Thursday, September 8, 2016

Brexit: Prime Minister David Cameron's personal and public failure


Politics in the end is someone's personal responsibility as well as the impersonal art of the possible.
 
Challenged by his own party's rebellious Eurosceptic right and by the single-issue United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), prime minister David Cameron agreed to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU: let the people decide whether to leave or stay.

It sounded plausible, a sensible compromise. Few chose to argue about it. After all, went the spin, asking the people would be real democracy in action, the truly democratic way to settle the Tory party's problems once and for all. And, as most of the political classes seemed willing to believe, also settle the country's problems.

It has not worked. Leavers and Remainers are sticking to their guns and both sides now know the simple majority vote for or against Brexit has settled nothing.

Both ran campaigns of threats, false promises and lies that grew increasingly bitter and divisive. The unelected populist Nigel Farage, the eccentric celebrity politician Boris Johnson, the opportunist Michael Gove among others, kept the media pack in full cry after personalities, not realities. Government and shadow cabinet ministers, caught up in an alarming neck-and-neck race, presented Brexit as either a wonder cure-all or an impending catastrophe.

Only after their apparent victory have Leavers realised they have no plan, no clear objective and no strategy to achieve one: debate about them has only started now.

The biggest argument is over how, when and - with supreme irony - even whether to leave the EU. Some  demand that it happens without delay; others insist government can only trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty after negotiating an entirely new set of terms with Europe. But what terms will satisfy all interests? The process seems certain to cause more division in a United Kingdom more divided on the issue than ever.

Remainers have not accepted the outcome of the referendum. Either 52%-48% was an unconvincing majority, or the referendum is not binding, or it is unconstitutional, or all three. Britain Stronger in Europe and Open Britain are campaigning as if it never happened.

Nothing to regret?
David Cameron's resignation on defeat was accepted calmly as inevitable but, more than that, as the typically British, right thing to do, a replay of the playing fields of Eton. (Those, incidentally, had also been the stamping ground once of Cameron’s flamboyant adversary, the arguably less sportsmanlike Boris Johnson.)
 
The view contrasts sharply with the question that flummoxed the prime minister at a press conference shortly after his defeat. The journalist asked, 'Do you regret what you've done to your country?'

As a professional politician, Mr Cameron carried and understood all the heavy responsibilities of his office and all his duties to his party; one can sympathise that there were the greatest pressures on him.
 
But he should also have understood, as a professional politician, that a referendum could never be a solution, that it had only the potential to divide people in any number of damaging ways. Young and old. Employed and unemployed. Haves and have-nots. British and 'them'.

'The people', as the pure Democratic Will, exists only in the minds of philosophers and the speeches of radicals like Mr Farage. In the real world, the British, like any other people, do not conform to populist stereotyping. They comprise a multitude of individual motivations, views and interests. They act in accordance with them, but do not and cannot govern the country in practice, much less decide its future by answering an obviously simplified question once.

David Cameron no doubt excuses the imbroglio he presided over by saying he is a democrat and acted democratically. But he was aware he was prime minister in Britain's representative democracy and that his prime duty was to work through its parliamentary institutions.

The people did not make a mistake: the mistake was to hold the referendum. The right thing for Mr Cameron to have done as a Remainer was to resign rather than agree to it, not after it turned out to be a wholly avoidable diversion and failure.