Why weaponising ‘surrender’ and ‘betrayal’ is so wrong

by Hugo Dixon | 29.09.2019

Boris Johnson is whipping up emotions to prepare for an election. This isn’t just cynical; much of what he says is false and he must know it.

The Prime Minister is using is using two inflammatory words: “surrender” and “betrayal”. They have different meanings and he is using them in different ways. So let’s consider them separately.

Not a ‘Surrender Act’

Johnson has taken to calling the Benn Act which MPs passed earlier this month the “Surrender Act” or “Surrender Bill”. This is a deliberate tactic. He told the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee on Thursday that the term was getting “cut-through” with the public. He then told the Cabinet that Labour was “running scared” as the phrase was hurting Jeremy Corbyn badly with voters, according to Huffington Post.

The term “never surrender” was famously used by Winston Churchill in his “fight on the beaches” speech in June 1940 – just after the heroic evacuation of Allied troops from Dunkirk. Johnson, who likes to compare himself to our wartime leader, is cynically trying to tap into the national psyche to justify his dastardly tactics.

The Benn Act is designed to stop us crashing out of the EU without a deal on October 31. It forces the Prime Minister to ask the EU to delay Brexit by three months if he hasn’t managed to get MPs to approve a deal by October 19. 

Johnson justified the use of the term “Surrender Act” by telling MPs on Wednesday that the law “would take away from this country the ability to decide how long that extension would be, and it would give that power to the EU.”

There are two things factually wrong with this statement. First, “surrender” means giving up a fight against an enemy. The EU is not an enemy. It is a club of democratic countries, with whom we share values and interests. 

Second, the Benn Act does not give the EU the power to decide the length of an extension. It says that the Prime Minister must ask for a three-month extension (Clause 1.4). True, it also says that, if the EU proposes an extension of a different length, Johnson must agree to it within two days (Clause 3.2). But it adds that there’s no need to say yes to what the EU proposes if the House of Commons doesn’t agree (Clause 3.3).

The Benn Act is not a very long piece of legislation. The Prime Minister must surely have read it. Even if he did not understand it, many people have pointed out that he is misinterpreting it. By now he must know that what he is saying is false. 

Who is betraying the people?

Johnson isn’t using the term “betrayal” as frequently as he is using the word “surrender”. However he did tell MPs on Wednesday: “We will not betray the people who sent us here; we will not. That is what the Opposition want to do.”

“Betrayal” is an even more emotive than “surrender”. By whipping up the people to believe they are being betrayed, it encourages death threats and violence – something MPs, lawyers and ordinary campaigners are now suffering.

Dominic Cummings was remarkably blase about this in a speech on Thursday night. Johnson’s top aide said: “If you are a bunch of politicians and you say that we swear we are going to respect the result of a democratic vote and after you lose you say ‘we don’t want to respect that vote’. What do you expect will happen?”

It is rich for Johnson to talk about betrayal. This is a man who led a referendum campaign riddled with lies. Wasn’t it betrayal to to try to hoodwink the voters by telling them we send £350 million a week to the EU when we don’t?

This is a man who could have run to be Prime Minister in 2016 after David Cameron resigned. But he bottled it and left the job to Theresa May. He ran away from responsibility. Wasn’t that a betrayal of those who voted “Leave”?

This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, backed the “joint report” with the EU in December 2017. That was the forerunner of the now notorious Irish “backstop” – something he now describes as “undemocratic”. If it really was undemocratic, surely he betrayed the people by supporting it.

We need a People’s Vote

Brexit is a bit like buying a house. The property looks beautiful. So you put in an offer. But then the survey finds dry rot, the roof is falling in and a high-rise office is going to be built next door. You can complete the contract if you really wish to. But you don’t have to.

In 2016 Johnson promised a fantasy Brexit. The reality of Brexit bears no resemblance to what was promised. Before pressing ahead, it would be undemocratic not to check with the people whether that’s what they really want.

Demand a vote on the Brexit deal

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8 Responses to “Why weaponising ‘surrender’ and ‘betrayal’ is so wrong”

  • Hugo, you’re preaching to the choir! Have we learned nothing from the Brexit Bus? indignation is just feeding the monster, and making him stronger.

    What we need to do is weaponise his words against him.
    – Bozo is the “Surrender Prime Minister”. He wants to surrender our economy, surrender our oppotunities, surrender our future in a #NoDeal Brexit.
    – Bozo is the “Betrayer”. He promised a great deal and is now selling a cliff-edge. He promised a myriad of trade deals and has none to show. He promised paradise and is delivering a hell.

    This is the reply that should be resounding through parliament, TV studios and newspaper columns. Fire those words “Surrender” and “Betrayer” back onto him, and then at minimum the damage will be cancelled-out. Every time Boris uses those words going forward, he’d take half of the shrapnel of association. It’s the “noise-cancelling microphone” strategy.

  • Anyone read Phil Hammond’s comments on the possible financial issues behind the no deal crash-out? That some capitalists got their hands on several millions worth of pound sterling even on the referendum day due to the fact that they had bet on the pound sterling nosediving? According to Hammond these capitalists are not interested in a deal at all; they need the pound to fall for them to earn lots of money and, most of all, get rid of proposed EU Tax Evasion measures. And that’s what Brexit, in the style the Johnson government is pushing for, is all about. In that vision Scotland and Northern Ireland are just ballast, if they want independence or are holding up Singapore on the Thames to become a tax-free bucket for dirty money, the toss them over board. If that creates a hard border not in Ireland but North of Newcastle and Carlisle, it’s the Scots who will be disadvantaged. The English wealthy and their international brethren who move here will warn incomparable lots of money and the peasants who believed that the NHS would soar and austerity would be history will have a few unpleasant surprises come their way. Project Fear again? I don’t think so. Hammond’s analysis explains too many of the impossible things that are happening with the economy at the moment. Too bad that the still rabid English disgust with foreigners tricked so many people here in lending their vote to these corrupt and criminal “leaders”!

  • Tsuchan, amen to that! Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings know very well what they’re doing and select their battle-language to get sufficient voters on their side with care and to good effect. In that vision the above piece misses the point entirely.

  • Tsuchan makes some good points. Johnson is trying to divide us further. If he secures Brexit he obviously thinks he will be a hero and win a majority in a GE. The threat of violence and rioting is outrageous and gives the green light to right wing groups to commit acts of violence. Johnson and Cummings are courting anarchy and I am scared that they may target the march on 19 Oct.
    It is down to Parliament to use democratic devices and institutions to bring him down. MPs from the opposition parties must work together. If we manage to get a government of national unity, Ms J Swinson must drop her opposition to Corbyn being the leader. It would be temporary and subject to a general election after a second referendum has taken place.
    If Johnson gets some sort of deal (doubtful) then Parliament should demand it is put to a referendum together with the option to remain.

  • Johnson and his backers aren’t interested in a deal and certainly not in putting anything out to be decided by the population, as his aim is to crash out of the EU and its Tax Avoidance and Evasion measures. That is next to making a tax evasion, hedge fund and foreign exchange dirty tricks heaven out of the UK. Or rather England, in case, as looks likely, Scots and Northern Irish (wisely) decide to quit.

  • “Never surrender” may be intended to evoke Churchill but references to ‘surrender’ are not a million miles away from another Johnson constituency with whom he needs to ingratiate himself – the ‘no surrender’ of the hard-core Unionists.

  • I fear alot of the language referred to here, is the same as has been routinely splashed across newspapers such as the Mail, Sun and above all the Daily Express, for a very long time. Johnson is probably targetting their readerships. It is a wartime rhetoric but sadly, alot of this public has been indoctrinated to think we are dealing with “enemies” who are out to settle some sort of old score with this country. These are people with a mindset fixed in the past. Alot genuinely think if we return to ‘the good old days’, life will return to how it was in the aftermath of the war. They do not understand that Europe and the world have moved on.

  • I agree with everything in this article but as Tsuchan says, we are a small enclave preaching to each other, to the converted. My recent experience in campaigning in Birmingham alongside David Nicholl was similar – the public walking past ignoring us whilst we were left to talk to each other.

    Having just observed shoppers in the queue in my local supermarket routinely adding the Daily Mail and Telegraph to their baskets, I cannot escape the conclusion that Remainers are severely outgunned and the country is essentially being run by offshore press barons.

    Luyendijk in his excellent Guardian opinion piece reaches a similar conclusion


    So our role may be to chronicle these events as accurately as we can in the hope that post Brexit posterity will one day learn the truth.