Home / General / Was Cameron’s Referendum Decision Defensible? (SPOILER: No.)

Was Cameron’s Referendum Decision Defensible? (SPOILER: No.)


david-brentAbove: A More Competent British Leader Named “David”

In comments, Murc argues that Cameron’s catastrophic decision to call for a referendum was defensible:

We talk a lot on this blog how all politics is the work of coalitions and that political leaders often are, counter-intuitively, often forced to follow their electorates rather than the other way around. This comes up a lot during Clinton-related sturm und drang; people will say “They put the boot into the welfare state and ran on making poor people poorer and locking up black people” and they’re not wrong, but then others will come back with “the political atmosphere of the Democratic Party and the national mood as a whole at that time required them to make compromises with the no-more-handouts and tough-on-crime wings of their own party, to say nothing of the Republicans” and they aren’t wrong either.

Or, in a more British context… there’s been a lot of talk about how Cameron is going down as “the worst PM since Neville Chamberlain.” Chamberlain is reviled by history for his appeasement… but it is ignored that Chamberlain was representing the will of the vast majority of his party, the opposition party, and most of the British electorate. If he’d tried to drag Britain to war in 1938 there’s a very good chance his government implodes.

The thing is, I buy the Chamberlain defense in re: Chamberlain. Chamberlain probably made the best choice available to him, and even if he didn’t, he certainly had no good choices available, which is often the case with famous political blunders. James Buchanan is currently ranked as the worst president in American history by scholars, and between what he stood for and his ridiculous passivity in the face of secession, I don’t find that particularly objectionable. But, to be frank, he’s ranked as the very worst because of the many generic Jacksonian hacks to attain the White House he was the one who happened to be in office when the police finally raided the floating craps game. I don’t think there were any choices Buchanan could have made to keep the Democratic coalition together. Polk, often ranked as an average or above-average president, almost certainly did more to create the conditions for the Civil War than Buchanan did. Douglas would certainly have better after secession than Buchanan was, but he wouldn’t have been able to stop the secession from happening. By that point I don’t think anybody could have. The category of political leaders remembered as being uniquely bad largely because of circumstances beyond their control is real enough.

Which is exactly what makes Cameron’s incompetence so astounding — this catastrophe was a completely unforced error. He didn’t need to call this referendum, and he really didn’t need to call this referendum.

On the first point, I just don’t buy that coalition politics compelled him to call a referendum. It should have been pretty obvious that Johnson and Gove were cynical rube-runners rather than people deeply committed to leaving the EU (and, certainly, the fact that they’ve gone into witness protection after “winning” settles the question.) While I understand the temptation to use the referendum to stop the trolling, given the downside risk the better option is obviously “put up or shut up.” It is highly unlikely that Johnson could have led a successful coup against Cameron, who had just delivered the Tories their first majority government in more than 20 years even if he wanted to, which he almost certainly didn’t.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you think Cameron had to call the referendum. As MacK said (and, I should note, Murc apparently agrees), it should be blindingly obvious that this referendum should have had some kind of supermajority requirement, starting with the assent of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. In theory, I would also prefer something like a 60% national vote, but the multiple majority requirement would make it superfluous in any case. What you certainly don’t do is call for a referendum that would lead to Brexit given 50%+1 on any given day. Even leaving aside the merits of leaving the EU, you don’t make such momentous changes based on bare popular majorities from a single vote. That a decisive number of voters who were indifferent or actively opposed to leaving the EU might have voted Leave to send a message of frustration or patriotism or whatever is something that any remotely competent leader should have seen coming. You can blame the voters if you want, but the blame is much better directed at Cameron’s stupid decision rule.

In conclusion, Cameron massively blundered. He was trolled into calling an unnecessary referendum, and even worse structured the referendum ineptly. Comparing him to Chamberlain is unfair to Chamberlain.

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