VisibleThread – Language Analysis Platform

All that you can’t leave behind: the language behind Brexit

2 min read

Fergal McGovern

CEO & Founder

The messaging behind the Brexit referendum campaign and subsequent planning has been characterized by bad English and the lack of plain language. It should act as a warning for companies everywhere.

On June 23rd, 2016, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland went to the polls. The people voted in a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. It was known as the ‘Brexit’ referendum.

It was a monumental election for the UK. People had debated its membership of the EU since joining in 1973. But there was never a vote on leaving the union. The campaign was bitterly contested. Voters needed clear English. However, mixed messages were a feature of the election.F

For example, the Leave campaign ran an ad on the side of a bus, saying: “We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Election promises are as old as the stars, but the stakes here were especially high. The UK voted to leave the union. The man who came up with the bus slogan has since said leaving the EU may be an error.

The language behind the referendum campaign and its aftermath are well worth examining. It was not an exercise in plain English. It is a lesson for professionals in all sectors. Public confidence has already been affected by the UK government’s performance. And the real pain may yet be to come.

Plain language builds understanding

As part of leaving the EU, the UK must redraft much of its legislation. EU law is regulatory and sets general standards. These standards range from consumer protection to workers’ rights. The UK has implemented a number of directly applicable EU regulations. But once the UK leaves the EU these will no longer have any effect. This demands plain language.

This will mean the UK will have to redraft regulation in the business, work and environment sectors. Indeed, the House of Lords EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee (Committee) has announced it is launching an inquiry into financial regulation and supervision following Brexit. Let’s look at what they’ve come up with so far.

For our analysis, we used VT Writer. It’s a lightweight readability tool  for Doc, Web and Text analysis. The helpful thing is that it flags issues at paragraph level and it’s free. There is also a paid version which generates insightful reports. But we were fine with just the free version.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will contain much of the information we are looking for. However, it is not finalized. Even still, as it passes through parliament, we can get a feel for the language used. We can see whether this is plain language or bad English.