Critical Analysis Project

Do Bremainers really think voters will be cowed by the likes of Obama?

In a column published 24 April in The Telegraph, Boris Johnson argues that Britain should leave EU. Here, we analyse the most salient arguments.


In a column published 24 April in The Telegraph, Boris Johnson argues that Britain should leave EU. Here we analyse some of the most salient aspects of his column. Since it is significantly more rhetorical than the other articles we have analysed so far, a large part of our analysis concerns Johnson’s style. We also comment on a few inaccurate claims of Johnson’s, since rational argumentation requires factual accuracy.
Note that for reasons of space, our analysis aims to illustrate the kinds of issues raised by the piece, without addessing each and every argument provided.

  1. A rhetorical opening
    The opening four paragraphs are dominated by hyperbolic and colourful language. Thus, the first analytic question raised by the piece concerns the relationship between rational argument and rhetoric. Rhetoric is typically defined as the art of effective or persuasive speaking. Consequently it concerns not only content but also delivery and style. By contrast rational argument is not concerned with how arguments are presented but with their strength, that is the extent to which reasons given provide genuine support for claims.

Strong arguments can be presented poorly, and weak arguments may be well-presented. A reader who is interested in the truth or the best course of action, must look beyond presentational aspects to the actual substance of the argument. As a consequence, stylistic aspects are often things a reader interested in rational argument needs to ignore.

One use of rhetoric is to present arguments in a clear, stylistically appealing, way. One may think of this as “rhetoric as packaging”. It is practically important as it will affect the reach and persuasive impact of a piece, but it does not affect the strength of the argument in the sense we are interested here, and it is outside the remit of our critical analyses. However, there is a second use of rhetoric which is relevant: this is the use of rhetorical devices such as metaphors to make “implicit arguments” – arguments which are not explicitly stated, but implied or implicitly suggested. We will call this “rhetoric as implicit argument”, and it is central to Johnson’s piece:

Johnson draws on Dickens’ Oliver Twist, stating: “please sir, we [the British people] will say, raising our hand in the EU Council, we need reform”. Other examples of rhetorical flourish include “filing meekly to the polls”, the “champagne corks going off like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture” and “the vast clerisy of lobbyists and corporate affairs gurus – all the thousands of Davos men and women who have their jaws firmly clamped around the euro-teat”.

These metaphors set up up a frame for the referendum and the two sides of the debate (tyranny vs. democracy, between freedom vs. serfdom, a gluttonous elite vs. the people). These frames then suggest a course of action (given that freedom is good, tyranny is bad and so on). However, this ‘argument’ is entirely implicit. It is left to the reader to draw these implications. This obscures the fact that Johnson gives no evidence to support the frame. It also makes it harder to question the frame and generate counter-arguments. Because Johnson is speaking metaphorically he retains plausible deniability concerning any of the claims he makes on a literal interpretation. For example, if pressed, Johnson could claim that he never literally meant that there are ‘thousands of Davos men and women’ with ‘jaws firmly clamped around the euro-teat’.

For these reasons, the ‘implicit argument’ is weak by the standards of rational argument, and Johnson’s rhetorical flourish does not advance rational debate.

In the remainder of the piece, Johnson’s style is less florid, but the arguments are extremely compressed and largely implicit here as well.

  1. Brexit and the economy
    On the economy, Johnson states that “the euro crisis is far from over” and that “the EU remains a gigantic engine of job destruction”. Johnson doesn’t, however, spell out how this is relevant to the decision about whether to leave. Relevance requires that something makes a material difference: this would be the case if Brexit reduced the impact of the euro crisis on the UK or, conversely, if Bexit helped solve the euro. Neither of these options is explicitly stated, so neither receives any evidential support. The same is true for the EU as ‘engine of job destruction’. Johnson does not spell out how UK jobs would be affected and he sidesteps entirely the extensive discussion on the economic impact of Brexit. Once again, the fact that so much of the argument is left implicit obscures what would be required for the argument to be compelling and obscures how little Johnson does to make that case.
  2. Brexit and the elites
    Similar issues surface in Johnson’s concluding remarks, where he argues that “of course the elites want to remain” [they will always have power”. Presumably the invited inference is for non-members of the elite to choose the opposite as appropriate. To be compelling this presumes that ‘the interests of the elites’ are at odds with those of non-members in this case. The failure to spell this out suggests it is obvious. However, there are presumably cases (e.g., the continued existence of the planet) where elite and non-elite interests are aligned. There is also uncertainty regarding who is and who is not part of ‘the elites’ and whether they constitute a homogenous group. Finally, the intended function of the claim that “[the elites] will always have the power”. The immediate proximity to elites wanting to remain suggests a conceptual link, but its relevance is unclear: if anything it suggests leave or remain will make no difference.
  3. Factual innacuracies
    Finally, Johnson offers several reasons for leaving that are based on factually inaccurate, or misleading claims: the referendum is “the last chance, in our lifetimes, to take back control – of £350m a week” (see the fact-checker Full Fact) and “the sausage machine of EU law-making will extrude more laws – at a rate of 2,500 a year” (see Full Fact).

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