The phrase “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” comes to us from someone who knew a bit about the power of language. In fact, he invented many of the terms that help hold our modern reality together.
The actual words uttered in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, by one of the star-crossed lovers, were: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” Juliet was making the point that it doesn’t matter what surname her boyfriend had. The problem being, as her and Romeo’s families were embroiled in a long feud, his name was deemed toxic to her family.
Juliet’s point was that who Romeo was as a person was the important thing to her, not what he was called – and therefore who his family was. A broader reading would be ‘what something is, in its essence or at heart, is the key thing’. What it is called, much less so.
The point can be underlined if we turn it around. If you let some fish rot until they got really smelly and then labelled them “Roses” and posted them to someone for Valentine’s, they would not be as well received as real roses. Don’t try this, we know it would lead to problems. This is exactly what is happening with Brexit.
The UK was split right down the middle on the referendum, with slightly more of those who cast a vote opting to leave the EU. But what does the term ‘leave’ even mean? Does it mean we leave the single market and the customs union? Does it mean, as some seemed to hope at the point of the referendum, people should be rounded up and thrown out of the country? The point is, the question wasn’t clearly defined. Had Shakespeare been involved, the question could have been posed with greater clarity but, tragically, we had David Cameron in charge.
There are many phraseology problems within the Brexit fiasco, which is highly embarrassing for a country that somehow spawned Shakespeare. We went from Brexit minister David Davis back-peddling from suggestions of there being dozens of Brexit Impact Papers to saying there has just been some ‘sectorial analysis’, and none of the 58 reports we were waiting to read actually exist.
Another problematic term, which can magically transform between different people uttering it, is ‘regulatory alignment’. This term was invoked to deal with the fundamental problem that part of the UK, namely Northern Ireland, exists on the primarily EU island of Ireland. A hard border could undo decades of peace processes and re-ignite armed conflict and division. Therefore, in lieu of a well-planned solution to this huge danger, the magic words ‘regulatory alignment’ were employed.
This incantation, however, proved as upsetting to the Northern Irish DUP as the name Montague would have been to Juliet’s mum and dad. The term had a toxicity for the DUP as it not only suggested an alignment with rules of the EU single market but also, therefore, some kind of divergence with the bulk of Ireland. For other agitated Brexiteers, in a constant state of suspicious terror that Brexit will stopped, the term suggested that Brexit would be Brexit in name only.
To appease the DUP enough to let Theresa May look like she has made enough progress to move onto the fundamental obstacle of trade negotiations, new words were employed. “No new regulatory barriers” was the unlikely sounding incantation to both calm the distressed DUP and open the caverns of Brussels so Theresa could enter the hallowed wonders of trade talks.
For me, the biggest linguistic pitfall, which could ultimately prove as problematic as rotten fish labelled ‘roses’ turning up in the post, is the term ‘transitional period’. The way that term has been used by the Tory government until now has, I believe, been either dishonest or delusional.
Theresa, on her magical Brexit quest, often states that we will be leaving the EU on March 29th 2019, two years after she invoked Article 50. For that to be possible, either the trade deal and other key agreements need to be in place, or the mythic ‘transitional period’ is actually just an extension of the negotiation period.
Given that the trade agreement is expected, by realistic people, to take much longer than the year and a bit left before March 2019, it seems to me that May should come clean and drop the misleading euphemisms. She should admit that Brexit will not, in reality, be Brexit, until all negotiations are complete and the ink is dry on a final deal approved by Parliament. Nothing will be solid until the whole deal is solid.