Brexit rhetoric: How to convince a sceptical public

Posted on: 1 March 2018 by Andrew Crines in 2018 posts

Boris Johnson

As the government sets out its Brexit vision in a series of speeches by senior ministers, Dr Andrew Crines looks at the rhetorical strategies that could convince a sceptical nation.

Foreign secretary Boris Johnson recently gave the first of several speeches to be delivered by key government figures. The speeches aim to present a vision of what the United Kingdom seeks to gain from Brexit, and how it sees its impact on the UK. The speeches will aim to win over a sceptical audience, whilst at the same time outlining how Brexit will be achieved.  This is no easy task given the UK has been part of the European Union for 45 years.

Presenting a credible message

The speeches have a simple aim – that of presenting a credible message that the government is confident Brexit remains the right course of action. To do this the speeches must not be overly complex. If they become distracted by minutia then the message will simply not resonate. The tone of each speech will aim to sound reassuring. For example, Johnson’s speech sought to solidify Brexit as an opportunity to expand international trade. By using this line he is seeking to placate Remainers who fear the economy will suffer. Yet given his rhetorical style, communicating this message proved problematic because of his persona. Indeed, his persona and tendency for bluster came across more than the message he was seeking to construct.

Can ministers convince the doubters?

Looking to the future, ministers will be aiming to convince doubters that Brexit will happen. Their argument will be that following the referendum the government received an instruction which needs to be carried out. Remainers, however are arguing for a second referendum upon which to decide if the will of the people is still favourable towards Brexit. In contrast, Brexiteers argue that a second referendum is unnecessary because the instruction from the first remains, and that the Brexit deal will be the result of that referendum. Needless to say the debate will continue. However, there is the issue of how referendums can prove divisive. For example, the independence referendum in Scotland opened wounds that have yet to heal. The EU referendum has had a similar effect. Consequently to have another referendum risks creating even deeper divisive wounds.

The government has a tricky year ahead as we march towards the exit. Over the course of the coming twelve months ministers will be called upon to demonstrate unity and to communicate a consistent message. Whether they will prove effective and secure the support of the voters will remain to be seen.

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