Language is the key to understanding the new, post-Brexit Britain

12 Oct 2016


Last Thursday was National Poetry Day. The preceding three days were dominated by the Tory Party conference. There might be more in common between those two events on the calendar than you might initially think.


A few years ago, when I was young(er) and (even more) naïve, I studied Moon on the Tides for GCSE English, which I’m sure if you’re my age or similar you’ll remember. One of the poems within this hallowed tome was Imtiaz Dharker’s The Right Word.


It starts like this:


Outside the door,
lurking in the shadows,
is a terrorist.


Is that the wrong description?
Outside that door,
taking shelter in the shadows,
is a freedom fighter.


And that’s effectively the premise of the whole poem; the old adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It’s a reminder of the power of labels, of words and of how they affect our relationship with other human beings, the ‘child who looks like mine’ in the poem.


And there is the segway to the annual conference of the Conservative Party in Birmingham in 2016. After a bruising referendum campaign and its continuing fallout, it was a conference that highlighted the language of political discourse in Britain at this precise moment. A Britain that is supposedly more open and outward-looking thanks to throwing off the restrictive shackles of the European Union, yet one that feels more insular than ever before. A Britain that is at the same time open to the world yet closed off to the people in it.


It is this dichotomy that underwrote much of the leave campaign. An uneasy alliance of libertarian free traders and nativist protectionists. And so it all came to a head in Birmingham.


It is in this post-Brexit Britain in which we now live that Dharker’s poem is especially pertinent. Speeches by Theresa May, Amber Rudd and Jeremy Hunt all served to highlight how labels, this idea of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ are now especially prevalent in this new Britain. Jeremy Hunt’s assertion that Britain needed to become ‘self-sufficient,’ and drew a dividing line between the imported ‘other’ of foreign doctors, and home graduates, at a time when the UK’s population is ageing and the NHS faces crisis upon crisis. How is banning foreign doctors en masse going to help any of that? Especially when you consider that all that talk about £350million a week has vanished into thin air.


And how about Amber Rudd? The new Home Secretary has performed an especially pronounced volte-face from the avowed ‘Stronger In’ campaigner who took on Boris Johnson on ITV. Government lists of foreign employees, restrictions on the number of foreign students and a repeat of the pledge from six years ago to bring down immigration to the ‘tens of thousands.’


Because now the people have spoken, and we have awoken to this new era of labels, of those who are British and those that are not.


Because now both major political parties are involved in a race to the bottom over immigration, a slugfest over who can bring it down to the fewest number of people.


Because after the conference, ‘the child who looks like mine’ is not welcome to work or study in Britain anymore, because he has the wrong label. Immigration is now a bad thing, and to question it makes you unpatriotic, or a whining Remainer who just doesn’t get it.


‘The Right Word’, or words, or viewpoint, that is most welcome following the Tory conference it seems, is wrong. 



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