Sean Walsh argues we live in a post-modern context where words and truth do not necessarily correlate. Theresa May’s “off the peg” approach to language makes her an exemplary postmodern Prime Minister.

If we ever leave the European Union, it will be without a deal. This will be true even if Mrs May manages to inflict her wretched agreement on a less than ecstatic nation. The Withdrawal Agreement is no more a “deal” than the rules of a game of football are themselves a game of football. The Withdrawal Agreement, in conjunction with the curiously under-discussed but equally insidious Political Declaration, constitute the framework of constraints within which any post-EU deal will be negotiated.

This point cannot be stressed enough: to describe leaving under the terms of the WA as leaving with a deal is a category error. The EU wants to place us in a straitjacket; the Withdrawal Agreement is the tailor who has been commissioned to take the measurements of that jacket. The deal only happens when the straitjacket has been applied, if it ever happens at all. We may well be wearing the jacket indefinitely.

Emotions are founded on beliefs, and the fear of “crashing out” of the EU assumes that there are two options: deal or no deal. But the contrast is a manufactured one and therefore the fear it generates should not really be felt. We are where we are because our political class has connived in the dissemination of that false prospectus – which has more to do with their own narrowly-defined anxieties over a potential loss of influence than with the realities of leaving the EU.

But there is something even more fundamental going on, which is the appropriation of language by those who are excessively irresponsible as to its use. Language does not merely describe, it also performs. When the police officer tells you that you are under arrest, he is altering your situation as well as describing it. And just as there are good and bad performances, there are right and wrong ways to use language. Such is the distinction between magic and prayer: the former is an attempt to order the world pridefully, in accordance with our will; the latter is an exercise in humility as it involves ordering our will in the direction of acceptance of how the world actually is. Both are linguistic performances, one is clearly better than the other.

Our Remainer class has weaponised language in a (largely successful) attempt to conjure a version of Brexit that is in fact no such thing. If you were to tell your dinner party host that you are leaving you would be forgiven some perplexity if he responds by locking you in the basement. The logical possibility that he might let you out when it suits him would be insufficient consolation, I suspect.

We live in a postmodern context and Theresa May is (if postmodernism allows the possibility) an exemplary postmodern Prime Minister. “Brexit means Brexit” means whatever she and Olly Robbins decide it means because, like Humpty Dumpty, they take language to mean what suits them at the time. But postmodernism is both anti-conservative and -if Donald Tusk will permit me- profoundly irreligious.

It is anti-conservative because the point of conservatism is to conserve, and the linguistic voluntarism that Mrs May has made her modus vivendi is essentially destructive. Words have their meaning at least in part because that meaning is the residue of generations of linguistic transactions. The conservative mindset includes a default hesitancy: towards institutions and the language we use in service of our gratitude for them. The true conservative is a sceptic, and he is a sceptic because he takes Truth seriously. There can be no such thing as a “true” postmodernist because the entire project is a systematic assault upon the concept of Truth itself.

And Mrs May’s “off the peg” approach to language is irreligious because, as the prologue to St John’s gospel makes explicit, the Word is with God and the word is God. It may well be that the Prime Minister is tactically astute in her attempts to deploy ambiguity and prevarication in service of her vanilla Brexit. But it is a version of acuity that is not worth having. The Prime Minister attends church for an hour a week – despite that she may well be a genuine believer. But if you believe in God then you must believe that he is Truth and that when you offend against Truth you therefore offend against him.

I’ll make the same point in secular form. Mrs May’s mechanisms of deceit makes her less a liar than a faker. As the philosopher Harry Frankfurt has pointed out, lying is not as bad as faking. The liar has a grudging concern for truth that the faker eschews. The faker inevitably becomes mired in self-deception. When you abandon Truth, you might become a more effective persuader of other people; but you end up persuading yourself as well. The current composition of the House of Commons includes many of the wretched who have similarly persuaded themselves that leaving means staying and that a fictitious ambiguity about what they have been told to do can justify a decision to double down on the status quo.

Language is not an instrument to be deployed but a charge to keep. Mrs May’s postmodernism will unravel – there will be a reckoning. Unfortunately, the rest of us might be caught up in it.

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