Wednesday, 2 January 2019

The power of words

Just after Christmas, the Home Office published this advice to ‘EU citizens’ about the requirement to register if they want to stay in the UK after Brexit.  
The wording is very clear – “If you are an EU citizen living in the UK and want to stay in the UK after the 31 December 2020…”.  I’m not alone in spotting the problem with the use of words here, because I think that I – along with the overwhelming majority of the UK’s population, fall into that category (although I’ll admit that I do sometimes start to wonder about the ‘want to stay’ part given the trajectory on which the UK government has placed us).  But I’m unquestionably an EU citizen as things currently stand.
Professor Richard Murphy has already blogged on this, suggesting that we should all follow the UK Government’s clear advice as EU citizens and register our desire to stay after Brexit.  It’s an interesting form of protest, and it’s hard to see how the UK Government can really complain if millions of those of us who are currently EU citizens simply comply with their poorly-worded demand that we should register.
But underlying this is a rather more general, and slightly sinister, misuse of terminology to describe people.  Here’s another example from Parliament’s website, talking about the proportion of NHS staff who are EU citizens.  It claims that 5.6% of NHS staff are EU nationals but goes on to say that all but 12.7% (i.e. 87.3%) are UK nationals.  But at what point did that 87.3% cease being EU citizens?  The answer is that they did not – they might cease to be such on 29th March, but as of today, and at the time that this research report was published in October, the proportion of EU citizens working in the NHS was 92.9%, and there was and is effectively no legal distinction between those who happen also to be UK nationals and those who happen to be nationals of other EU member states.
These are far from being the only examples; the BBC and media are full of reports about ‘EU citizens’ which invariably, it seems, is a reference only to non-UK EU citizens.  Does this blurring of terminology matter?  At one level, of course not.  I know what they are trying to say and understand why they are drawing a distinction when talking about the situation which will exist post-Brexit.  But at another level it does matter, partly because (as Prof Murphy pointed out) it’s about creating difference and ‘otherness’ where none currently exists, but also because it diverts attention away from what the government is actually doing here.  The truth isn’t that we are not currently EU citizens, it is that that citizenship is going to be stripped from us at the end of March by deliberate government action.  The form of words which has gained widespread currency treats all other EU citizens as though they are the odd ones, when the reality is that it’s UK nationals whose status is changing the most.

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