2007 - 2021

Language, truth and sovereignty (and Humpty Dumpty too)

“What has contributed as much as anything to the prevalent misunderstanding of the nature of philosophical analysis is the fact that propositions and questions which are really linguistic are often expressed in such a way that they appear to be factual.” AJ Ayer, ‘Language, Truth & Logic’
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We are told by the Government’s leading Brexit ideologists that negotiations with the EU on a trade deal are fundamentally a matter of ‘sovereignty’. This is simply false. We have left the EU; Brexit is now a trade negotiation. All trade negotiations among advanced states of necessity involve compromises on both sides, for mutual access to trade goods and services between them. Sovereignty, as understood, or rather as disingenuously presented by Brexiteers, would pre-determine that no trade deals could be negotiated between any states on anything. Sovereignty is not at stake here.
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Allow me to illustrate. I must preface my remarks, however by confessing that like everyone else I do not know precisely the details of the current negotiations; which are wrapped in mystery and not least we may suspect buried in political spin; but I can only follow, and rely – albeit with a modicum of scepticism – what seems the best public, disinterested accounts available. Even this interpretation is potentially distorted by the lurid British claims that this will go down to the ‘wire’, because that is how things invariably happen in the EU. This may be true of internal negotiations among EU member states, but not (necessarily) for major trade agreements with other states, which take years to negotiate, often without close, continuous, wide public scrutiny, or even much popular interest.
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Britain is no longer a member state of the EU; that specifically constitutional drama has passed. We left the EU; past tense, this is now simply the end of ‘transition’, the negotiation of a future trade deal by a sovereign British state. There is no need for drama, each side makes its own sovereign decisions in a trade deal, and that remains solely and wholly a sovereign decision whatever each side decides to agree. We have had a year to negotiate a sovereign deal. We dragged it out, because Britain is playing to its local Brexit gallery; supposedly involved in a crackpot game of ‘chicken’, spinning the hope the EU cracks at the last minute. In fact the British are not risking anything here; if any deal is done at all, it will be a ‘hard’, thin deal in which Britain inevitably comes off badly (as the much smaller party, with much more to lose – that is just an economic fact and a function of relative economic scale); but Britain is desperate to show that this flaccid, lazy collection of Brexit blusterers running Britain can announce some sort of deal very late as singular proof of how tough they are; but they will rely on the Blimpish British Brexit press to sell an authentic, sour Eton mess as a major triumph, to a confused British public; which the media obligingly do, with relish, and so often. Indeed, think about it; even ‘no deal’ on WTO terms will require some sort of, um “deal” to be struck with the EU, to give it all full effect. A deal of some sort is unavoidable.
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The critical negotiations between Britain and the EU in the current overblown end-game over the last days of 2020 now concern fishing and ‘a level playing field’; the latter essentially a matter of deciding the terms on which Britain trades with the EU Single Market, while ensuring competitive parity between both sides is maintained. For the EU, the integrity of the Single Market, as providing fair competition between all parties, is sacrosanct; The Single Market rules are the EU secular, biblical text.
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The British Brexit position, peddled by ministers and the British press, focuses on the position the British allegedly offered around a fortnight ago; to maintain the current trade regulations and EU standards formerly maintained both by Britain and the EU, into the future (I shall leave the considerable issue of how this is mutually audited to one side, because this same problem applies, ‘mutatis mutandis’ to all trade options). The EU were dissatisfied with that approach because both parties recognise that long term, divergence of regulations and standards will become inevitable; and standards and regulations are in fact generally understood to be more important in trade, than tariffs. For the EU simply to accept lower British standard goods into the Single Market if the EU has subsequently raised its standards (and Britain has not, since it need not), will give Britain an unfair competitive edge (typically through lower prices than EU goods, and by driving down EU standards – which are there to protect and enhance consumer interests).
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The EU countered with a proposal that if the EU raises its standards, the British should also raise their standards to match, to preserve the competitive parity. It was at that point that the British then drew out their question-begging ‘sovereignty’ card. This, it was blustered, was an outrageous assault on British sovereignty, and was  unconscionable. The sudden appeal to an irrelevant constitutional sovereignty in a mere trade deal is the position I wish to examine closely. But first, allow me to complete the state of play, at least until the last day or so, as I understand it. The EU has returned following the rejection of their last offer, proposing instead to building on the earlier British proposal; maintaining the current trade regulations and EU standards formerly maintained both by Britain and the EU, into the future. In the case that the EU raises standards and Britain does not follow, the EU (following detailed rules to scrutinise the circumstances surrounding divergence), will impose tariffs or other penalties to ensure that Britain is not using lower standards to provide unfair competitive advantage. Britain does not care for that either. The fundamental issue, however does not go away. The EU is not inclined to Britain taking advantage in the Single Market of having an unfair competitive advantage by the simple expedient of being able to offer lower consumer standards than their EU competitors. The EU considers this is not real competition based on efficiency, ingenuity or innovation, but effectively is little more than competing by cheating.
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My argument is not about cheating, but to the British objections to a specific EU solution, because that solution is a matter of ‘sovereignty’. This is simply false. Look at the difference between the acceptable solution the British have taken on board as providing a ‘level playing field’; focusing on the logic of that position, and setting to one side the quite separate issue of how either solution would be monitored. Then compare that with the argument of British sovereignty against the second, EU solution:
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1) The British government is prepared to agree to a solution that maintains the EU rules and standards already in operation, in order to continue to access the Single Market. In principle this is not claimed by the British to be a matter of sovereignty.
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2) The British government is not prepared to agree to a position that increases the EU rules and standards already in operation, in order to continue to access the Single Market. In principle this is claimed by the British to be a matter of sovereignty.
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Actually if one is not a matter of sovereignty, then neither is the other: alternatively if one is considered a matter of sovereignty, so is the other. The relevance of the matter of sovereignty is independent of whether the British government chooses to maintain standards, or raise them. There is no decisive ‘sovereign’ difference between ‘maintaining’ rather than ‘raising’ the standards. They are both free and independent decisions of the British government; and they have the same effects – undertaking both commits the British government not only to honour them, but restrict their freedom of action; for example only, the freedom to reduce the standards are in both cases given up. Both ‘maintaining’ or ‘increasing’  standards have the same relationship to ‘sovereignty’; which is irrelevant. ‘Sovereignty’ here is merely a ‘red-herring’.
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I submit that the British government is using the term ‘sovereignty’ here as a catch-all. Sovereignty means whatever the government says is sovereignty. That is all that it is really about. Sovereignty is just the joker in the pack, that always trumps everything. The government uses it to argue that no matter what, the government is always right.
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“When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’
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’The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’
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’The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.”
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Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking Glass’.

Comments (15)

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  1. Squigglypen says:

    Independence… then we can create oor own chaos…but at least it will be oors.

  2. Tom Ultuous says:

    Article is spot on. The EU never really had any control that the little Englanders could take back. As it stands it’s little more than a trading club. The EU should just agree to 1) and tell Britain that if they diverge from future EU standards as in 2) then a new deal would have to be negotiated. Not even the clown could be arsed having to ‘Get Brexit Done’ every rule change.

  3. James Robertson says:

    This is a very good piece. Who is the author?

    1. James Robertson says:

      Sorry, just as I posted the above John Warren’s name appeared!

  4. Chas Gallagher says:

    At the end of the day, it all comes down to what they were very forcibly told in 2015/16, “You can’t have your cake AND EAT IT!!”

  5. Blair says:

    “Sovereignty is just the joker in the pack, that always trumps everything. The government uses it to argue that no matter what, the government is always right.”

    Standards will change, we in UK will resort to our own British Standards, these will no longer be harmonised to the EEC. Trade will continue but goods will need to be certified by one of the European Test Centers for conformity certification. Trade Tarrifs may also be applied.

    Sovereignty does not imply our government is always right, just that our government has the right and ability to make decisions for our UK nation in order to protect our interests: They are guided by us the electorate through democratic means.

    As the majority of the UK electorate voted to leave Europe, it voted for Sovereignty over Technocratic leadership. The UK Government is doing what is required even though many of our MP’s would prefer to remain in the pre BREXIT world!

    Boris has already declared it as ‘a failure of State Craft’ if a deal cannot be done, this may be so but the real problem lies at the heart of our UK Government: It does not matter which political party is in power because more than half the electorate has lost trust with the politicians.

    Scottish Independence may result from the failure of our UK Government to negotiate. BREXIT provides an opportunity to develop both UK and Europe. What is important is that both our broken systems can be aligned through new ideas, the tools of government.

    As we the electorate, both of UK and EU have the real power to make a real difference, the question is whether we can utilise the resources available to us to direct our governments to align on separate paths?

    Language, Truth and Sovereignty. It’s vital that everyone should know how important these are.

    While we in Scotland may see independence as a possible route, we also believe that Europe is also an important union to be aligned with.

  6. Foghorn Leghorn says:

    Yep, you’re right, John. The UK is negotiating from a position of sovereignty; conceding access rights to British fishing grounds or the right to impose quality standards on British goods and services entering the EU market wouldn’t change this. The British government is still free to refuse such concessions and accept the economic and political consequences.

    I suspect the British government is spinning its possible failure to achieve a free trade agreement, along with the possible consequences of this, as the fault of the EU rather than the weakness of its own bargaining position.

  7. Tom Ultuous says:

    Does anyone else think Pennywise’s sudden acknowledgement of the seriousness of the current virus situation (something he was aware of weeks ago) is a prelude to asking for an extension to the Brexit transition period as, surely, any kind of Brexit at this time will end him politically. That said, I’ve never been able to dismiss the idea that him and his cronies have sold the pound and are looking to crash it while claiming it’s all the fault of the EU. Doubtless he’ll portray the current EU travel and freight suspensions as the EU trying to teach us an advance lesson.

  8. Gashty McGonnard says:

    A fool’s errand, Alice, to look for honest meaning (let alone logical coherence), in the utterances of a Tory. This is not at all about sovereignty or anything that merits the name of “principle”. It’s just scorched earth grade bulls**t: aimed at stopping the British Conservative Party from being outflanked on the right. Neither BoJo nor Gove (Curious and Curiouser) ever thought Brexit was good for their country. They just know that Mad Hatter Farage and his ilk can’t come back after the tories have pursued “UK Independence” right up to it’s most squalid, suicidal Reductio ad Absurdum.

    If you don’t think these people are capable of fomenting war, famine and pestilence just to keep their jobs, you haven’t been paying attention.

  9. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Many thanks to John S Warren for his thoughtful analysis. John writes:

    “We are told by the Government’s leading Brexit ideologists that negotiations with the EU on a trade deal are fundamentally a matter of ‘sovereignty’.”

    Of course, the Boris-Gove ‘sovereignty’ fixation is dictating their behaviour not only southwards (absolute sovereignty “over against” Europe), but northwords (ie absolute sovereignty “over” Scotland). At the moment, intriguingly, Northern Ireland seems to have been slightly, shall we say, “unclenched”.

    Máire Uí Nuanáin, in a review of Nicholas Williams’ 2004 Irish translation of ‘Through the Looking-Glass’, describes Lewis Carroll’s Humpty-Dumpty (Filimín Failimín) as:

    “Pearsanú de John Bull é, lán de mhór-is-fiú agus drochmheas aige ar aon tuairim ach ar a thuairim féin”

    [“A personification of John Bull, full of pomposity and contempt for any opinion but his own.”]

    John S Warren quotes the following passage from Carroll’s book:

    “When *I* use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you *can* make words mean so many different things.”

    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be *master* — that’s all.”

    Nicholas William’s Irish renders the above:

    “Nuair a bhainimse úsáid as focal,” arsa Filimín Failimín agus iarracht de tharcaisne ina ghuth, “is ionann a bhrí agus an bhrí is mian liom a thabhairt dó — gan dul os a chionn sin ná faoina bhun.”

    “Is í an cheist atá ann,” arsa Eilís, “an féidir leat an oiread sin ciall éagsúil a thabhairt do na focail.”

    “Is í an cheist atá ann,” arsa Filimín Failimín, “cé a beidh ina *mháistir* — sin am méid.”

    (‘Lastall den Scáthán agus a bhFuair Eilís Ann Roimpi’ by Lewis Carroll, translated by Nicholas Williams, Evertype 2004/2009)

    Not unrelated, I have just come across a webpage containing some fascinating political cartoons dating back to the Chinese ‘Boxer Rising’. The top image on the page is of a Chinese Humpty Dumpty about to topple (or “be toppled”) from his Great Wall. Other images illustrate the heinous carve up of China by imperial European powers, including the eponymous John Bull (who of course honed his trade in Ireland):

    https://visualizingcultures.mit.edu/boxer_uprising/bx_essay02.html

    Anyway, as things are panning out, terminal BREXIT looks increasingly like an “eggshell finish”.

  10. Tony Maries says:

    Very informed comment on the irresponsible brinkmanship of the Brexiteer headbangers.
    I did a cartoon of Alice in Through the Looking-Glass last year with Boris Johnson as Humpty Dumpty.

    1. John S Warren says:

      How appropriate!

  11. John S Warren says:

    Hell has duly been delivered by Humpty Dumpty; just in time for Christmas. What else could he do, with a long line of trucks in an endless car park (which used to be known as ‘Kent’), as a sobering warning at what Brexit was about to bring. Remember the famous 1979 Conservative election poster? A long queue of unepmoyed and the slogan ‘Labour isn’t working’?

    Well we have the long line of trucks for a similar slogan:Conservatism isn’t working. So what do you do? Throw it all in fast and have a media Christmas bean feast triumph of Imperial proportions. You can work out the rest for yourselves …….

    Enjoy. It is going to have to last a lifetime. I trust – except forScotland, but that is up to all of us.

    Happy Christmas to all the Bella Caledonia editorial staff, writers, readers, commenters (even the ones who do not like my articles, and tell me); even the trolls (oh, well somebody has to do it) …… Take care and stay safe. As best you can.

    1. John S Warren says:

      “unemployed”.

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