Blooming madness: The day Cameron committed the UK to chaos
Six years ago, the former prime minister announced the referendum that would change British politics forever
Six years ago, David Cameron left 10 Downing Street bound for the London headquarters of the American market news service Bloomberg. There he was to deliver a speech that would shake British politics to their very foundations.
This was the occasion when he confirmed his intention to offer an in/out referendum on EU membership should the Conservatives win the next election. Of course, at the time he never imagined he would have to deliver. He was in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats that provided a majority of more than 70 and stable government. This relationship obviated the need to do anything dramatically conservative, in keeping with his own centrist instincts, yet ensured the Tories held the whip hand.
Few thought that the next election in 2015 would throw up a markedly different result; pluralistic politics were here to stay. This made the referendum pledge something of an easy choice, albeit a gamble he was urged not to take by colleagues like George Osborne. The intention in making it was to shore up the Conservative vote against Ukip, which polled ahead of the main parties in the European elections and seemed likely to peel off Tory MPs frustrated at their party’s European policy.
When he won the 2015 election against expectations, Cameron was trapped. In an interview for a forthcoming BBC series, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said: “I asked David Cameron: ‘Why did you decide on this referendum? It’s so dangerous, so stupid’. He told me that the only reason was his own party. He felt really safe because ... there’s no risk of a referendum because the Liberals would block (it).”
This was denied by Sir Craig Oliver, then Downing Street communications director, who said Cameron would not have led any government that did not promise a referendum. We should remember that the Lib Dems was the first party to pledge an in/out referendum in 2010. They want another one now and, when it came to the vote in parliament, there was a majority of almost 500 for a referendum, so perhaps Tusk’s memory is faulty. We will need to await the former prime minister’s memoirs for his account.
Whatever the motivation, too few people fully appreciated the epochal implications of the Bloomberg speech. The question for historians to answer is whether, as Cameron now avers, a referendum was both necessary and inevitable because of the relentless drive towards the “ever closer union” envisaged in the Treaty of Rome.
In 2013, further integrationist moves were anticipated to underpin the euro, then in the midst of one of its periodic crises. They have yet to happen but still might. Arguably, since another Brussels power grab would require another treaty, the UK should have waited for that to have a referendum. We could then have blocked further moves towards a superstate without taking the nuclear option of leaving.
But who could have trusted any of our political leaders to make that happen? After all, the UK could have vetoed the two great leaps forward in EU federalist ambitions at Maastricht and Lisbon, but successive Tory and Labour administrations refused to put them to the country. Indeed, it was precisely because the mainstream parties were all committed to Europe come what may that a referendum became justifiable in a parliamentary democracy.
Ukip’s arrival on the scene, and its electoral success, actually reduced the case for a referendum since there was a political party committed to leaving the EU to vote for in a general election. But, of course, that was precisely Cameron’s difficulty.
So, was his Bloomberg démarche a cynical piece of party political manoeuvring or a moment in our history that we could no longer duck?
Rough beast set free
The previous referendum, in 1975, was called in almost exactly the same circumstances by a prime minister, Harold Wilson, trying to placate the anti-European elements in his own party. But only two years had passed since the UK joined the Common Market and the country voted by 60 to 40 to stay in.
After 45 years of membership, public opinion had clearly changed, but the politicians didn’t have a clue by how much.
When Cameron said: “It is time to settle this European question in British politics – I say to the British people: this will be your decision,” he had no idea what rough beast he had set free.
An in-depth study of public opinion published by the UK in a Changing Europe initiative, based at King’s College London, offers an insight into the polarisation that Brexit has engendered. Most people no longer identify with parties or class but with Remain or Leave. This explains why opinion has shifted so little since the 2016 referendum and why another vote would probably produce the same outcome.
Party political attachments are no longer as important as the position taken on the Brexit question. We have become two tribes, with Remainers in particular shunning the company of Leavers with whom they feel they have little in common even if they share almost identical backgrounds.
Extraordinarily, according to a YouGov poll, more than one-third of Remainers would be opposed to a relative marrying a Leaver. Only 9% of Leavers felt a similar hostility. The King’s College research suggests the referendum has widened the divide between Scotland and England and suppressed the sense of Britishness that Gordon Brown, among others, had sought to revive. When Prime Minister Theresa May talks about heeding the “voice of the British people”, which people does she mean? A homogeneous polity no longer exists because the constitutional glue that held it together has disintegrated.
These trends were already there, and are not unique to the UK, as is apparent from the rise of new movements around Europe and in the US, reflecting different identities that are no longer class- or party-based. Here, however, they had been bottled up by the strength of our institutions like parliament, the courts, the Civil Service and the monarchy which acted as unifying national forces. What David Cameron did six years ago today was to take that bottle and drop it on the marble floor.
– © The Daily Telegraph