The Political Cliches That Dominate Brexit:

An Englishman, Scotsman and an Irishman walk into a bar. After a while, the Englishman decides he doesn’t want to stay any longer and insists the other two leave with him”. That, according to the “Independent” newspaper, is one of their favourite jokes about Brexit, “because everyone needs to laugh at what’s happening”. It’s of course a reference to the fact that on 23rd June 2016, Scotland voted by 62% – 38% to remain in the European Union, as did Northern Ireland by 55.8% – 44.2%, but the English & Welsh voted to leave and so provided an overall UK anti-EU majority of 51.89% to 48%.

The fortnightly satirical magazine, Private Eye, regularly publishes what it calls a “EU-phemism” cartoon. In it’s latest edition, it shows two Brussels bureaucrats agreeing that they can’t allow Brexit to distract them from the EU’s “main mission”, namely “bankrupting member states” – a clear allusion to Italy’s budget dispute with Brussels and the possibility (says the Independent) that the country’s latest financial crisis could “blow up the single currency” (the euro).

Some media commentators, however, are distinctly unamused by the Brexit situation. The Spectator columnist, Matthew Parris (a former Conservative MP), has written that the “whole ridiculous thing is driving me slightly mad” What’s the point, he has asked, of “waking up at 3 am and fretting sleepless until sunrise that we are leaving the European Union”. His counterpart at the Guardian, John Grace, has speculated whether “some days it really is better not to get out of bed” . The Mail on Sunday reported on January 13th that many British constituents are telling their MPs they are “sick of the sight and sound of Brexit”.

The London Evening Standard (currently edited by former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne) on 6th February portrayed Prime Minister Theresa May as “living in a bubble, trying to hold back time – but Brexit reality is ticking to a different clock”. Grace has caustically depicted the PM as a badly programmed “Maybot”  incapable of coherent thought who has turned the UK into an international laughing stock. The reason the UK is in its current mess, he declared, is “because of the EU’s insistence on maintaining a withdrawal agreement that she had negotiated and signed up to”.`

The opinion expressed by Grace’s colleague, Ros Howard, is even harsher: She acknowledges that “politicians and empty rhetoric are no strangers”, but considers May to have gone to an even higher level: “She gives the impression of having direction, delivering her words with intense breathless conviction, often reiterating principles and hopes. These can sound like plans but aren’t” Many of May’s phrases, notes Howard, are “vague and aspirational, and become indistinguishable from platitudes”.

None of this will come as a surprise to Peter Bull, a psychologist with York University who has conducted research into how and why politicians avoid giving direct answers to questions. As he explained to another Guardian correspondent, Zoe Williams, “It’s primarily to do with face: Positive face is concerned with making sure they themselves don’t look bad and negative face is about keeping one’s freedom of action and not committing to anything”.

Theresa May’s “signature evasion”, notes Bull, is to answer a specific question with a non-specific answer. She rephrases the question, then answers it as she posed it. In one interview on the BBC’s Sunday morning Andrew Marr Show, analysed by Bull for “Conversation.com”, May gave a straight answer only 14% of the time.

The “Media Helping Media” website offers trainee journalists advice as to how politicians should be interviewed: Political organizations, it points out, “spend a fortune on hiring media training consultants (often former journalists) who coach politicians on how to avoid answering questions and ensure they get their message across. There’s a big business in manipulating the media”.

Raf Weverbergh and Kristien Vermoesen on “finnpr.com” have listed 35 evasive techniques that politicians use during interviews. Among them: Ignoring, querying or attacking the question; Repeating the answer to the previous question; Making a political point (such as criticising the opposition); Refusing, delaying or giving just a fraction of an answer; Implying that the question has already been answered.

Carla Callaghan of the “Daily Record”, the Guardian contributor Sarah Hall and the BBC’s Amy Stewart have all provided a list of politicians’ preferred cliches that the electorate “can’t bear to hear” and many loathe. These include; “We’re all in it together”, “Let me be clear”, “The Great British people”, “There are no easy answers”, “Let me be absolutely open and honest”, “It’s going to take time”, “The dire situation we inherited from the previous administration”, “Our long-term economic plan”, “There’s no instant solution”, “We’re putting in more money into the NHS in real terms than any previous administration”, “Not fit for purpose” and “There’s a job of work to be done”.

Meanwhile,  perhaps the PM should stop arguing that her Brexit withdrawal deal with Brussels (even if there’s a change to the Irish “backdrop”) is the only one available. Neither Parliament nor much of the British public seem prepared to accept this any more.

Filed under: Politics | Posted on February 11th, 2019 by Colin D Gordon

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