July 21, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich
Signs and society: The Brexit bus
Some years ago, Roda Madziva, a former research fellow on the Making Science Public programme, wrote a blog post about the ‘Go Home Van’. This van combined visibility and mobility to tell migrants in London, framed as illegal criminals, to go home – wherever that might (im)possibly be. Roda and Vivienne Lowndes have also written an article about the van as a symbolic policy object. They have looked at its various meanings and they have pointed out that: “Migrants sought to resist the van through hiding, while support organisations rejected dominant meanings and crafted alternatives.”
In this post I want to look (rather superficially) at another symbolic policy object, the Brexit bus, its initial message, its meanings and the way alternative meanings emerged. Surprisingly, this bus has not yet been studied by social scientists, as far as I can see; neither has it been analysed by semiologists or semioticians, that is, experts in the study of signs in society.
The Brexit bus, sponsored by the Vote Leave Campaign, toured the UK before the EU membership referendum held in the UK in June 2016. It was a big red bus carrying the slogan, written in white letters: “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead – Vote Leave – Let’s take back control”.
Signs and society
In 1916 one of the founding fathers of modern linguistics, Ferdinand the Saussure, mused in his Cours de Linguistique Générale: “A science that studies the life of signs within society is conceivable; it would be a part of social psychology and consequently of general psychology; I shall call it semiology”.
Semiology, as the study of sign systems in society, became a popular field of inquiry in Europe, while in the Anglo-American sphere semiotics developed along similar lines. While Saussure focused mostly on linguistic phenomena, one of his followers in France, Roland Barthes, also delved into the study of visual and other sign systems and the rhetoric of images. I still remember quite clearly discussing his dissection of a pasta advertisement at university in the 1970s.
I think Saussure and Barthes would have delighted in deciphering the various messages and meanings conveyed by the Brexit bus, not only synchronically (at a particular moment in time – for example when the bus first took to the road), but also diachronically (over time – when the bus and its message were changed and transformed to deliver ever new and different meanings). (Saussure introduced the terms synchrony and diachrony to linguistics).
Philosophers of language, from John Law Austin, onwards would also have been interested in the bus. Austin helped to establish a new field of linguistics, pragmatics, which studies language and meaning making in action. Linguistic pragmatists are interested not only in interpreting signs in themselves but in investigating how they are used, who uses them and what actions they perform in the real world. In our case, they would be keen to study what ‘speech acts’ the bus performed. Did it ‘suggest’, ‘promise’, ‘warn’, even ‘lie’ and ‘deceive’, and so on? Did it induce hope, fear, resentment, anger?
In their study of the Go Home Van, Roda and Vivienne used another framework to study their symbolic object, a framework that might also be useful to those wanting to study the Brexit bus in more detail. This is ‘Interpretive Policy Analysis’, first developed by Hendrik Wagenaar, whose book Meaning in Action is a bit of classic. Roda and Vivienne say: “The practice of ‘interpretive policy analysis’ (IPA) requires that we identify a specific policy artefact, those groups for whom the artefact has meaning, the nature of these meanings, and the points of contrast and contest between them (Yanow, 2000: 20).” Studying the Brexit bus as a policy artefact might be quite interesting.
The Brexit bus
Let us now look at the bus. That is to say, put ‘Brexit bus’ or ‘leave bus’ into Google Images and have a look. I have already cited the slogan above. It states that we give the EU £350 million a week, a statement that was subsequently challenged. The slogan/bus proposes that policy makers should instead use this (possibly imaginary) money to fund the NHS here in the UK (“let’s”). It then urges readers of the slogan to Vote Leave, implying that saving the NHS can only be achieved by leaving the EU (whatever that means). The bus then delivers its punch line asking everybody to join in taking back control (from the EU) (“Let’s”). The last part is important, as this implies that by joining the EU we have lost control (over our borders, budgets, laws, sovereignty and so on).
For leave voters the bus was a symbol of rebellion against a large variety of things for which the EU became the symbolic focal point. For those voting remain it became a symbol of all that was wrong with the EU referendum.
On 23 June 2016 a small majority of UK voters voted to leave the EU. In a sense, the bus had won; it had done its job. After that the bus was reused in various ways. Most notoriously it was repainted by Greenpeace challenging what they saw as the ‘lies’ and ‘exaggerations’ propagated by the bus and asking for ‘truth’ (“Time for Truth”) in what soon came to known as post-truth times.
We should not forget that the Remain campaign, led by the Government, also had a bus, a blue bus, carrying the slogan (in red and white letters, thus evoking the national flag of the United Kingdom or the Union Flag): “A brighter future in. Britain stronger in Europe”. A year after the Referendum this bus was repainted and became Theresa May’s ‘battle bus’ during the snap general election in 2017, where the Government campaigned to uphold the leave vote. When Theresa May did a deal with the DUP to shore up her majority in Parliament, the Brexit bus came into its own again, when it was used to say: “We send the EU £350 a week. Let’s give the DUP a bung instead. Let’s take back control”.
Between the Referendum results, the general election and the DUP deal, the Brexit bus became the focus for many more alternative messages and, as some said, more honest bus slogans. I have not collected all these alternative messages, of course. That’s for somebody else to do!
One thing is interesting: You can design your own slogan here, thus spreading the ‘bus meme’.
Alternative message were not just written on the bus though. The bus and its message also became the target of jokes and word-play. People wrote for example: “The writing is on the bus. Wall” or “The wheels on the #Brexitbus come off and off, all day long” and so on. (Somebody should do a hashtag analysis as well).
Barthes and buses
What has all this to do with Barthes, adverts, semiotics and policy analysis? Buses routinely carry advertising slogans. Such slogans must comply with the standards set by the Advertising Standards Agency. However, as their website says: “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” As a New Statesman article, quoting this statement, points out: “In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.”
So, misleading the general public is generally not allowed in advertising, but it is in politics! And the bus did that quite successfully, it seems. However, not everybody saw the slogan as a lie or indeed a promise. Some defended it as just being a ‘suggestion’. Whatever the interpretation, the bus and the slogan acted as an advert for the Vote Leave Campaign. More than that, it reinforced, exploited and entrenched various ‘myths’ about the EU and about what it means to leave the EU. As Barthes wrote: “myth acts economically: it abolishes the complexity of human acts, it gives them the simplicity of essences, it does away with all dialectics, with any going back beyond what is immediately visible, it organizes a world which is without contradictions… Things appear to mean something by themselves…” – in this instance that thing was the bus.
In 1962 Austin published his seminal book entitled How to do Things with Words. The van and the bus show that one should also write a book entitled How to do Things with Things (and Words) or How to do Things with Signs – thus merging semiotics and pragmatics. As Roda has pointed out, objects have meaning and agency and, indeed, power. They makes things happen in social life, in politics, in society, for good or for ill. We should keep a keen eye on such objects and on what they do.