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What's in a word? Brexit and the power of language

Professor Keith McLay, Pro Vice-Chancellor Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities & Education, writes about Brexit and the power of language.

By Professor Keith McLay - 21 January 2019

While Mrs May doubtless privately knew that her Withdrawal Agreement would be rejected by Parliament, she probably didn't anticipate that she would be forced to bring back a Plan B within three days (Monday 21 January) rather than three weeks.

The Parliamentary timetable was forced by the decision of Commons' Speaker John Bercow to accept the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve's amendment to the Government Business motion, which brought forward the deadline for a statement (but did not formally amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 which still provides, in law, a 21-day period for a government response following a decision by the Commons not to approve the proposed deal with the EU).

The Humpty Dumpty rule

Speaker Bercow's decision precipitated howls of protest within and outwith Westminster, with claims that he had broken with precedent and was single-handedly seeking to frustrate Brexit (having previously incautiously revealed that he voted to Remain). The redoubtable pundit Melanie Phillips, with a look of deep incredulity, claimed on Politics Live that Bercow had effectively frustrated the constitutional order on an interpretation of the word 'forthwith' by applying the 'Humpty Dumpty' rule that 'a word means precisely what I mean it to mean and no less'.

Phillips was correct in as much as Bercow interpreted 'forthwith' to mean straight away without debate, rather than allowing a debate immediately ('forthwith'), but she failed to highlight the other element of Bercow's decision, namely that he considered the government's Business motion to be amendable because the government had itself presented a revised motion to its original Order; Parliamentary procedure is silent on whether an original Government Order which has been varied can be subject to amendment.

Historical consequences of different interpretations

Now, Melanie Phillips is like everyone else entitled to place a value judgement on Speaker Bercow's decision, but it doesn't stand scrutiny to imply that the Humpty Dumpty rule is unique in this instance. History is replete with instances whereby protagonists have sought to place different interpretations on words and phrases or indeed to insert words and phrases to alter the meanings, the consequences of which have resonated throughout the centuries. Two examples separated by over 200 years serve to illustrate the point.

In January 1689, when the Convention (temporary) Parliament met to consider the flight to France of James VII & II on the landing of William of Orange at the head of a 4000-strong force, the Whigs and the Tories struggled to agree on a description of the constitutional situation and the offer of the throne to William and his wife Mary in place of James.

The convention governing the succession between monarchs, 'the King is dead, long live the King', could not apply as James was in rude health, albeit ensconced at the palace of St Germain in Paris, at the pleasure of the French King Louis XIV.

The eventual resolution put to the Parliament that King James, 'having withdrawn himself out of this kingdom, has abdicated the government; and the throne is thereby vacant' was only acceptable because of two very different interpretations of the word 'abdicate'.

For the Tories, abdication was found in James' physical flight from the country thereby leaving the throne vacant, while for the Whigs, James' abdication was manifest in his violation of the law which left the throne vacant due to his failure to fulfil his contract with his subjects. In January 1689, the word 'abdication', as with 'forthwith' for Speaker Bercow, was fecund with many interpretations.

The second example, drawn from the mid-20th century, was personally as well as (with the passage of more than 30 years) constitutionally significant. Between October 1963 and June 1964, at the Rivonia Trial, Nelson Mandela and many other members of the African National Congress were in the dock on various sabotage and terrorism charges.

Rather than each accused take the stand, they agreed amongst themselves that Mandela would deliver a speech at the trial's opening to put the case positively for the defence and the defendants' actions, and to press their belief in a free and democratic society.

On this principle, Mandela intended his peroration to be 'it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die'. At the urging of lawyer George Bizos, Mandela agreed to insert the four words 'but if needs be' at the start of the sentence. Insertion of 'needs be' made the peroration simultaneously less and more provocative; less because it qualified the statement and made explicit that Mandela was not seeking martyrdom, and more because it made clear that the responsibility for his death would lie with the judge.

It was, and is, widely accepted that this revision to the peroration weighed heavily with the presiding judge, Dr Quartus de Wet, when deciding not to pass down the death sentence upon conviction.

So, one might agree or disagree with Speaker Bercow's decision, but his sense of history must surely be applauded. It is a truism that the course of history has often turned on the Humpty Dumpty rule and the insertion of qualifying words; always has, always will.

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About the author

Keith McLay

Professor Keith McLay
Provost - Learning and Teaching

Professor Keith McLay is the Provost for Learning and Teaching.

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