Why The Language Of Brexit Has Framed The Argument From The Start


What’s in a name? A lot when it’s ‘Brexit’.

As the polling stations open this morning for the EU referendum, nobody can predict what the outcome will be. At the time of writing, The Economist was reporting level pegging between public intention to vote leave and to vote remain.

But at Inkspiller, we can’t help but think that the outcome of Brexit…will be Brexit. The clue is in the name.

With the term being used interchangeably to describe the poll itself as well as the Leave campaign, as a nation we’ve been weighted towards a Brexit vote from the start. And the Remain side has been forced onto the back foot from the get-go.

The American linguist George Lakoff has long argued that the way political issues are ‘framed’ determines their outcome.

In his 2004 eye-opening book "Don’t Think of an Elephant” he explains how the Democrats lost the US elections by failing to connect their language and world-views with the language of the people.

More importantly he shares valuable insights into the way the Republicans successfully used language and ‘frames’ to sway opinion and behaviour.

For instance, the Republican party actively pushed the phrase ‘tax relief’ - a frame which essentially implies tax is an affliction that one must seek ‘relief’ from. They were so successful in doing this that the Democrats adopted the frame too, unknowingly shooting themselves in the foot in the process, as they struggled to argue that taxes were necessary.

In the same vein, Republicans put millions of dollars into a PR campaign to sway public opinion over ‘frivolous’ tort lawsuits and ‘money grabbing’ tort lawyers. This was an orchestrated campaign to help them weaken tort law so that big corporations have more freedom to act as they please (often causing harm in the process) without the threat of massive lawsuits.

In a post about storytelling in the last election, Tom Albrighton wrote the following:

“Politics is complicated. Most of the time, it’s less about universal unity and sweeping transformation, more about delicate compromises between many different groups and interests. Trouble is, as any copywriter will tell you, complexity doesn’t sell. The most powerful, memorable and attention-grabbing messages are usually the simplest.”

This has certainly been the case during the frenzied (and at times downright ugly) campaigns over the past months. For this reason, the Brexit campaign has had the upper hand all along. Not just because of the name, but because of the framing tactics they’ve used. Key to this has been their use of the classic story arc of restoration and redemption.

As Tom highlighted in his 2014 article, conservatives the world over use this classic storytelling frame to win hearts and minds. It varies in content but always goes something like this… “Once, the land was great. But then something precious was lost, and leaders strayed from the true path. Once the grail is regained, leaders can lead, and the land can be great once more”. Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Only time will tell whether the story comes true…

P.S. For another example of ‘frames’ in action, read this excellent article on the Neo blog, and then have a go at playing ‘Thatcher frame bingo’ while watching her address the Conservative Party in 1989 on the topic of climate change.

As Neo say, “It’s a masterclass in appealing to ‘your people’ with a potentially controversial message”.





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