BBC reports Theresa May is getting on with Brexit, despite the surrounding furore

Article 50 – The Meaning of Brexit?

To invoke, or not to invoke, that is the question.

With a few exceptions, most UK Members of Parliament have accepted the result of the referendum in June.  They will support the UK leaving the European Union.  Article 50 is the next step.  But does invoking article 50 really mean that we will be implementing the result of the referendum?

In my training consultant days, on team and management workshops, I used a communication exercise.  It involved asking people to reflect (privately) on what they thought I meant by the word “speed”.  People gave a myriad of answers.  Driving fast.  Distance divided by time.  The film starring Sandra Bullock.  Drugs.  A place.  The late Welsh footballer.  Etc.

If the meaning attributed to a common word, such as ‘speed’, can be so diverse, how many meanings can there be for a phrase such as “article 50” or “Brexit” or “Leave” or “Remain”?

One of the key points about this exercise was that we interpret words in terms of our own framework. If we have never heard of “Gary Speed”, then ‘Welsh footballer’ is unlikely to come to mind.  Similarly, one needs some knowledge of drugs to make the association between drugs and ‘speed’.

The interpretation of the word ‘speed’ depends on our experience, the context, and the explanatory framework we use to interpret what other people say.  Our frameworks are so different that we can interpret words, phrases, or entire speeches in different ways.  But we don’t recognise the misunderstanding when it happens.  Someone says “I like speed” and we all nod in apparent agreement.  One person thinks they like going fast, another that they like the film, or the drug, or the footballer, or whatever.  They go away from the discussion with a sense of common understanding, oblivious to the common misunderstanding.

Words and reality

You may be tempted to think this is a matter of semantics.  Isn’t this just the misinterpretation of the intended meaning?  Behind each word, surely there is an underlying reality that we need to discuss?  Isn’t it just a matter of finding the right words to express it?  However, as Jung argued, once we make a distinction between verbal image and object, we recognise that words are reality.  Objectivity is merely one influence (amongst many) on that reality, not the essence of it.  The question of whether there is an ‘underlying reality’ or original meaning is moot, because we can never experience it.  We can only experience words (or images, or sensations.

In one sense, many people who voted Remain understand this point only too well.  They point out that a vote for Brexit was not a vote for a particular type of relationship with the EU. Lots of people voted for all sorts of different reasons.  This demonstrates not only a deficiency in the Brexit vote, they argue, but it also means that MPs (and perhaps the electorate) need to have a further say on the form Brexit should take.

But here they fall foul of another principle of psychology – that we tend to judge others by a different standard to ourselves.  The vote for Remain was not a vote for a particular future of the EU.  The Remain campaign was as dishonest as Leave’s.  And the meaning of ‘Brexit’ that they deny, of leaving the single market, was repeatedly asserted by most of the key figures in the referendum, including David Cameron and George Osborne.  They made it very clear that a vote to leave the EU was a vote to leave the single market.  Also, the Leave campaign’s argument was that we would leave the single market, seek a free trade deal with the EU, and the EU would be mad not to agree to one.  They may or may not have been correct on that latter point (that the EU would agree) but leaving the trade restrictions of being within the single market was undoubtedly part of their campaign.  Most people who voted Leave realised this at the time.

Redefining Brexit?

What is taking place now, therefore, is an argument over the meaning of words – or, rather, the redefinition of words in terms of our own framework.  There are some prominent Remainers who say they accept the results of the referendum.  However, they also say they will vote against the triggering of article 50 unless the government guarantees that the UK remain part of the single market.  This is dressing up the word ‘Leave’ to be Remain by another name.  As many EU leaders have made clear, being a member of the single market requires acceptance of the principles of free movement and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.  Therefore, Leaving whilst remaining part of the single market is, in effect, Remaining under a different name.

This raises the question as to what MPs mean when they accept the Brexit vote.  Research suggests that the main reasons for people voting Brexit were to regain sovereignty (i.e. no longer be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice) and to regain control over immigration (not stop it – but just be able to control the numbers so they are at manageable levels).  If a redefined Brexit involves accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and unfettered free movement, then this is, in effect, a rejection of the referendum result.

As Donald Tusk said a few weeks ago, there is no such thing as a ‘soft Brexit’.  There is only ‘hard Brexit’ or ‘no Brexit’.  Well, that’s what the words mean to him.

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