The use and abuse of language has been critical to the continuing political crisis initiated by David Cameron’s ill-judged and badly-executed attempt to stem the flow of votes from his party to UKIP in the 2015 General Election.
Recently I remarked on how ‘just get on with it’ and kindred expressions had been subverted to serve the Brexit cause. There are, I suggested, a great many ordinary people – burden bearers, we might call them – who are the ones who keep things going from day to day, who make sure the mundane things happen – that the bills are paid, that there is food on the table, that the children are clothed and fed and got off to school. For them, the phrase ‘just get on with it’ has a peculiar resonance – it is what they do, day in, day out; it carries with it an implication that a whole lot of other things might be all very well if there was time to indulge in them, but life being as it is, we must just get on with it and get what needs doing done. As I pointed out, the phrase might well be one that we would agree with in everyday circumstances, but not in the particular case where you found yourself on a strange road in the fog with the growing sense that you might be about to walk over a precipice.
In the same way, an expression central to the debate (it may even have featured in Mrs May’s manifesto in 2017) has been hijacked from the everyday context where it makes sense and slyly introduced to one where it makes no sense at all, with deliberate intent to deceive: I mean the oft-repeated mantra ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’
When is no deal better than a bad deal?
Always, I would say with confidence – and that is what makes the particular use to which the term has been put recently so pernicious, cynical and downright wicked.
Consider an instance. I set off for Italy because there is a special car there that I want to buy – an old classic Lancia, perhaps. The owner knows that I have come from abroad so can gauge the extent of my commitment – I am serious about wanting this car. He considers that this puts him in a strong bargaining position so holds out for a far higher price than he would otherwise ask because he is confident that I will not walk away, having come so far. But I consider that at this price I would be paying way over the odds – the car needs work done and further expenditure to make it presentable, so the price should reflect that. As it stands, this is a bad deal. I say as much. ‘Then it’s no deal,’ says the owner, in a last attempt to persuade me. ‘No deal is better than a bad deal,’ I say, and walk away.
There has been no transaction: the situation remains as it was – he has the car, I have my money (though I have to put down my expenditure to experience, the price I am willing to pay to achieve my desire). I tell myself that there will be other cars, or indeed that I could learn to live without one.
If we try to map this case onto our present one – leaving the EU – a peculiar thing emerges: no deal is indeed better than a bad deal, but only provided we resume the status quo – in other words, that we walk away, not from the EU, but from the idea of leaving it – on the very good ground that we cannot get a deal better than the one we already have, so we’ll just stick with what we’ve got, thanks, and put the time and money we have spent down to experience.
But that is not what is on offer here: rather it is a choice between a bad deal that is at least orderly and leaves us on good terms with our neighbours (though not as good as those we currently enjoy, which is what makes it bad) and a deal that is a great deal worse, because it involves our crashing out in a disorderly fashion, breaking all sorts of commitments in the process (such as paying our debts)and tying ourselves to WTO rules that will prove economically disastrous for the country as a whole and will ruin many businesses individually.
So yes, no deal is better than a bad deal and very much better than a worse one. So let us not make any deal to leave, but rather stay as we are.