Simon Lancaster: It's time to bin the misleading EU metaphors
Theresa May was right to say to the House of Commons that we should stop talking about divorce from the EU.
Try a little experiment. Press your two first fingers tightly together. Now, imagine that one finger is you and the other finger is the person you love more than anyone else in the world. Now, imagine the two of you together: all of your shared experiences, the conversations, the smiles, the laughter, the joy and the tears. Try and separate those two fingers. I guarantee you feel some resistance. You don’t want them to part. You don’t want to lose your loved one.
It’s an old hypnotic trick. It demonstrates an amazing capacity in the human brain: the capacity to imagine that something is something which it is not: that x is y, that ‘this’ is ‘that’. This capacity is simultaneously a great strength: the ultimate source of intelligence, enabling us to find contrasts, comparisons and connections which can often open the door to creative, scientific and intellectual breakthroughs - but it is also a great weakness, because it opens us up to fallacious reasoning, making us susceptible to lies and deception from others as they persuade us over time that things are something which they are not, which they can do through the sustained, systematic and strategic use of metaphor.
Throughout the referendum campaign, David Cameron constantly promoted the idea that the EU was a family and that leaving would be a divorce. This was a central strategic message of the remain campaign (possibly the only strategic message to be honest). David Cameron was wise to use it. It bound people in. It was all about having a seat at the table. We might disagree, we might be different, but when push came to shove we would all look after one another and look out for one another because that’s what families do. The same metaphor had worked wonders for him in the Scottish referendum so why not try it again?’
For the Remainers who bought into the idea, there can be no doubt it was incredibly powerful. I remember the morning of Brexit, working in Soho, seeing good friends, ashen-faced, lost, bewildered. What the hell? How could this be? That’s it! I’m leaving! They were shattered. It was like mummy and daddy had come down to the breakfast table that morning and told them, ‘Darlings, we’re very sorry but no matter how hard we’ve tried we have to admit it’s not working out and we’ve decided to get a divorce.’
I didn’t really buy into it. I did vote ‘remain’ in the end, but only just, and with the same enthusiasm that I usually reserve for a trip to Homebase. The truth was I just really didn’t see the EU as a family. I’ve spent quite a bit of time working in Brussels, supporting Ministers on negotiations on new laws around anti discrimination and employment rights. To me, the EU seemed less like a family, more like a battleground. That was what I saw and what I heard, in the language of Ministers, UKREP and the journalists who covered the negotiations. We were embattled, under attack, our positions became entrenched. We fought for concessions, kept our powder dry and occasionally lifted our head above the parapet. It played into that good old traditional idea of a Europe in which we’re constantly at war. The only way that I viewed Britain’s relationship with the EU as a marriage was that we were constantly getting fucked.
The truth is of course that the EU is neither a family nor a background. Both are metaphors and both are inherently misleading. Ultimately, the truth is that the EU literally is nothing more than a series of treaties and agreements – no more, no less. We’ve just attached to it this huge emotional weight because we are seeing it, regardless of which side we’re on, as something it is not.
So Theresa May was right to say to the House of Commons yesterday that we should stop using this term of divorce from the European Union, ‘because very often when people get divorced they don’t have a very good relationship afterwards’. Good relations are perfectly possible – far bigger political unions than the EU have come apart throughout history - but only if we are able to think of our relationship with the European Union another way.
If we do want to think of Brexit positively, inspiration can be found on the other side of the planet, in the language which was used when Malaya split into Singapore and Malaysia in 1957. The then Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak Hussein put it like this:
‘Let us not regard the separation of Singapore from Malaysia as the two components of an unhappy marriage who, after being divorced, have recriminations and each fight for the maximum alimony or compensation for their own support after the breaking of their life together. No. Let us regard the separation of Singapore from Malaysia as similar to the separation of two Siamese twins: the separation of two children born together in the womb of Malaya. The operation of separating Siamese twins is delicate and intricate and is a great feat of modern science in this modern world. One has got to think of the nerve system, of the bloodstream, of the bones and everything else by which they are joined. But modern science can now successfully separate two Siamese twins so that they can walk independently, act independently and prosper independently. And yet, throughout the world, you will find in every case of the separation of Siamese twins there remains a mental bond between them. They are still brother and sister.’