Rhetoric makes the news!

“Rhetoric makes the news” or so it seems from reading the headlines of the British press last week. Looking at the headlines of many of the major British newspapers, you wouldn’t be faulted if you concluded that EU-UK are locked into embattled positions. However, these headlines are misleading and leave the reader with a completely false impression.

First of all, what does the word ‘rhetoric’ actually mean? Rhetoric, in its classical meaning, is the art of persuasion, and not what has been commonly believed – since the era of the anti-Aristotelian, Petrus Ramus (1515-1572), in the late Medieval Ages – as language which lacks sincerity or has meaningless content. The heading ‘Rhetoric makes the news’, must be interpreted in this modern way, and it is only then that we can understand the media last week.

For example, one headline of a British daily newspaper read “Johnson seeks an ambitious agreement” and went on to explain that Boris Johnson was seeking a ‘Canada’ style agreement; meaning, according to the article, a free trade agreement with zero tariffs, and zero quota and access to the single market without any commitment to fair competition. The article further reported Boris Johnson as saying “There is no need for a free trade agreement to involve accepting EU rules on competition policy, subsidies, social protection, the environment or anything similar …”. Then they neatly juxtaposed this position with a quote from Michel Barnier, the EU chief negotiator, as saying that he sees little problem with a Canada style agreement if there is a level playing field to ensure fair competition. So, the impression one gets is of gearing up for a royal battle over the next ten months. The battle will revolve round the term ‘a level playing field’, but is this a correct interpretation of what Mr Johnson did say?

The answer is simply no, it isn’t. Mr. Johnson asked the EU for a deal ‘similar’ to the ‘Canada’ deal. At present the UK has a similar ‘playing field’ to the EU, which means a ‘Canada’ style agreement is certainly possible, as both sides have the same rules. The UK doesn’t have to accept EU rules, because it already has them in practice. The only difference at the moment is that the UK is able to pass its own laws. But what, you may ask, happens if the UK departs on the rules, for example, on the issue of state aid? If this should happen, the EU will automatically apply trade sanctions. The UK, as a sovereign state, (in the words of Sajid Javid, ‘We will not be a rule taker’), knows it will have to pay such a price. So, an agreement similar to the ‘Canada’ style agreement is possible by the end of the year. However, whether this will be a good deal for the UK is highly questionable.

But the impression one gets from the media is that any disadvantage suffered with EU relations will be more than made up for with other agreements such as that with the US. However, much of a future US trade deal will depend on the Trump administration, and the more recent spat with the US over Britain’s Huawei decision. Mike Pence, the US Vice-President, made it clear that the White House was ‘profoundly’ disappointed with Boris Johnson’s decision to allow the Chinese telecoms company to participate in Britain’s 5G. It is not just the US that is concerned with the Huawei decision but Australia too, as the British Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, found out in Canberra this week. Raab tried to wiggle out of it by emphasising that Britain’s decision was technical and not political. But the Australians are reported to have replied, “How would you feel if the Russians laid down infrastructure in your networks?” Mr Raab’s reply is not known.

One issue that is worth watching is the current battle for control over the National Health service (NHS). Boris Johnson is concerned, they say, that the chief executive of the NHS has too much power, and consequently wants to bring NHS directly under the Minister of Health. We know that Mr Johnson has told the Americans that the NHS is not for sale, and will not form any part of the future UK-US trade talks. But with control of the NHS possibly passing to Westminster, perhaps US pharmaceutical companies may demand a slice of the NHS pharmaceutical cake? It is an issue worth watching!

Many may say, which I refute, that rhetoric is the art of deception rather than that of persuasion. It is becoming more difficult for us to know what exactly the arguments are about, as each side pounds the media with their version of a story, and thus along with the media temptation to polarise issues for their ratings/sales, we are left confused on many issues. It is no wonder that Petrus Ramus’ view on rhetoric is commonly accepted.