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Society, Politics & Law

Referendum Rhetoric: keeping a-hold of nurse or leaping into the dark?

Updated Tuesday, 21st June 2016

Simon Lee, Professor of Law at The Open University, discusses the rhetoric of the EU Referendum. 

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UK and EU flags overlaid Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: iStock - Andrew Linscott Boris Johnson tells us in his book, The Churchill Factor, that Winston Churchill ‘wrote an article called “A United States of Europe”; indeed, he is credited with coining the phrase’. Well, yes, Churchill did write about this in the News of the World in 1938 and he is credited with coining the expression but only by people like Boris Johnson who do not know, for instance, that the Cambridge historian Professor (later Sir) John Seeley gave a lecture in London to the Peace Society in 1871, and published in Macmillan’s Magazine, entitled United States of Europe.

The campaigns for the UK referendum on Europe have been marked, on both sides, by an ignorance of history and culture which needs to be challenged, whatever the result. It is not just the insults (‘hypocritical’, ‘dishonest’, ‘immoral’, ‘bitter’, ‘vengeful’, ‘verging on the squalid’) or the loose allusions to Hitler which debase the currency of political rhetoric. It is also a disregard for the origins of expressions which have been prayed in aid by each side when they would better serve the other.

In the major set-piece parliamentary debate on the referendum, on 22 February, the Brexiteer who stole the show was Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Conservative back-bench MP, who asked David Cameron, the Prime Minister,

‘Is the Government’s policy basically,

“And always keep a-hold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.”?’

This possibly gained some force from being recited by the funny and fogeyish Mr Rees-Mogg who is proud of having taken his nanny canvassing with him when he unsuccessfully sought election in Fife. Although Mr Rees-Mogg has form in talking at length in Parliament, the dynamics on this occasion prevented him from attributing the quotation or explaining it. He was quoting Hilaire Belloc who not only composed verse and wrote extensively but was also an MP. Belloc was born in France and loved Europe, so it was amusing to hear a Brexiteer quoting him. What Jacob Rees-Mogg had perhaps forgotten but certainly did not explain is that in Belloc’s cautionary verse for children, Jim, the little boy who let go of nurse’s hand, did indeed experience something worse: he was eaten by a lion.

Instead of pointing that out, the Prime Minister David Cameron said that a vote to leave the EU would be ‘a leap in the dark’:

‘Our current access to the single market would cease immediately after two years were up; our current trade agreements with 53 countries around the world would lapse. This cannot be described as anything other than risk, uncertainty and a leap in the dark that could hurt working people in our country for years to come.’

Again, there was no time to pause for a history lesson but in its parliamentary setting, this echoes the phrase used by another Tory Prime Minister, the Earl of Derby, in 1867 during the passage of the Second Reform Bill. The crucial difference is that Lord Derby was advocating a leap in the dark and it was one which worked out well, whereas Mr Cameron is implying that a leap in the dark is a bad thing which will have the kinds of consequences which befell Jim in Belloc’s verse. His chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, and the previous Labour chancellor Lord (Alistair) Darling, have united this month to write an open letter to the Leave campaign attacking them for advocating such ‘a leap in the dark’.

Yet Lord Derby was backing his minister, Benjamin Disraeli, in extending the franchise even though it could be seen as a risk. The phrase had been used by others, such as Lord Cranborne and Anthony Trollope, and is usually attributed to Thomas Hobbes on his death-bed. The power of the phrase in 1867 came partly from a famous Punch cartoon on 3 August, with Britannia blindly taking a horse with Disraeli’s face into a thicket labelled ‘Reform’  over the caption ‘a leap in the dark’ and partly from the Earl of Derby’s speech in the House of Lords three days later:

‘No doubt we are making a great experiment and taking 'a leap in the dark' but I have the greatest confidence in the sound sense of my fellow-countrymen, and I entertain a strong hope that the extended franchise which we are now conferring upon them will be the means of placing the institutions of this country on a firmer basis, and that the passing of this measure will tend to increase the loyalty and contentment of a great proportion of Her Majesty's subjects’. 

The challenge for the people of the United Kingdom in the European Union referendum on 23 June is indeed whether to hold on to nurse’s hand or to take a leap in the dark but the Leave and Remain camps have got their allusions the wrong way round. The Leavers should be encouraging us to go for it: yes - to take a leap in the dark, to trust the people of this country, just as happened in the successful extension of the franchise almost 150 years ago. The Remainers should be saying it is one thing to take a risk when you can’t see what might befall you but it’s quite another to let go of your lifeline and strike out on your own when you know there is genuine danger in becoming isolated.  

In 1871, Professor Seeley concluded his talk about a United States of Europe by imagining ‘a European public opinion gradually educated to see before it a new Federation rising like a majestic temple over the tomb of war, emulating the transatlantic Federation in prosperity and unity but surpassing it by far in all the riches of culture, manners and science, and consecrated with all the traditions and reliques of the ancient world.’ Whether or not next week’s vote leaves the European temple in ruins, there is still time to rescue, restore, preserve and appreciate some of the cultural relics of our greatest political rhetoric.





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