In January 2013, as a Conservative prime minister governing in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron promised an in-or-out referendum on the UK’s membership in the European Union. His promise was conditional -the Liberal Democrats were not supportive, and the commitment became operative only when the Conservatives, against expectations, won a clear majority at the general election two years later. The referendum was held on June 23, 2016 and David Cameron’s political career ended the following morning.
His legacy is the purgatory of Brexit, the political and constitutional crisis which the United Kingdom’s governing class appears unable to resolve. The political crisis was baked in – there was no contingency plan, either from Cameron’s government or from the Leave campaign, for delivering any specific form of exit from the European Union. The electorate was invited, by the very offer of a ‘consultative’ referendum, to imagine that exit was straightforward, and the delusion persists in the Brexiteer demand to ‘just get it over with’, through a no-deal crash-out if needs be. Cameron’s strategy for dealing with a referendum defeat was to win it, nothing more.
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The defeat was foreseeable and the failure to plan made resignation inevitable. The constitutional crisis, following the importation of the referendum device into a system built around parliamentary sovereignty, was predictable too, and had been flagged as far back as 1975 on the occasion of the UK’s first-ever national referendum, when voters opted 2 to 1 to stay in the European Economic Community.
Cameron’s premiership, Brexit apart, would have claims to achievement, and his lengthy volume of memoirs reveals a moderate and modernising Tory. But Brexit has defined it and the anguish is unconcealed. Cameron is a Eurosceptic rather than a Europhobe, a distinction drowned in the post-referendum culture war where the most disruptive form of exit has become the badge of patriotism. In defending the referendum commitment as an unavoidable choice, he denies party political motivation and focusses instead on the UK’s progressive estrangement from EU decision-making subsequent to the establishment of the common currency in 1999.
Those who attribute the ultra-Brexiteer triumph, for there is no longer any other way to describe it, in post-referendum Tory politics to any deliberate accommodation by Cameron will find no supporting evidence in this account. He felt that Europhobia in the Conservative party had to be addressed but he did not share it and has been saddened by his failure to defeat it at the referendum. Instead he echoes the explanation from his principal adviser, Ivan Rogers, who resigned in frustration from the foreign service in January 2017, that the decision to create a two-speed Europe in 1999 made it difficult to resist the calls to put membership to referendum.
Had the UK chosen to join the common currency, or had France and Germany chosen to forego the experiment in the UK’s absence, there would have been no perception that the British had been relegated to an inferior status in EU decision-making. It is a great might-have-been, but a Eurozone with the UK in membership would have been a more convincing structure. The Bank of England officials were keen, while still negotiating possible membership in the early 1990s, on centralised bank supervision by the ECB, belatedly agreed but not in time to prevent the disaster in Ireland and elsewhere.
The project had its critics in continental Europe, has been less than a roaring success and Cameron testifies that it played a role in the genesis of Brexit.
The 2016 referendum was unique not only for the intractability of the issue put to simple binary decision. It was only the third national referendum in UK history and the first where the electorate voted for change. In 1975 on Europe and in 2011 on the voting system, the verdict was a big win for the status quo, and a vote for change in neither case would have had the consequences now paralysing the political system.
The European Economic Community in 1975 was easy to leave, little more than a conventional free trade area, lacking the full-blown economic integration which followed the completion of the single market reforms. The latter, in one of the great ironies of Brexit, was in large part the initiative of a Conservative government led by Margaret Thatcher. In another, Thatcher, the avowed inspiration of so many Brexiteers, was an opponent of referendums and never held one during her 11-year premiership. Like Cameron, she was a Eurosceptic rather than a Europhobe.
As leader of the opposition in 1975, she denounced the innovation of the referendum, warning that it did not fit in the UK’s constitutional order. The mayhem that has followed the narrow 2016 majority for the undefined Leave option, in a ‘consultative’ and legally non-binding plebiscite, setting executive against parliament and the courts, would not have surprised Thatcher. She never pursued the codification of the UK’s idiosyncratic unwritten constitution whose lacunae have been so brutally exposed these last few years. The combination of consultative referendums, an uncodified constitution and parliamentary sovereignty is an impossible trinity, as Thatcher foresaw.
Cameron has little to say about the chaos which has followed the referendum which he launched and lost. His only strategy was to win, and he confines himself to scathing, and entirely plausible, assessments of his pro-Leave party colleagues Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.
He justifies his decision to promise a referendum with his conviction that it had become inevitable: he cut his political teeth as a backroom Conservative adviser during the party turmoil over Europe in the 1990s and laments the steady spread of anti-EU sentiment through the popular press. Had he declined to offer a referendum, he insists there would have been another Tory leader and it would eventually have happened anyway. This is a hypothesis which history did not test but the condemnations of Cameron for holding the referendum go too far in treating it as entirely an unforced error. The error was the failure, by Cameron and many others, to educate the public about the complex trade-offs between economic advantage and pooled sovereignty involved in Britain’s entanglement with Europe.
In the aftermath of his resignation, David Cameron was fitted up as Worst Prime Minister Ever in the instant assessments of his career. If it is any consolation, the current incumbent, for whom he displays a well-informed and undisguised contempt, has snatched the palm.
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