When I studied linguistics, I was very taken by the concept of a Speech Act. This is the idea that by saying something in a certain context, it becomes more than just an utterance and instead actually causes something to change. A person could say “”I do” as many times as they want, but if they say it in front of a designated celebrant, while holding a ring and staring lovingly into the eyes of another human being, the phrase takes on the force of performing an action.
I have been pondering this concept during the last few weeks of Brexit madness in relation to the concept of a vote, or what makes a vote an actual vote. Clearly, me putting a cross on a random piece of paper is simply me doing a doodle. Me putting a cross on an official piece of paper and putting it into the designated box is me expressing my opinion, having it recorded and contributing to an overall result. To Vote means to perform a specifically prescribed action at the anointed time in the appointed place.
It seems to me that over the last few weeks, we have lost our sense of what the word vote actually means. It should always be enough to say that when there is a vote on something, it is clear and straightforward, and once the result comes in, then that is the end of the matter. But such is the controversy that swirls around the big dilemmas currently facing us, that it has become necessary to characterise voting in specific ways, as if by elevating it from just voting itself, it will somehow have more import.
I am not the first person to point out that any vote in the UK Parliament should be meaningful (unless it is one of the now much talked about “indicative” votes, of course). After all, what is the point of MPs spending their time voting for something if there isn’t a reason for it? And yet, the phrase ‘Meaningful Vote’ has crept into into our discourse to characterise the definitive judgement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
Remember, she never wanted such a vote to begin with, and was only bounced into holding a vote at all by a ruling from the Supreme Court. And the phrase meaningful vote passed from being what seemed a vague term to describe the final vote to the title of the vote itself, with its sequels of Meaningful Vote 2 or MV3 sounding like a bad film franchise rather than the political horror movie they actually are.
But now that it has become a title, rather than the description of an activity, it has lost the essence of voting and become instead the backdrop to arguments and in-fighting. If another Meaningful Vote is to be held, it is no longer really about settling the Brexit debate and more about working out what it means for Theresa May or the future of the Government. People will not necessarily vote for the motion but for how their vote will be interpreted. Meaningful, but not in the way originally intended.
Meanwhile, the proponents of a second referendum have very cleverly hijacked the word Vote for their own ends with the term People’s Vote, trying to characterise another referendum as something different to what it actually is. Every national election held in the UK is a people’s vote, so the actual term a People’s Vote is tautological. But by defining it in these terms, it is an attempt to make it sound bigger and more inclusive than it actually is. Ardent Brexiteers say it is simply a chance to have another go, being promoted by people who didn’t like the result the first time round, a betrayal of democracy. Whether it is or not is not a matter for Wordability. But it does come across as a manipulative use of the English language to make something sound distinct from what is actually being proposed.
There are many countries in the world where democracy is a sham and the word vote has no actual meaning, even if people are invited to cast an opinion every so often. Many who voted leave in the 2016 Referendum already feel this way and feel that their vote is at risk of being rendered meaningless by the voting that has happened subsequent to this.
It is a huge concern that in the home of the ‘mother of parliaments’, the meaning of the word vote seems to be under such pressure.