What on earth does “Brexit means Brexit” actually mean?

I'm still unsure what the word “Brexit” actually means: withdrawal from Europe – or maybe a brand of lard?

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It was a relief, wasn’t it, when a grown-up entered the nursery teatime of the Tory party leadership contest, and told the spoilt and disruptive little boys and girls to sit still. Then Mrs May sent Boris to sit on the Foreign Office naughty step, and Andrea to look after the divisive biscuit tin of farm subsidies, picked up her ski poles and buggered off for a summer walk, the way vigorous grown-ups of a certain age are wont to do. In lieu of a child mature enough to deputise for her, the Prime Carer left behind this placeholder: “Brexit means Brexit”. That was it – no fanfaronade, no messing, just an enigmatic phrase suggestive of a Zen koan. Moreover, this was a Zen koan inscribed on a featureless slab of black obsidian – one that, in the following weeks, the illiterate inhabitants of the Westminster village came to stare at in puzzlement and wondrously touch with their maladapted paws. What could it possibly mean?

Of course, even the apes (sorry, I mean “political class”) understood that the phrase was a placeholder; understood, as well, that it was designed expressly to engender their own puzzlement; nonetheless they – we – remained transfixed for weeks, and even though the nursery cabinet has now met, and the Prime Carer has begun to qualify the statement, the strange hold that “Brexit means Brexit” has had on our imaginations lingers, like a kipper breakfast that repeats for . . . aeons.

Is “Brexit means Brexit” a rallying cry, akin to “Make poverty history”? In which case, can we expect its injunction to remain equally unheeded? After all, in the 11 years since this was urged upon us by all right-thinking people (and Bono), far from poverty becoming a thing of the past, it is history itself that has begun to seem distinctly impoverished, offering us nothing very much in the way of signposts to the future. That “Brexit means Brexit” is such an injunction seems confirmed by the Prime Carer’s recent supplementary remarks: Britain, so long as the Prime Carer is in loco parentis, will leave the single European market and reassert full control over its borders. Moreover, any thoughts of a mandatory parliamentary or electoral endorsement, let alone a second referendum, must be confined to the dustbin of history. (Which remains obstinately empty of poverty.)

I asked the Professor of Inexorable Logic at the University of Monetisation if he could tell me anything about the underlying structure of “Brexit means Brexit” and he said: “Superficially, it may appear tautologous – what, after all, could Brexit possibly mean, if not itself? Yet, on closer examination, the connective ‘means’ is by no means one of equivalence; rather, it draws our attention to the incontestable fact that Brexit is a neo­logism, and as such hasn’t, perhaps, been sufficiently employed in ordinary speech to have determinate, consensual meaning.”

All this was self-evident to me – as I’m sure it is to you – but it prompts the question: how many uses will it take for Brexit really to mean Brexit, and in how many forms and contexts? Will we require babies named Brexit? Or even the replacement of our favourite epithet with verbal, nounal and adjectival forms, such that “You can brexit the brexiting brexit right out of here, you brexidacious brexiteer” becomes a meaningful phrase? Even if we confine the use of “Brexit” to discussion of Britain leaving the European Union, there remains the problem of consent and determinacy: one woman’s back-to-the-future obviously being another’s forward-to-the-past. It could be that Brexit can only mean Brexit once Britain has, in fact, left the EU, in which case the word will have acquired all the fusty uselessness of bombazine or the cockney form of Berkshire Hunt.

It’s my suspicion that the Prime Minister is steeped in the linguistic philosophy of the later Wittgenstein – I know, I know, she wears it lightly, but anyone who can utter the phrase “Brexit means Brexit” with such ringing conviction, while really under­standing perfectly well that “Brexit” might mean an automated dildo, or be a brand of lard, can only be calling attention to the language games we all play, while inviting us to join in another. When I studied logic we were asked to deconstruct the workings of the syllogism by considering propositions of the form: the king of France has a beard; the king of France is a man; therefore, all men have beards. The obvious fallacy here is that there is no king of France, and the Prime Minister has amply displayed her awareness
of this fact with her assertion that “­Boris ­Johnson” means “the Foreign Secretary”.

There are some Remainers, stood so deep in the hole Nick “Honestly” Clegg has dug for them that they’re purblind, who believe “Brexit means Brexit” actually means the exact reverse. And that Mrs May’s cabinet appointments are part of a very long language game indeed, one that will play out during negotiations of such fearsome (and costly) complexity, that Boris, David et al will have to come before the House of Commons arrayed in chains of red tape – like some latter-day Burghers of Calais – and be compelled to admit this: so hopelessly entangled with the European Union has the British state become, that it is impossible for it to be detached without both entities ceasing meaningfully to exist.

The first political slogan I was aware of was Harold Wilson’s “pound in your pocket”. It seemed pretty gnomic then – even more so now. But compared to “Brexit means Brexit”, “the pound in your pocket” seems altogether benign. The Prime Carer has opened a can of postmodern worms, dumped them on toast and served them up to her ministerial charges with the pretence that they’re spaghetti. Of course, what Brexit really means is: “We’re f***ed.” But no one wants to wash out his or her own mouth with soap, least of all someone as mature and capable as Mrs May.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

Free trial CSS