How much of Brexit is really David Cameron’s fault and how much was the result of circumstance and division?

In just 28 days the Brexit transition period will come to an end. Britain will leave the EU either with or without a deal.

Is it all Cameron’s fault?

In recent months, the government has toyed with breaking international law, and there were reports that we could be seeing 7,000 lorry queues. Given all this, it is worth reflecting on how we got here and who is really at fault. For many people, the immediate answer is David Cameron.

On the face of it, it makes perfect sense. After all, it was Cameron who made the decision to call a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. Being a Remainer, I remember I was not happy with the result. But this didn’t push me to blame David Cameron, as it did so many others. It is simplistic in the extreme to blame one man, and it absolves many other institutions and individuals of responsibility.

Firstly, it has rarely been pointed out that David Cameron alone did not have the power to legislate for a plebiscite. Fellow MPs voted by 544 to 53 in favour of a referendum. This included MPs who would later become serial rebels, such as Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve. We saw from 2017-2019 that with a hung Parliament or one with a small majority, MPs have a lot of power to block legislation that they do not like. What people such as Soubry and Grieve need to ask themselves is why, if they objected to Brexit so much, did they put Britain’s position in the EU at risk by voting for a referendum in the first place?

The only answer I can come up with is that they assumed, rather arrogantly, that Remain would win. When Leave won, they were shocked, but promised their voters in the 2017 election that they would honour the result, and then proceeded to do precisely the opposite. This demonstrates a mixture of complacency, arrogance and disrespect for the voters that existed (and still exists) in much of Britain’s political class. It was this oblivious haughtiness that led both to the referendum being called, and to the anti-establishment sentiment that led millions to vote for Brexit.

Allegations and Issues

It has also been asserted that Cameron only called the referendum to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his party, and that Europe was not really an issue outside the Conservative Party. There is some truth in this. Some believe that the social liberalism that Cameron adopted on issues such as same-sex marriage meant he felt the need to make some major concessions to the right of his party on Europe. However, even more important for the Cameron government than party management was the prospect of UKIP splitting the right-wing vote in enough marginal seats to hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. When considering all this, one could be forgiven for thinking that Cameron was driven by narrow party interests, and they would not be wrong.

However, this is a distraction from the important question of why UKIP was doing so well, and why ultimately the country, not the Conservative Party, made the decision to leave the EU. Rightly or wrongly, issues such as immigration, and the perception that the EU had too much say in UK domestic affairs concerned large numbers of voters, including non-Conservative voters.

Unfortunately, there is a tendency in British politics to focus excessively on individuals, rather than address deeper underlying problems. One example of this would be John Bercow. The former speaker became a hate figure for many Eurosceptics because he made several rulings which enabled a pro-Remain Parliament to make life difficult, first for Theresa May and then for Boris Johnson. But this ignores the fact that Bercow’s rulings would have been irrelevant if only Theresa May had succeeded in building a consensus in Parliament, or had managed to win the majority that everyone thought would be hers in 2017.

Perhaps it is human nature to try and reduce problems to individuals, as it makes the issue simpler by putting a face next to a grievance. But this approach doesn’t bring us any closer to addressing some of the very real challenges that we face. In order to address these challenges, we must learn to focus on the hanging issues rather than on shifting individuals.

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