For someone who once branded his own Cabinet colleagues ‘bastards’ — and two decades later said he only called them bastards because they were bastards — John Major has of late become weirdly sensitive to rough, colourful language. He’s peeved at what he calls ‘ultra Brexiteers’, who are big meanies, apparently. These ultras are launching ‘vitriolic and personal attacks’ he says, and they seem hell-bent on ‘shouting down anyone with an opposing view’. Their behaviour is ‘profoundly undemocratic and totally un-British’. In short, they’re bastards. Just say it, John.
Major’s not at all vitriolic attack on those he considers ‘ultra’ — people who are ‘excessive; extreme; fanatical’ — is seen as a rap on the knuckles to the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and other Tory bastards who want to leave the EU. But it’s also a smackdown to all Brexiteers, all 17.4m of us who madly want, in Major’s words, ‘a complete break with Europe’. (Sic. He means the EU, an unpopular, undemocratic institution that has existed for a mere 24 years, not Europe, a wonderful, diverse, Enlightened continent that has been around for yonks).
Major’s use of the U-word to describe those who really want Brexit to happen is a reminder of the creeping tarring of the EU’s critics as nutty and outside the realm of reason. To want Brexit — real, meaningful Brexit, the thing the majority voted for — is to be ‘ultra’, apparently; a fanatic. There’s been a subtle but striking reshaping of the language around Brexit. Agitate too passionately for that split from the EU that millions of people voted for and you’ll be denounced for chasing a ‘hard Brexit’. Theresa May is ridiculed for wanting ‘extreme Brexit’. Those who want a ‘complete break’ from Brussels are seeking ‘ultra Brexit’. These are utterly invented ideological categories, magicked up after the referendum to make Brexit itself seem mad. What they refer to as hard, extreme or ultra Brexit is really just Brexit: leaving the EU and its associated institutions and markets.
The slur ‘Europhobic’ has for years been hurled at anyone who isn’t a fan of Brussels. A phobia, of course, is an irrational fear, a mental malaise. The Collins English Dictionary defines Europhobia as ‘hostility to Europe, Europeans or the European Union’. So to be politically opposed to the Brussels oligarchy is the same as hating European people. That many of us oppose the EU precisely because we care for the fate of our European cousins — in Greece, Italy, Ireland and other nations screwed by the EU — is never countenanced. No, if you oppose the EU, you suffer from Europhobia, or xenophobia: it’s all on a spectrum.
Post-referendum, a number of academics now claim that Brexit is an ugly manifestation of ‘authoritarian populism’. This one really makes me laugh. It’s authoritarian to oppose the vast, bureaucratic machine that is the EU, and ‘liberal’, one presumes, to support it? It makes no sense. Brexit is routinely described as ‘irrational’: the handiwork of fearful, febrile minds, of ‘low information’ people who know not what they do. It is a ‘perfect example of irrational behaviour,’ says one headline; it confirms that ordinary people ‘aren’t really thinking… in a very analytical way,’ says behavioural economist Richard Thaler, but rather ‘are voting with their guts’. Brexiteers are visceral, not rational.
Hard, extreme, ultra, phobic, consumed by authoritarian urges: this is how Brexiteers are viewed by many people. Major and others use language that is designed to depict the Brexit choice as rash or even sick. We should be very concerned indeed when the political views of vast swathes of the population (more Brits voted for Brexit than have ever voted for anything) are treated as something feverish and ill.
There’s a great irony here. Major, and others, complain that Brexiteers are ‘shouting down’ others. Some are, I’m sure, and they should stop. In a democracy, everyone, even whiny complainers about democracy itself and the oafish, low-thinking plebs who are its foul engine, must be free to speak and march and moan. But in reality, it is people like Major who are in the business of silencing, of shaming their opponents, of seeking to make opposition to the EU into the great unspeakable in polite society. Their tactics are the real threat to democracy, because this is their underlying and terrifying message: some people are just too rash, too ultra, to be trusted with serious politics.