposition to Johnsonian Government. Here, instead of referring to such figures by their names such as “Corbyn”, “Starmer”, “Abbott”, “Long-Bailey” etc, the phrase used to describe the deposed aristocracy in the immediate heady days of the October 1917 Russian revolution would be superbly apt: “Former People”.
There is also a group of words describing those EU trade negotiations that could bedevil the Johnsonian supremacy in the months to come – terms such as “complex”, “awkward”, “difficult”,” deadlock” etc which might imply a state of affairs other than sublime and triumphant progress to the WTO world order.
Such words might imply doubt and even criticism of the Prime Minister. Similar difficulties confounded Joseph Stalin in the 1930s when he sought to drive the peasants into collective farms. Was he to be deflected by such negativity? Amid reports of millions dying of starvation and open opposition, the Soviet leader delivered a speech which Pravda carried under the front-page banner headline: “Dizzy With Success”!
So let us not clog up our Johnsonian thoughts with negative words. Remove them! And let government supporters spin themselves dizzy with talk of progress, unity and positivity. Banning “Brexit”? It may be just the start.