David Herdson: Why did Cameron call a referendum if Brexit poses so many risks?

Written by David Herdson on 20 May 2016 in Opinion

The prime minister may have a high price to pay for his no holds barred campaigning for remaining in the EU.

Winston Churchill, when he was arguing for much more rapid rearmament in 1936, berated the then-PM, Stanley Baldwin, for his pusillanimous timidity in the face of unworldly and blinkered public pacifism.  He argued that the issue was so vital that a government must run the risk of defeat if that was what it took to secure national security.  Baldwin, in response, argued that he could have done no more no earlier given the electorate.

Curiously, both men were talking rubbish.  Labour went into the 1935 election still largely bound to the policies of Lansbury, the aged pacifist who Attlee had replaced shortly before the poll.  There would have been absolutely no point the National government sacrificing its seals of office on the altar of rearmament only for Labour to scale back the modest plans already in place.  On the other hand, the National government won with a majority of nearly 250 seats; Baldwin’s fears of defeat seem somewhat exaggerated.

Why the history lesson?  There are some curious parallels with what’s going on in the EU referendum debate, most notably on the Remain side.  The ‘debate’, such as it is, has been notable on both sides for nothing so much as the wild hyperbole of what will – or might – happen should their opponents get their way.  David Cameron invoking the spectre of war was perhaps the low point of the month so far in that respect.

Yet if the issue is genuinely that vital, why has Cameron not taken Churchill’s advice and pursued the national interest despite the people?  He, after all, has more latitude as in this instance the elderly pacifist socialist Leader of the Opposition is more-or-less on the government’s side, as was his election-losing predecessor?

Indeed, this time, it’s not the opposition which poses the threat to the government’s policy; it’s the government itself which has initiated the referendum and elements of the governing party fighting to defeat it.

Therein lies one part of the answer, as it did in Baldwin’s case: it has a great deal more to do with party management than with international policy.

The other part lies in the merit of the case.  Unlike the situation in the 1930s, does Cameron really believe that his own policy might meaningfully increase the chances of war on the continent, even inadvertently (as there would certainly be no Brexit without the referendum)?  If so, how reckless and how cynical to risk something so terrible for something so trivial: a communique that may not even have any legal standing.

Which points us to the likely truth of the matter: he doesn’t really believe it.  How could he?  And yet he makes the case all the same.  Why?  Who is he kidding?

The answer to that appears to be ‘not many’.  The ComRes poll taken from 14-17 May found only 11% believed a major European war to be more likely if the UK left the EU.  Even that may exaggerate matters as what ComRes don’t tell us is by how much that minority of people feel it to be more likely.  A change from a negligible risk to a trivial one is hardly worth building air raid shelters for.

On the other hand, in a close ballot the result is determined at the margins.  Whether this one is close depends very much on whether you believe the telephone polls where Leave generally has a small lead, or telephone ones where Remain has a more comfortable one.

At that margin, the 11% is made up of a majority of Remainers by a ratio of 4:1.  In effect, most of the overall 13% lead is right there.

Is that cause or effect?  It probably doesn’t matter and it’s probably not really possible to unpick anyway.  Support for the principle of the EU as an ideal of European unity and a belief in the peace-promoting effects of its existence (or, conversely, the potential effects of it splitting apart), must be so intertwined for those who believe in them as to be virtually inseparable.

But if so, why is the PM singing to an already converted choir, particularly when it’s not a tune most of his own congregation is keen on?  Because at this point, his only focus is on the short term.  That means winning the referendum, which itself means reaffirming the support of the Remain camp, wherever that support comes from.

The cumulative effect of the messages of Remain’s Project Fear – recession, rising interest rates, falling house prices, war, plagues of locusts (not yet; next week maybe) – is to reinforce a single message: leaving is far too risky.  It doesn’t matter if people don’t believe the specifics; it’s just enough that they’re unsettled sufficiently to hold on to nurse.

But there will be a high price to pay for having to concentrate so heavily on events this side of July.  Baldwin’s reputation never recovered from his wilful failure in the mid-1930s to adequately prepare for the obvious challenges ahead.  Cameron’s similarly tactical approach to Europe will leave him either without a policy or without a party once the result is in.


About the author

David Herdson is a political analyst who writes a regular column on the Political Betting website and tweets at @DavidHerdson.


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