Through a serious flaw in the way they use grammar, many Brexiteers have got so used to using xenophobic dogma, they no longer even notice they’re doing it.
“Shall we go to the park?”
On its own, what does this question mean? Who do you assume I am including in this venture? You and me? You, me and my fiancé? Me and someone else altogether? Since “we” is a first person pronoun, you know I mean myself and one or more other people but that’s where your understanding of the question ends. Out of context, pronouns like “we” and “our” and “us” are meaningless. As someone who has had to teach the new Year 6 grammar requirements this year I know as well as anyone that a pronoun is a word used to replace a noun and, when that noun hasn’t been previously introduced, the sense of that pronoun is lost.
Now consider this:
“The EU referendum is about our right to govern ourselves.”
Who do you assume I mean now? And how is the sense created by this sentence different from some of these alternatives:
“The EU referendum is about the UK’s right to govern us.”
“The EU referendum is about our right to govern the UK.”
“The EU referendum is about the UK’s right to govern the UK.”
There are lots of people in Britain who don’t really seem like they’re the same as me; many prominent Brexiteers for a start. There are many people in other EU countries who are a lot more like me. When I talk about “our right to govern ourselves,” I might be talking about those people all across the EU who are a bit like me. I might be saying that people like us (whichever countries we live in) should be entitled to political representation. As it happens, I do believe exactly that and I also believe people with very different political views to my own should be entitled to political representation too.
“It’s about our right to govern ourselves,” is meaningless in the absence of any proper nouns and it only makes sense when used as a case for Brexit if it is accompanied by a highly questionable and somewhat insulting assumption: that British people are fundamentally different from (if not simply better than) their European partners. The implication is that all British people are of one type, all non-British Europeans are of another and we (the fundamentally different British) have totally different needs when “governing ourselves.”
A hipster from Latvia has much more in common with a hipster from Britain than he does with a homophobic nationalist from Latvia. A homophobic nationalist from Portugal has much more in common with a homophobic nationalist from Denmark than she does with a bohemian champagne Socialist from Portugal. So much of our culture is now international that the divisions between people in modern Europe have very little to do with which bit of the continent they happen to be born in or choose to live in now.
The peculiar twist to all this is that, when I point out this state of affairs to the Brexiteers, they tend to react with considerable hostility and I find it hard to believe they really think they’re the same as me anyway. Most of them absolutely hate Brits like me and yet they’ve given themselves such a small field to choose from when selecting those who are allowed to be included when they say “we” and “us” that they surely can’t afford to be so picky when it comes to their own countrymen. I find it impossible to understand why they want to roll up people like me and people like them in one “we” so we can separate “ourselves” off and govern “ourselves” even though we have absolutely nothing in common and even though they clearly hate me. Even the Brexiteers don’t know who the “we” and “us” they’re so concerned with actually includes, or at least if they do they seem to thoroughly dislike a good third of the people with whom they say they want to govern “them(our)selves. “
For whom do these people want self-rule? Who are “we” and how do we recognise each other? If we disagree on almost everything and yet each of us can find agreement with like-minded people in other countries, why is self-rule for the myriad of different people, mindsets and sub-cultures on this bit of land so important?
People arguing for Brexit, it would seem, use pronouns in the place of proper nouns to disguise their xenophobia, or at least stubborn and ungrounded nationalism. I wrote a silly article about this a few months ago. With Leave taking a lead in the polls, it’s all starting to seem decidedly less funny. Perhaps I should be grateful to Michael Gove for beating me round the head with grammar rules otherwise I might never have had this revelation about the grammar of Brexit.
We might have had to figure it our for ourselves.