David Cameron is the most unusual leader of any major power, due to his background, his unsuitability for his position, and his seeming success at it so far. Not only did he go to Eton and Oxford, but he may have, as was once written, “placed his non-parliamentary member inside the mouth of a dead pig” to gain entry to an elite club at Oxford. On top of this lewd education, Cameron’s only work experience before becoming an MP was as a political aide during the Thatcher and Major years, and heading “Corporate Affairs” at a London TV company, a PR job secured for him by his soon-to-be mother-in-law, the Viscountess Annabel Astor. In 2001 he entered Parliament, by 2005 he was leader of the Conservative Party, and five years after that he kissed Her Majesty’s hand for the prime ministership.
The son of a stockbroker, the grandson of a general-cum-baronet and the son-in-law of a baronet and a peeress, Cameron seems to confirm the Tory Party as a collection of “six-toed, born-to-rule ponyfuckers”—as an Armando Iannucci character put it in the British sitcom “The Thick of It.” Cameron’s entire background teaches him to make the smallest decision possible, to delay and fudge big things, and to gladly accept a hamburger today no matter what the cost come Tuesday. To evade a decision for a fortnight is the signature mark of success and no issue that can be decided next year should ever be considered this year. The astonishing thing is not that such a person should exist in England, but that he should have been head of a major government for six years with hitherto great political success.
Cameron put himself forward as the candidate who would finally end the wrangling in the Tory Party over Britain’s place in Europe. Between 1990, when the issue contributed to Margaret Thatcher’s downfall, through the John Major government, which was kept in a constant state of distress, and into the early 21st century, the European Union had nearly destroyed the Tories as a party several times.
Cameron’s promise was that he would oppose British adoption of the Euro currency and regain some powers from the EU in Brussels, but preserve the basic British membership in the free-trade-and-movement bloc.
So how did Cameron end up calling, in late February of this year, for a June 23 referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the EU, a move English legal and political commentator David Allen Green called “baffling” and compared to “watching someone deliberately drive their car in to a ditch”?
Back in December of 2012 the BBC’s “Poll of Polls” showed that if the election were held on that day, the Conservatives would receive 31 percent, Labour 41 percent, Liberal Democrats, (then in the coalition government) would get 9 percent, and the newly resurgent (anti-EU) UK Independence Party (UKIP) would also receive 9 percent.
Cameron’s entire background teaches him to make the smallest decision possible, to delay and fudge big things, and to gladly accept a hamburger today no matter what the cost come Tuesday.
As UKIP was correctly thought to draw more from Conservatives than Labour, this insurgent anti-UK party threatened the Tories’ ability to win the next election, scheduled for 2015. Cameron also faced unrest from the most conservative members of his own back benches, which potentially threatened his position as PM.
So David Cameron, to quiet back-bench angst (there is always back-bench angst) and improve his chances in an election a year and a half away (basically an eternity) announced in January 2013 that he would “renegotiate” the terms of Britain’s membership in the EU, then hold a referendum by the end of 2017. He indicated he thought he could get a good deal from Europe and then campaign to stay in the EU.
Cameron had two pillars on which to rest his confidence. The first was that he believed he could extract major concessions from the EU. The second was the history of the last EU referendum Britain held in 1975 to decide whether Britain should stay in what was then the European Economic Community.
Britain had refrained from joining the EEC and its predecessors early on, and only decided to do so in the 1960s when it was clear that its overseas empire was a net financial drain and would remain so, and that future prospects for economic growth involved fully joining the European economy. So Harold Macmillan, that arch Tory grandee, applied in 1963. Charles de Gaulle vetoed their entry then, and then again in 1967. In 1973, with de Gaulle dead and Britain having closed down its empire “East of Suez” (except for Hong Kong), the UK entered the EEC.
However, before the EEC added its “social chapter” in the 1980s, many on the left disliked what they considered a free-trade bloc that would erode British industry and workers. So Labour promised a national referendum on whether to stay in the EEC, which was held in 1975. Both parties went into the referendum split, but the establishment was overwhelmingly pro-EEC. The Confederation of British Industry and many major corporations were publicly pro-“Yes,” desperate to stay in the “common market.” By a vote of 67 percent, Britain voted to stay in the EEC.
It must have seemed to Cameron as if history were bound to repeat itself. Business is mostly pro-EU, he knew, and thus the same establishment pressure could be brought, and economic collapse threatened if Britain withdrew. And this time the whole Labour party, the Scottish National Party, and the Liberal Democrats would be solidly pro-EU. But between his public promise in 2013 to hold a referendum and the actual referendum now scheduled for June 23, something happened: Cameron got bounced into holding an independence referendum in Scotland, where it seemed as if the pro-UK side held such an advantage there was no risk.
Polls showed “No”—staying in the UK—nearly two-to-one against “Yes”—leaving the UK. But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box in September 2014. The Scottish National Party and “Yes” forces created a vibrant campaign that tapped into people’s austerity fatigue and hope for civic renewal. Threatening economic disaster if Scotland separated from England had little noticeable impact.
“Yes” surged ahead and by just before polling day was slightly ahead. In the final days, even the Queen condescended to indicate she supported “No,” as every lever was pulled to save the United Kingdom.
Late-breaking voters went for “No,” and that side prevailed by a vote of 55–44 percent, on a turnout of 84.5 percent, the largest in any UK election since universal suffrage. Scotland stayed in the UK—for now.
Cameron’s second pillar was that he would be able to compel 27 other EU members to revise the basic tenets of membership, a tough ask. His salvation, he believed, was Angela Merkel. Germany’s chancellor is without a doubt the EU’s most powerful politician by several orders, and Cameron believed she wanted the UK in the EU at almost any cost to help control French-driven dirigisme. Concessions on terms of EU membership would make it easier for Cameron to campaign for a vote to stay in the EU.
If people are angry at the Tories, and there is much indication that they are, but unwilling to trust Labour, what better way to give the status quo a kicking than to vote to leave the EU?
Cameron turned out to be right. Or, somewhat right. Merkel did want the UK to remain and was willing to pressure other European countries. Cameron’s starting positions were so insane—like a UK veto on decisions made in the Eurozone, of which Britain, which uses the pound sterling, is not a member—that it took Merkel’s political muscle to secure the pathetic concessions Cameron ultimately received. They range from small changes in child benefits to the meaningless inclusion in the European treaty canon of the inimitably Euro-ese clause: “References to ever-closer union do not apply to the United Kingdom.” Cameron emerged from a marathon summit and declared he was coming home with the Holy Grail. Even his own mother probably doesn’t believe it.
The best average numbers from polls taken just before Cameron announced his “deal” was 54 percent to stay in the EU and 46 percent to leave. Currently, the preference to stay is at 47 percent and to leave at 40 percent, with 11 percent undecided. If the leave campaign generates a comparable surge in political engagement, civic nationalist renewal, and support as was seen in Scotland, where separatists began at a more difficult starting point, then the UK will easily leave the EU after June’s referendum.
The UK, especially England and Wales, and Northern Ireland (two of the three component “nations” of the UK), has been suffering under punishing austerity for years. The immigration crisis, though miniscule by the standards of continental Europe or the United States, has nonetheless been whipped up by the media into something that genuinely worries people. Distrust of career politicians and politics is at record levels. Last May, Labour candidate Ed Miliband, an unappealing figure, lost the national election; Cameron won by default.
If people are angry at the Tories, and there is much indication that they are, but unwilling to trust Labour, what better way to give the status quo a kicking than to vote to leave the EU? Two years ago the Scottish National Party and the “Yes” coalition argued that the answer to Scotland’s problems was a new, independent state with a vigorous new national life. What if the “Out” campaign can stir up the same emotions in England?
Soon after the official start of the campaign on April 15, leading figures, including Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and possibly Cameron’s successor, began coming out for the “leave” position. With his support eroded, and the electorate almost evenly divided, one of Cameron’s former ministers has compared him to Charles I and declared that like the 17th century English Civil Wars that led to the beheading of the monarch and continued long after, the battle over separation won’t ever end, even with a vote to stay. Polls show that 80-plus percent of Britons think the country will vote to leave, and no matter the outcome roughly half the population will be unsatisfied with the outcome.
It’s hard to predict which side will prevail, but London’s bankers have been told to cancel their summer holidays until after the vote.
Leaving Europe would be a disaster for the UK. Europe is the UK’s largest trading partner, and the City of London financial institutions are bankers to the whole continent, so Britain’s entire political economy would be destabilized along with London’s. A free-trade agreement would be necessary and after Britain’s exit EU terms will not be generous. The UK would take its place alongside other non-EU states like Norway and Switzerland, which are forced to comply with European Common Market rules regulating goods and trade (some of those most hated by the British) and to contribute to the costs of operating the EU, all with no say regarding rules and how the money is spent. There is no telling how combustible the political situation in England might become when Brits are subject to rules on cheese-labeling and taxes, but have no ability to affect any of it.
And a UK exit from the EU would undoubtedly raise demands for a second Scottish referendum. It is impossible to imagine that Scottish separatists could lose, if faced with the prospect of perpetual English Tory rule unleavened by Brussels. So the UK would become the Residual UK: England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The Residual UK would be more economically unbalanced than the UK is now, basically a prosperous southeast anchored by London and an impoverished anywhere else. As Scottish bases are necessary to maintain the nuclear-missile carrying submarine fleet, Britain’s status as a nuclear power would probably be sunset.
This would all call into question Britain’s presence on the Security Council. The City of London, the financial juggernaut that provides a staggering 9.6 percent of national output would be, at best, weakened. U.S. interest in the remnants of the UK would fade, the “Special Relationship” no longer special (as Barack Obama publicly warned on his recent trip to the for-now United Kingdom).
It is a grim future. And thanks to David Cameron’s feckless decision-making it may be here this month.
Noah McCormack is a writer and the publisher of The Baffler.