“Well, that didn’t go according to plan,” David Cameron reportedly said when he realised that he had lost the EU referendum. This phrase will surely go down as a classic example of English understatement. In its almost casual acceptance of hard facts, it ranks with Emperor Hirohito’s “the war situation has developed, not necessarily to Japan’s advantage”, after the Japanese surrender in the Second World War.
In the weeks and months after the referendum much has been written about Brexit. President-elect Trump has described himself as “Mr Brexit”. Even lexicographers are worrying about the gender status of this new noun — the French and the Germans have decided it is male (le Brexit, der Brexit) while the Italians insist on female (la Brexit).
If only the debate was limited to grammar. We’ve had “hard” and “soft” Brexit. We have had “clean” Brexit. The Prime Minister has even said “Brexit means Brexit”. Nothing seems to dampen the speculation about this little word. Whole treatises of linguistic philosophy could be written about it.
The Government is quite right to avoid this Tower of Babel. Its EU counterparts — Germany’s Angela Merkel, above all — have stated many times that they do not want to enter into pre-negotiation talks with the Government. However entertaining the chat, it doesn’t count for very much at the moment.
Speculation, counter-briefings and the posturing of the media are all part of the circus of public opinion. As Hamlet says to Polonius, these are just “words, words, words”. Beyond the linguistic gymnastics any British government would be insane to reveal its position before the negotiations actually start.
Despite the rhetoric it would be mad for Parliament to delay triggering Article 50. Such a move would undermine the whole idea of British democracy. Everybody knows the outcome of the referendum on June 23. For Parliament to overturn the result would make Britain a laughing stock. Kim Jong-un and any other dictator would think we were the biggest hypocrites, preaching democracy while ignoring the largest popular vote in British electoral history.
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