(University of Paderborn)

“Complicity and Nostalgia: The Language Wars of Brexit”

“…if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” George Orwell

In his circumspect analysis of the language of Brexit, Steve Buckledee maintains that “on a series of fronts the Brexiteers won the language war;” and they managed to do so because they “expressed rock-hard certainties and were remarkably untroubled by self-doubt.”[1] Perhaps the most potent certainties promulgated by the two main Leave-campaign groups were nostalgically expressed in terms of restorative language. In addition to wanting to curtail unchecked immigration into the UK, they wanted to take-back, re-turn, re-deem and re-store the country, the nation, the ‘home’, borders, sovereignty, dignity, control – everything that was supposedly lost through membership of the EU. “Nationalistic energies,” as Katy Parry observes, were “reignited through a potent rhetorical mix of nostalgia, grievances and imagined destiny.”[2] In contrast, the pragmatic, tepid rhetoric of the Remain camp was unconvincing and suffused with doubt; and especially the lacklustre commitment displayed by the Labour Party throughout the recent years of political and constitutional turmoil has led to attributions of complicity. The strength of complicity, Paul Reynolds convincingly argues, lies not so much in its analytical value, but rather in its rhetorical usefulness, i.e. “in the construction of a political narrative able to highlight the blurred lines of culpability, liability and responsibility in dealing with often-complex events and social practices.”[3] He contends that while a rhetoric of complicity can be a powerful tool for ‘counterhegemony’, i.e. expedient in challenging dominant narratives, it can equally be exploited to bolster conspiracy narratives or be instrumentalised to discredit the truth teller.[4] In the latter sense, in particular, the attribution of complicity mirrors that of the attribution of nostalgia, to be precise, of what Svetlana Boym calls restorative nostalgia. This paper will hone in on Paul Reynolds’ conception of complicity as a potent rhetorical tool and will apply it to various propagandistic framing techniques applied within the Brexit debate. It will examine the conceptual similarities between complicity and nostalgia, which both, when wielded as rhetorical devices, can either serve to construct mythical enemies and embolden siege mentality, or can be used to challenge dominant power structures.

[7] Steve Buckledee. The Language of Brexit: How Britain Talked Its Way Out of the European Union. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. 8, 24.

[8] Katy Parry. “The Toxicity of Discourse: Reflections on UK Political Culture Following the EU Referendum.” EU Referendum Analysis 2016. <referendumanalysis.eu/eu-referendum-analysis-2016/section-5-campaign-and-political-communication/the-toxicity-of-discourse-reflections-on-uk-political-culture-following-the-eu-referendum/>. Accessed 13 Dec. 2018.

[9] Paul Reynolds. “Complicity as Political Rhetoric: Some Ethical and Political Reflections.” In Exploring Complicity: Concept, Cases and Critique, edited by Afxentiou Afxentis, Robin Dunford, and Michael Neu. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017. 35-52, 35.

[10] Cf. —. “Complicity: Narratives, Articulations, and the Politics of Representation.” In Complicity and the Politics of Representation, edited by Cornelia Wächter and Robert Wirth. London: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019. 121-38, 132.