On 14 June, a short email popped up in the inboxes of all Financial Times editorial staff. It came from the paper’s style guru and announced tersely: ‘The out campaigners should be Brexiters, not Brexiteers.’ As usual for the FT’s style pronouncements, the memo did not lay out the reasoning behind the decision, but it followed a discussion among editors over whether the word ‘Brexiteer’ had connotations of swashbuckling adventure.
Much has been said and written about the power of the Leave campaign’s simple and disciplined messaging. Both sides agree that the Remain camp never found a slogan with the clarity and muscular appeal of ‘Take Back Control’ — a potent and proven phrase adapted by Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings from the successful campaign against Britain joining the euro. (A 2001 contribution by Cummings to the BBC website ended: ‘Keep your job, keep control, keep the pound.’)
But the FT style note was evidence of a little remarked on and perhaps quietly significant victory in another corner of the linguistic battlefield. Long before June’s seismic result, the Out camp had comprehensively won the battle of collective nouns.
‘Brexiteer brings to mind buccaneer, pioneer, musketeer,’ says Michael Gove. ‘It lends a sense of panache and romance to the argument.’ For fellow Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan it had connotations of ‘dashing condottieri’. On the other side of the trenches Remain strategist Lord Cooper feared the word crystallised a feeling about the Out campaign. ‘It helped draw it out. It was exciting, invigorating, boundary-pushing, taking on the world… a positive frame that was taking on our negative frame.’
By contrast the In camp could find no collective noun to embrace. Mischievous Outers took delight in goading them variously as Bremainers, Remoaners and Remainians, but they didn’t really need to. Remainers was bad enough. It reeked of timidity — or worse, cold leftovers from a meal long finished. ‘Remainer was a terrible word because it absolutely identified us as defending the status quo,’ says Lord Cooper, ‘when the one thing people didn’t want was the EU status quo.’
Campaigners against the EU — and before it, the EEC — had struggled over the years to find an appealing and accessible label. ‘When I was elected we were looking for a word other than “Eurosceptic”,’ recalls Hannan. ‘A lot of Eurosceptics didn’t like it because they thought it sounded negative and fringe.’ For a while ‘sovereignist’, borrowed from Quebec’s independence movement, was favoured. Some, such as stalwart sceptic Bill Cash, tried hard to promote ‘Eurorealist’ with little success.
The word that has dominated British politics for the last year did not surface till May 2012 when pro-EU campaigner Peter Wilding reflected on the potential repercussions of the Greek crisis in his blog: ‘Unless a clear view is pushed that Britain must lead in Europe… then the portmanteau for Greek euro exit might be followed by another sad word, Brexit.’
But although the word had firmly lodged in the media and political vocabulary by last year, both campaigns were suspicious of it. ‘It sounded edgy,’ says Ameet Gill, David Cameron’s director of strategy and one of the key figures at the heart of the Remain campaign. ‘It was a dangerous word for us so we tried to make sure all message carriers didn’t use it.’ Lucy Thomas, deputy director of Britain Stronger in Europe, had similar concerns: ‘It was a clean, neat word. Using this shorthand note for it made it feel like less of a risk. Talking about “leaving the European Union” is much more of a wrench but “Brexit” can be this other, interesting, thing.’
In the Leave camp, however, there was little sense of it being an asset. Internal polling showed many ordinary people had no idea what it meant. The campaign’s public voices were told not to use it. ‘Dominic Cummings disliked the phrase,’ remembers Gove. ‘Lots of people didn’t understand it and I always thought it was an alienating term.’ One senior Vote Leave figure put it more bluntly: ‘It was a crap word. It sounded like a shit breakfast cereal.’
Nevertheless by the spring of 2016, the two derivatives of ‘Brexit’, ‘Brexiter’ and ‘Brexiteer’, had become headline staples — and by April, ‘Brexiteer’ was edging out its less dashing cousin.
In March both words got roughly the same number of mentions in the British press. In April and May ‘Brexiteers’ outnumbered ‘Brexiters’ by almost three to one. One editor of a UK daily explained why: ‘It was more attractive, more swashbuckling. It had that romantic feel to it, something you can inject a bit of emotion into.’
Even before the FT issued its style note on the matter, you could divine a newspaper’s position on the referendum from its choice of collective noun. In the Guardian Brexiteer and Brexiter appeared roughly the same number of times between the start of the year and the referendum. In the Telegraph Brexiteers outnumbered Brexiters almost four to one. And in the Mail, it was six to one.
‘When Brexiteer became a term we thought it sounded quite dangerous,’ recalls Ameet Gill. ‘It sounded buccaneering, exciting, adventurous. It tapped into the mood around the campaign.’ At Vote Leave Cummings was less convinced of its usefulness. He believed it was the kind of newspaper word no ordinary person would ever use. But the campaign’s communications chief Paul Stephenson thought it helped promote an image of ‘Boris and his merry band… I thought it was something we could exploit, all part of this picture we were trying to develop of Britain as plucky underdogs.’
Since Theresa May moved into Downing Street and ripped up her predecessor’s team sheet, the term ‘Brexiteer’ has largely taken on a more specific meaning. It’s used most frequently these days to refer to the three ministers charged with shaping Britain’s course out of the EU — Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox.
For now they may enjoy the allusions to Alexandre Dumas’ all-action trio but the Three Brexiteers will be all too aware of the sobriquet’s satirical potential. Whether the term evokes more d’Artagnan than Don Quixote will depend on what happens next.
Ian Katz is editor of BBC Newsnight.