It is said that actions speak louder than words, but the subtleties of context and meaning are honed to perfection through the power of language as it channels ideas into deeds. Indeed, civilised life relies upon words taking control of muscles, and to this day politics manages the delicate balance between the two – with various persuasive methods serving to manipulate mass action in the cause of adopted truths. Even liberal democracies institute systems of leadership and control to curtail freedoms in the name of ‘the greater good’. In the event, democracy is legitimated by the idea of it, which doesn’t necessarily translate into bowing to the voter’s express wishes. A crude example surfaced with ‘Boaty McBoatface’. In 2016 the British Government’s Natural Environment Research Council invited the public to name a new polar research vessel, but the Council couldn’t countenance the outcome when ‘Boaty’ topped the list of chosen names by a wide margin, so they demoted the public’s choice by deciding to assign it to one of the on-board submersibles. This democratic slight is significant precisely because it is so trivial, because the Council stood to lose nothing by acceding to the popular vote – except for the loss of face. The name finally chosen, The Sir David Attenborough, was selected by the Council in allowing itself the final say.
Governments govern in the same fashion. Voters in ‘proper’ elections are given the impossible task, made ‘possible’ because they accede to it, of being required to assent to a raft of issues loosely held together by manifesto pledges that ‘their’ elected government will deliver on its promises. But governments are subject to their own internal politics which can lead to changes in their policies, priorities and captainship – sometimes leaving the electorate with a leader they didn’t vote for. In reality, votes count most when they reflect societal norms and values carried by an ‘implicit manifesto’, usually defined by the language of money – the reality being that governments and the electorate alike find that their choices are curtailed by ‘their’ spending power in a world where borrowing money is a fact of life and investment (qua money) is seen to make money. Consequently, successive governments have taken the liberty of borrowing mountains of money over the years in the name of necessity – defined on an ad hoc basis by the rule of ‘as and when’. Afterwards, the public are left wondering why their taxes never seem to stretch whilst forgetting that substantial amounts have to be spent on servicing the wealth of lending cartels and other vague repositories of virtual money which can hold the ‘wealth of nations’ to ransom.
The occasional referendum appears to give voters exactly what they vote for. The UK’s ‘Brexit’ referendum asked people if they wanted to ‘remain’ in the European Union, or ‘leave’. The choice was clear cut, but complicated by the government’s expensive publicity blitz which described the EU as ‘reformed’ – a nuanced misnomer suggesting the EU had changed when it hadn’t. The issues were shrouded in dubious delineations from the start, although the electorate applied their own interpretations and voted to leave. The ‘apple cart’ was really upset when the unprecedented skirmishing continued after the vote, after it transpired that there was no formal policy on what leaving was supposed to mean – so the idea of a second referendum was mooted. Also it was rumoured that Brexit could become Brino (Brexit-in-name-only). Some politicians claimed that the existing referendum had been legitimated by the encompassing general elections, when the public had two opportunities to vote-out the whole idea. Throughout this political wrangling the electorate had been assured that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Of course the word was absent from the dictionary, but then the dictionary has yet to be written in which every word simply means itself. Meanwhile voters are constantly being reminded that ‘the right thing to do’ is, by definition, the right thing to do – implying they don’t need to be asked to vote on it.