David Cameron's reckless folly

By calling the EU referendum, the Prime Minister played Russian roulette with the country's future

July 06, 2016
David Cameron resigning after losing the EU referendum Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images
David Cameron resigning after losing the EU referendum Dominic Lipinski / PA Wire/Press Association Images

“You lost. Get over it.” “It’s democracy in action. Suck it up.” Such were the responses that have greeted the many foolish Leave voters who are now saying, “It was only a protest vote”; “I didn’t mean it”; “I thought Remain would certainly win without my vote”; “I just wanted to give Cameron a kicking.” They have woken up to the morning-after reality, the enormity of what they have done. Unfortunately it isn’t only those foolish Regrexiters who now have to “suck it up.” It’s all the rest of us.

A woman of my acquaintance said she voted Leave because “It’s nice to have a change.” Just one anecdote but representative, I suspect, of the dilettantish frivolity with which many voters relished the flattery of being asked to decide the country’s future—the many who googled “What is the EU?” the day after voting to leave it.

Nice to have a change! Her impoverished imagination vouchsafed her not the faintest inkling of the intricate webs of European co-operation that have been built up, over decades, by British companies, institutions, universities, research establishments, galleries, employers of British skills and British labour. Now wrecked. In many cases the work of patient decades is shattered beyond repair. The economic and human consequences of this (“nice-to-have-a”) change are of incalculable magnitude. Not just in Britain, not even just in Europe but in the world.

I don’t blame her and people like her. There are stupid, ignorant people in every country but their blameless stupidity mostly doesn’t matter because they are not asked to take historically momentous and irrevocable decisions of state. Indeed, notwithstanding Michael Gove’s preposterous claim that “People have had enough of experts,” it is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication.

It is David Cameron who is to blame, fairly and squarely, for the calamity that has hit us. For reasons of petty, short-term tactical gain within his own party (as he admitted to Nick Clegg) he recklessly gambled away the future of Britain and Europe. He thought he’d win, so, lacking the courage to tell the Farageist yobs in his own party to take a running jump, he played Russian roulette with the country’s future, incidentally jeopardising the union with Scotland in the process.

There is a reason why, in the case of major constitutional amendments and other changes that are irrevocable or very difficult to reverse, democracies often require a two-thirds majority, or a second round of voting to confirm the first. It’s an aspect of the precautionary principle: a built-in bias in favour of the status quo, which is sensible precisely because—as I emphasised above—the status quo can become a delicate edifice that took decades to build up and should not be torn down on the whim of a single day. Cameron should not have called the referendum at all, but at least he should have set the bar higher: a two-thirds majority, or a majority that places the verdict outside the statistical margin of error, or a second referendum a fortnight after the first, to ratify the decision.

David Cameron’s place in history is assured. And it’s not pretty. Even if Remain had won the referendum, Cameron’s decision to hold it at all would have been condemned as a monstrously irresponsible gamble, a reckless throw of the dice which no Prime Minister has any right to make.

Prospect will be hosting a Brexit debate on Tuesday, 19th July at 6.30pm. Panelists will be: Anatole Kaletsky (economist), Rachel Sylvester (The Times Columnist), along with Anand Menon (Professor of European Politics at King's College, London).  The event will be chaired by Duncan Weldon (former Newsnight economics correspondent).  Click here to register your interest to attend.