David Cameron’s hasty departure from 10 Downing Street was marked by a merry last Prime Minister’s Questions and Cameron humming a cheery little tune. There was talk of his ‘legacy,’ besides the Brexit mess that was the reason for his departure.
At the same time there was commentary on the theme that referendums, which seem to many perfect democracy, are undemocratic. Just giving the voters what they want won’t do. Politicians must ‘deliberate and come to an informed decision’ and stand or fall on it.
The Brexit referendum was a logical step in Cameron’s political career, and it is that career that those interested in the workings of democracy should be reflecting on rather than the merits of referendums, which pundits have no objection to when the voters do as they are told.
Cameron was the almost perfect type of the modern politician for whom politics is all about winning elections and government is just stuff you have to do if you win them, always with an eye to winning the next.
He was chosen leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, aged just 39 and only four years an MP, as the man who could win elections, which his three predecessors evidently could not.
Everything he did could be fully explained as calculated to win and retain votes. He passed his first test in winning the 2010 election, though many might have thought he failed in not winning a majority against Labour, tired after thirteen years in office and led by the far from popular Gordon Brown. But for Cameron the need to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats may have been no disappointment. It protected him from Conservatives who wanted a conservative government. And, at the LibDems’ insistence, Parliament was rigged by fixed election date legislation to assure that the coalition would survive and he could enjoy being Prime Minister for five years with happy LibDem ministers.
For forty years the Conservative Party was torn by divisions between those who thought the European Union and its predecessors were good and the inevitable future and those who were sceptical and opposed to the ever increasing power of the European Commission in Brussels. Cameron and his predecessors managed to stifle the Eurosceptics, always a minority of Conservative MPs, though not of Conservative Party members and voters. But the effective silencing of Conservative Eurosceptics discouraged conservative voters and led to the rise of UKIP, which, under the lively leadership of Nigel Farage, saw its popular vote rise to 12.6% in the 2015 election.
For Cameron, Brexit was simply an issue of votes. Most, though by no means all, of UKIP’s voters would have been Conservative voters in earlier elections. Purely to staunch the loss of Conservative votes to UKIP, Cameron promised in 2013 that there would be a referendum on the EU if the Conservatives won the 2015 election. To the Eurosceptics in his base Cameron said ‘If the voters want Brexit, they can have it.’ assuming that in the face of the establishment consensus that the EU was a good thing the voters would vote to Remain. And also, it is speculated, assuming that he wouldn’t win a majority and the LibDems, perfervidly pro-EU, would prevent him from keeping his promise.
But UKIP took a serious number of votes from the Labour Party under its feeble leader Ed Miliband and the LibDems’ vote collapsed to less than UKIP’s and Cameron won an unexpected majority and felt bound to go ahead with the referendum.
Had Cameron been interested in government rather than votes, he could have seen that the EU is less than perfect and applied himself to reforming it, thus placating Conservative Eurosceptics and undermining UKIP. It was a project in which he would have found many allies amongst other EU members. But Cameron, like most politicians now, didn’t think about government. He took his thinking from the consensus of bien pensants whose horror at Brexit has been reflected in the media around the world. For them, those opposed to Brussels, were, as a Conservative Party chairman was reported to have said, “Swivel-eyed loons.”
Cameron wasn’t against Brexit because he thought the EU was good. He was against Brexit because he thought he couldn’t win an election on a Eurosceptic platform. On that assessment he assumed that Remain would win.
Because he had never thought about what may be good and what may be bad about the EU his campaign for Remain was a mindless fear campaign, saying practically that Britain couldn’t leave the EU, and possibly backfiring.
It might seem that the modern politician, shopping for votes, is the triumph of democracy. And that asking the voters what to do in a referendum shows them at their best. But the only way for democracy to work is for politicians to think about government and stand for what they think and win because they have thought well and persuaded people to agree with them. When politicians don’t think about government but only about votes, democracy decays.
That’s what’s happening now. The referendum was only a symptom.