Cameron's Referendum

Cameron's Referendum

By David Runciman and Catherine Carr

David and Helen take a step back to unpick the tortuous history of how we got to the Brexit referendum in the first place. Does the justification Cameron offers in his new memoirs stack up? What was he trying to achieve? And why did we end up with an in/out vote when the political risks were so great? A conversation linked to David's review of Cameron's book in the current 40th anniversary issue of the LRB.

Talking Points: 

Why did Cameron call for an in/out referendum?

He wanted to reconfigure Britain’s relationship with the EU, not abolish it.

Let’s take the story back to 2004-2005 and the new constitutional treaty.

The key question was consent.In Britain, there was a push for a referendum. Although Blair was initially opposed, he made a u-turn. But the Dutch and the French voted the treaty down before it could happen.

Then came the Lisbon Treaty. 

Brown decided that this was different than the constitutional treaty and he ratified it without a referendum.This creates a political problem. The Conservative Party opposed both the Lisbon Treaty and the way it had been legitimated.

The constitutional treaty made the EU wary of using referendums to legitimate treaties.

But Cameron thought there would be another treaty—was this a mistake?The European Union Act of 2011 required a referendum for any treaty that would increase the power of the EU.

By December 2011, Cameron had two issues: the domestic politics of consent, and the risk of being a permanent minority on financial service matters.

In 2011, it became clear that the ECB would pursue a policy that would make it more difficult for London’s clearing houses to be the center of European trading. 

Ultimately, Britain could not fundamentally reconfigure its relationship with the EU. 

Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate became a perfect example of British weakness and fueled the Leave campaign.

For what is Cameron personally culpable?

He knew that Leave could win, but he didn’t make contingency arrangements for leaving.When Leave won, the UK entered a constitutional crisis and Cameron just walked away.

Mentioned in this Episode:

David’s review of Cameron’s memoirCameron’s Bloomberg speechMacron’s 2017 Sorbonne speechMore on Chirac

And as ever, recommended reading curated by our friends at the LRB can be found here:

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