Ambitious Managed Divergence

Just when some Americans thought they had a handle on the term Brexit, along come the Brexiteers and give us “ambitious managed divergence.”

Brexit is of course the snappy portmanteau word coined several years ago to refer to the British exit from the European Union.

Extricating itself from the EU has proved to be an agonizing process. An intense national debate over the hoped-for benefits versus the much-feared consequences of Brexit culminated in a referendum on June 23, 2016, when 51.9 percent of the electorate voted to leave the EU.

The Union Jack is due to officially set sail to depart from the Continent on March 29, 2019. If, that is, a deal can be struck for a revised economic relationship with Europe that both sides can live with. The anti-Brexiteers are still hoping that such a deal is an impossibility, that the U.K. and the EU will never reach an agreement, and Brexit will exit the British scene for good.

In recent days, both those for and against Brexit have found reason for hope in the outcome of a meeting of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet, which convened for the purpose of working out a compromise proposal for future economic dealings with the EU that would satisfy a government divided over just how far Brexit should go.

After eight hours of deliberations at the PM’s traditional country retreat at Chequers, the cabinet had formulated an answer that indeed seemed to satisfy everyone. They named the newborn policy “ambitious managed divergence.”

As an analysis in The Guardian explained: “The plan contains ‘divergence’ to give the advocates of Brexit what they want, a bold breaking of the EU chains. At the same time, ‘managed’ is there to placate the faction that stubbornly continues to want those chains. And ‘ambitious’ it is, because it aims to be all things to all people.

It is beyond the scope of this editorial to delve fully into the intricacies of Brexit, but briefly, it’s a plan whereby Britain will be out of the EU but retain much of the privileges of being in. This is known in some quarters as the “three baskets” theory, in which the British economy is divided into three categories: one in which standards stay fully aligned with the EU, one that holds onto an option to diverge in the future, and a third where Britain is completely on its own. Reportedly, Britain would seek to negotiate a free-trade agreement similar to the EU-Canada deal, but augmented by better access to EU goods and services than Canada has.

“Divergence has won the day,” said one cabinet source. But pro-Europeans also claimed that the talks had gone well. Another said: “It all finished rather positively. It seems like everyone thinks they got what they wanted.”

Whether the British public or the EU will be impressed by either the content or the style of “ambitious managed divergence” remains to be seen. In the meantime, however, it is fair to say that not since the British political satirist George Orwell invented “Newspeak” has the sceptered isle made such a noteworthy contribution to the English language.

More precisely, “ambitious managed divergence” can be assigned to the subcategory of Newspeak known as “doublethink”, which entails simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. “War is peace,” and “Freedom is slavery” are among the most notorious examples from Orwell’s dystopian lexicon.

Newspeak has been defined as a language in which “words mean just what the government says they mean” (Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins). Mrs. May’s coinage qualifies. If she says “ambitious managed divergence” means Brexit, then that’s what it means.

That’s not to lump Mrs. May with the totalitarian perpetrators of doublethink, like Orwell’s Big Brother. The current British prime minister’s intentions are perfectly honorable: to restore British independence while protecting the economy.

The intention is not to imply that the British have any monopoly on this kind of use — or misuse — of language. Obviously, Americans have stretched the English language in equally dismaying ways over the years. While the British may excel in doublethink, nobody can match the Americans in political correctness.

For example, an official handbook of politically correct phrases that circulated at the 1992 Democratic National Convention suggested such sanitized phraseologies as “nontraditional voting” for ballot-box stuffing, “previously enjoyed soundbite” for cliché, and “equanimity-deprived individual with temporarily unmet career objectives” for sore loser.

Whether Britain ultimately leaves the European Union or not — or both — there is no doubt that Brexit is having an impact on the language. Most neologisms take time to establish themselves sufficiently to merit inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, but this one looks headed for immediate enshrinement.

However, if the purpose of language is to communicate clearly and to make ideas and facts (true ones) more accessible, then such phenomena as doublethink and political correctness do harm. They bury clear thinking in ambiguity or contradiction and make rational political discourse all the more difficult.

But that, after all, is what politics is all about.