“I detect a hardening of the mood, a deepening of the anger. I fear that some people are becoming ever more determined to stop Brexit, to reverse the referendum vote of June 23 2016, and to frustrate the will of the people. I believe that would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal. We cannot and will not let it happen.” (Boris Johnson, 14 February 2018)
Politicians have a responsibility to be ever vigilant about the way that language is used to unite or divide people. By using the word, ‘betrayal’ today Boris Johnson risks falling into the well-worn tread of populists in the past, who have sought to divide people at a time in which greater unity is needed.
I know from conversations around my native North East that Brexit continues to starkly divide opinion, and in this context I believe that it is the utmost irresponsibility for our Foreign Secretary to suggest that people who hold a strong position, even if it’s a minority position, are betraying the country.
In the past few weeks, I’ve been struck by the increasing rhetoric from the hard Right, notably Nigel Farage, about the betrayal of Brexit, and disgusted by the overt anti-Semitism used in linking George Soros to this new betrayal myth. We must remember our history to avoid repeating it.
However, there is a broader point to make. As the negotiations enter the second phase with the EU and the process of detangling ourselves from the EU exposes ever more complexities, it is deeply unhelpful for someone in the position of the Foreign Secretary to polarise the debate in this way.
In voting to leave the EU, no one voted to neuter public debate or undermine parliamentary scrutiny. Over the coming months, both are of crucial importance as the details of our exit are laid on the negotiating table. At no point should government ministers suggest that those expressing legitimate concerns about their jobs, regional investment, rights or environment, are frustrating the process or betraying the people.
Boris Johnson is very well educated, but clearly needs to remember that democracy is a fragile plant that depends on the water and light of public debate. Our national political discourse sets the tone of that public debate. I hope that we will remember the damage that ‘betrayal myths’ and scapegoating have led to in the past, and ensure that we are mature enough as a country to tackle the challenges posed by exiting the EU without resorting to them today.