Swarms, red tape and shackles: deciphering the Brexit code

The Leave campaign won chiefly by lying and cheating — but also through the cunning manipulation of metaphors

“That’s the EU, that is.”

You may have heard of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: the theory that language determines thought. Benjamin Whorf, building on the work of Edmund Sapir, suggested in his 1940 essay Science and Linguistics that what and how we think are at least partly shaped by the words and grammar that we use to conceive and express those thoughts. (Whorf’s preferred term for the theory was “Linguistic Relativity”.)

He reached his conclusion after noticing huge systemic differences between languages: how different peoples divided up the colour spectrum in different ways; how the Hopi language lacked a word for time, or any recognisable tenses; how Eskimo languages had multiple words for snow.

The idea was revolutionary, hugely popular, and ever so slightly racist. Could our perception — and therefore our behaviour — really be determined by the place we were born? By the 1960s, however, after a number of rebuttals, the hypothesis, in its strong form at least, had fallen out of favour. How could form really affect content? Surely, even if your language doesn’t have a word for a particular colour, you can still perceptually tell the difference?


All my life long, I’ve loved language. Like Stephen Fry (but not as well as Stephen Fry), I’ve savoured it, sploshed in it, flossed with it and galoshed in it. I kept my first diary at seven. I was writing stories at 11, scripts at 13, and soon studying English, German, French and Spanish. At university, I dipped into Hopi, Swahili and Inuktitut (and Whorf). And as an adult, virtually every penny I’ve earned has come either from writing, or from editing other people’s writing.

And all this time, I never considered language to be that important. Ultimately, while it was an incredibly useful tool, a fascinating area of study, an enjoyable way to earn a crust and a handy icebreaker at parties, it didn’t butter many parsnips. It was a passion that paid the bills.

But the events of the last couple of years have prompted a rethink. Seismic changes in the political climate and public mood have been engineered in the blink of an eye — and language, particularly as used in mass media, seems to have been one of the main vectors of this change. Perhaps Mr Whorf wasn’t so far off the mark after all.


Whatever else you think about the people who are dragging the UK out of the European Union, some of their wordsmithery has been astute. While most have relied on untruths and logical fallacies, subtler tricks have also played a part.

The incomparably sinister MP Steve Baker engineered the wording of the EU referendum, persuading David Cameron to change a YES/NO vote to LEAVE/REMAIN. (“Yes” tends to attract more votes from the undecided because of its positive overtones; meanwhile, “Leave” is muscular, active and Anglo-Saxon, while “remain” is languid, passive and Latinate.) And we know that it was charmless Jack Skellington clone Dominic Cummings, the director of Vote Leave, who came up with the viscerally appealing but meaningless slogan “Take back control”. And the use of terms like “swarms” and “cockroaches” by the likes of Katie Hopkins and the Daily Mail to describe refugees entering Europe is well documented.

The turns of phrase used by the Brexit mob are deliberately selected to provoke an emotional, rather than a rational response. “You’re being attacked!” they bellow, or “You’re being held prisoner!” This triggers the fear centres in the brain and bypasses the rational circuits. Because all rational circuits conclude that the better course of action is remain in the EU.

Below are a few more instances of linguistic chicanery that have become far too deeply embedded in far too many consciousnesses.

One spurious argument you’ll hear quite often from Brexit diehards is that the EU is protectionist; that it discriminates against non-member nations by imposing tariffs on their goods but not on those of member states.

They have, of course, got things (deliberately?) arse about face. Before the EU, tariffs and non-tariff barriers applied to all trades between all nations. The EU was created precisely to abolish those barriers, but obviously only for those who signed up, paid their dues and contributed to the legwork. In any case, these benefits don’t just apply to EU members; the Union has agreements in place with 47 countries or trading blocs which drastically reduce the impediments to trade, with many more in the pipeline.

In leaving the EU and withdrawing from all these treaties, it is the UK that becomes the protectionist, isolationist party. A bold few are advocating that the UK should unilaterally drop all its tariffs, but there are no end of potential hazards to this, not least the fact that a) there is no guarantee that other countries will reciprocate, and b) such a move would flood the market with cheap foreign produce and inevitably destroy British manufacturing and agriculture.

One of the earliest of the Brexit mob’s clarion calls. “We need to slash all this EU red tape!” they wailed. “It’s strangling British business!” Of course, what they mean by “red tape” more often than not is regulations that benefit consumers and workers: safety standards, consumer protections, workers’ rights and environmental safeguards. The only people this red tape is “strangling” — or, to put it more clearly, “denting the profits of” — are megarich CEOs and shareholders.

As absurd as it may sound, this is probably the Brexit fanatics’ most popular way of describing the European Union. For their benefit, let’s compare concept and the metaphor and see how apt the comparison is.

A dictatorship is defined by most dictionaries as “a government by a ruler with absolute power, typically one who has taken power by force”. Britannica elaborates: “Dictators usually … maintain power through the use of intimidation, terror, and the suppression of basic civil liberties. They may also employ techniques of mass propaganda.”

The imagery falls down on every count. The EU does not have anything close to total power over its members; it is concerned largely with trade, agriculture and the environment. Defence, taxation, welfare, education and healthcare all fall within the purview of individual states. Moreover, member states have a say in those laws (and the UK has been disproportionately successful in this regard). The EU did not seize power in a coup, it does not intimidate or terrorise, and no one has had any rights removed. In fact, British people enjoy more rights and protections as a result of EU membership than they otherwise would.

Of all the Brexiters’ misleading metaphors, “EU shackles” has undoubtedly gained the most traction. I see it dozens of times every day. But how exactly does EU membership resemble a pair of fetters connected by a chain used to bind prisoner’s legs together?

  • The UK’s relationship with the EU is a bond, but it is one that was entered into voluntarily.
  • It is a bond of friendship and cooperation, not one of indenture or servitude.
  • It is also one that the UK can leave of its own accord. Sure, leaving is a complex matter, because we’ve spent 45 years integrating our economy with 27 other countries’, but no great feat of escapology is required.
  • It is a mutually advantageous agreement, not one designed to restrain or oppress one party.
  • It grants both parties more freedom (of movement, of trade, lower prices, simpler travel, worker protections), not less. It doesn’t prevent us from doing anything that we wouldn’t otherwise have to do ourselves. 55% of the UK’s trade is already with the rest of the world, and Germany, for example, does plenty of importing from and exporting to other countries.

Alas, this tiresome pairing is now imprinted on millions of impressionable minds, and undoing it will require the work of generations, or at least several years of penury and global humiliation.

Other commonly used terms that feed into this fraudulent narrative of subjugation and freedom include colony, vassal state, yoke, escape the clutches and independence.

There was one big obstacle to the Brexiters’ messaging plans. They had banged the immigration drum so loudly during the campaign that when they won, they had no choice but to deliver on it — by ending freedom of movement. But when you are running on a platform of “emancipation from oppression”, how on earth do you sell the removal of people’s freedom to travel, study, work and retire across 31 countries?

Their solution, as ever, was to turn things on their head. So you’ll rarely hear Brexit supporters talking sheepishly about taking away your freedom of movement (except the staggeringly inept, like Jeremy Corbyn). Instead, they will rhapsodise about how we are gaining control of our borders. Never mind that the UK already has control of its borders — it’s going to gain even more luvverly control over them!

When they are not twisting words and metaphors for their own nefarious purposes, of course, the Brexit wrecking crew are twisting the words of Remain campaigners in an attempt to undermine their validity. The outstanding instance of this was Boris Johnson’s shameless reductio ad absurdum of David Cameron’s point about 70 years of peace in Europe, but it happens on a daily basis. Any attempt to point out that the vast majority of Muslims are peace-loving people, for example, is met with a murderous “You defend terrorists! You love paedophiles!”

I don’t have the space here to begin on Donald Trump’s linguistic abuses, except to note that while his misrepresentations are considerably less sophisticated, they appear to have been no less successful. Might may not make right, but shite certainly seems to.

People armed with enough time and enough critical thinking skills can generally see through these cheap conjuring tricks. The trouble is, in this era of instant gratification and limitless diversion, that’s a rapidly dwindling band. Meanwhile, a growing number of people who cannot (or will not, because the message resonates with their animal fears) question the platitudes that feed their lizard-brain’s fears are fortified, emboldened by them, and ever more convinced of their righteousness.


How do you fight back against this? I welcome all suggestions, because the only plan I have right now sounds far too much like hard work. Call this language out wherever you see it. Challenge people to justify their metaphors. Exactly how the UK’s relationship with the European Union like a shackle? “Protectionist”? You mean, abolished all barriers to trade with its partners? Copy and paste in the dictionary definition of the chosen metaphor, to highlight the absurdity of their point.

And let’s hope that we get through to enough people to prove Benjamin Whorf wrong, and reverse the catastrophe of Brexit before it’s too late.

  • For more examples of semantic skulduggery, check out the Dictionary of Brexitese — the bespoke dialect of English developed by the far right to mislead the easily misled.

Newsperson and scriptwriter. Blogs at http://rainbowsandlollipops.net/