An accidential exit
So David Cameron was caught on mike humming, as he returned to Downing Street after announcing that he would step down as Prime Minister on Wednesday. The commentators have been unanimous in describing his Premiership as a failure that will be remembered for the loss of the EU referendum. Quite rightly so. But how did it happen? Surely in years to come this will be the classic textbook example of the cock up rather than conspiracy theory of history, played out in real time on the big screen to a goggling audience worldwide.
How did it all start and where did it all go wrong? Really we have to look back a good 25 years to the attitude in the UK, ardently fanned by the right wing press that the EU was a ‘bad thing’; from the European Court of Human Rights (nothing to do with the EU of course, but that is a detail) to the supposed banning of everything from bendy bananas to kettles. Decades of the drip, drip, drip, of a poison has fed a view that the nothing good comes from our membership of the EU. The Maastricht Treaty uproar crystallised all that in the early 1990’s and the Referendum Party and the rise of UKIP on the back of it all became the political manifestation of those attitudes. Fast forward to 2103 and Cameron has a fractious Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party to mollify and a UKIP that is beginning to set the agenda and take bites out of the Tory right wing flank. Promise a referendum on the future of the UK in the EU and shut them up. Simples. Let’s face it, why would this piece of party management not work? Promise, but sadly not quite win the election two years later and then bargain this inconvenient promise away in the next set of Coalition negotiations with the perfidious Lib Dems. Sorry chaps I did my best. Only it didn’t work out like that. Despite what the bookies and the polls said, the Tories won pretty easily in 2015, and suddenly Cameron was stuck with a promise he never expected to have to deliver on (along with a few others, like cuts to ‘welfare’ benefits, the privatisation of social housing, and unachievable deficit reduction promises….) It’s all the Lib Dems fault, they shouldn’t have collapsed in that way. Didn’t see that one coming. Never mind it will all work out. A quick one-two renegotiation with pals in the EU and it will all be sorted. The Eurosceptics are a totally flaky bunch anyway – famously Cameron referred to UKIP supporters in 2008 as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’ – nobody will support that lot. Look at the Scottish referendum (2014). The Union was saved fairly decisively, 55/45. When push comes to shove people opt for the status quo. Only the renegotiation proved a little harder than expected. Nobody wanted to give too much to the UK for fear of encouraging other EU members to jump up and down and demand the same deal. The result, even from the perspective of any Europhile was pretty piffling. Even the much vaunted controls on free movement ended up being ‘no welfare benefits for EU migrants for four years’. Not the same at all, especially if immigration is your number one ‘hot button’.
A few accidental or unforced errors along the way didn’t help. We all know that younger people are inclined to support the EU than older people, but a lot less likely to vote. Guess what, Cameron moves heaven and earth immediately after the General Election in 2015 to exclude young people from the voting register (they are less inclined to vote Tory) only six months before he really needs them. And despite the precedent in Scotland, 16 and 17 year olds are excluded from voting on their futures; another group of ‘Remainers’ lost. Include a minimum majority or turn out clause, or both, to entrench the status quo (precedent Scottish devolution referendum 1979)? Didn’t think of that – surely not, or didn’t bother – hubris. I don’t know, but it didn’t happen.
Throughout the pre-referendum campaign period the polls showed a pretty consistent remain majority often not far off 60/40. The only problem was that as that drip, drip, drip, from the ‘red top’ press (where was social media when you needed it?… that’s another story) intensified. As Referendum Day loomed, the rhetoric from the great and good is cranked up as the polls apparently tightened. So roll out the big guns, Obama, IMF, big business, the CBI the trade unions, all the opposition parties (UKIP excepted of course) the Archbishop of Canterbury, every conceivable group of the ‘great and good’ from bankers to entertainers, and football stars to doctors. The elite, the 1%. They know best. Just listen to them and all will be OK. Oh, and by the way if you don’t you will be £4,300 a year worse off. How much? I heard plenty of people goggle at the very idea that they could be £4,300 worse off.
Suddenly people who are sometimes collectively known as ‘the left behind’ ie by globalisation, see their chance to take a’ free kick’ at the elite who have done so well out of globalisation (read ‘EU’), when they themselves most certainly have not prospered under six years of austerity and prior to that, decades of job losses in traditional industries which have shut down and gone abroad to be replaced by zero hours contracts, casual unskilled low paid jobs in warehouses and call centres and in some parts, plenty of people coming in from Eastern Europe taking the jobs available. An over simplification of course, but not an unreasonable one, and one that has been echoed in one way or another in other countries from the USA (Tea Party, Trump) to Greece (Syriza).
In the end we all know what happened. The Leave camp triumphed 52/48. The UK took its most momentous political decision since declaring war on Hitler’s Germany in 1939 and the political and business classes are in turmoil. All as a result of a series of cock ups? Well yes and no. One or two things done differently or decisions coming out the other way further back – like the Lib Dems holding the balance of power in 2015 as was generally expected, and we wouldn’t be here today. In that sense a chapter of accidents, or cock ups. But really an almost brazen refusal to listen to what was happening out there in society at large, mapping that on to the insurgencies breaking out across the globe as the neo-liberal version of capitalism spectacularly failed in 2008, and drawing some pretty obvious conclusion for a British context. Isn’t that the job of politicians? What they are supposed to be good at and get paid for?