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A Brexit post-mortem: 17 takeaways for a fallen David Cameron

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4 July, 2016
Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives at the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, June 28, 2016. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol
Jeremy Kinsman
By: Jeremy Kinsman
CIC Distinguished Fellow

In this open memo to the outgoing British Prime Minister, former Canadian High Commissioner to the UK, Jeremy Kinsman, describes in detail just how badly the Remain campaign failed.     

1. Referenda are the nuclear weapons of democracy. In parliamentary systems they are redundant. Seeking a simplistic binary yes/no answer to complex questions, they succumb to emotion and run amok. Their destructive aftermath lasts for generations.

2. Never call a referendum without being sure of the outcome. You called this one primarily for reasons of tactical political positioning, mainly to appease anxiety in the English Conservative Party (and I mean “English”) that the United Kingdom Independence Party was gaining strength with your party’s voters. The pledge to hold a referendum helped win you an unexpected majority. It also ended your career and seriously compromised your country’s interests.

3. You should have been sure you had a high-performance team before you leapt. Ambitious defectors from your cabinet and untrustworthy political rivals undermined you. Jeremy Corbyn was the worst possible ally. His inactivity was an eloquent put-down of the case for remaining. He hates the EU for reasons opposite to those of the Tory backbenches – he views the EU as a surrogate of a capitalist system he wants to overthrow.

4. In any referendum over separation, the “independence” side appeals to the patriotic heart. The thinking of the Leave side is magical. It plucks at a dimly remembered but glorified past (that was never as good as nostalgia makes it), and offers a future that is imaginary. The Brexiteers are the dog that caught the bus: they hadn’t thought what to do next. Coping with impending difficulties is for another day. Liam Fox, one of the ideologues now seeking your job, airily told the BBC that follow-on policies toward EU workers in the UK, crisis budgets, and negotiations with the EU weren’t part of the campaign agenda – they’re for the next (unelected) government to think about.

5. Your appeals to the nation’s head didn’t get through. In a post-factual political age, reasoning doesn’t reach the heart. To win, you needed to mobilize convincing passion behind the case that the status quo is both preferable and improvable. You could have said that despite its struggles and seeming faults, the European Union aims to be a force for good; that it has brought, and will bring, decisive benefits to Britain, and to all European peoples. Implying only that the EU is a mess but that leaving would be worse was bound to lose the campaign. Raining fears about the material costs of leaving, supported by experts and authorities, had no impact on the growing cult of “ordinary people” who took cues only from each other, animated by their populist rain men.

Dear David Cameron … Never call a referendum without being sure of the outcome.

6. Arguing for the benefits and necessity of interdependence doesn’t diminish Britain and its tradition of proud self-confidence. Churchill could lecture de Gaulle that Britain would “choose the sea” over Europe because when he said it, Britain still had an Empire. Since England no longer rules the waves, EU membership adds enormous leverage to the British role, influence and voice. But voters in rural England, who are used to hearing about your EU partners in disparaging terms, were indifferent.

7. You needed to be candid that Britain would be at a disadvantage in a negotiation to leave the EU because the EU has the trump of being less dependent on the UK than vice-versa. You avoided saying so, perhaps because it could sound wimpy or “defeatist” about British stature and weight. You let the Leave side get away with claiming that the EU would negotiate as an equal partner with equal stakes as the UK because the volume of trade was roughly equal. The reality is that respective stakes are starkly unequal. On trade, the UK is dependent on the EU market for 45 percent of its exports. The EU is dependent on the UK for only 8 percent of EU exports. Foreign investment into the UK has stopped because of uncertainty that UK exports will still get to the EU market. The Confederation of British Industries therefore judged that Brexit will cost 4-5 percent of GDP. The Economist Intelligence Unit is even more harsh.

8. You seemingly didn’t want to single out specific sectors in your warnings that there would be big costs to Britain. Was it because it would be talking them down in the markets? The Leave side pretends that manufacturers on both sides will find ways to come to equitable sectoral deals, that even with some new tariffs, British industry will do OK. But the financial services sector will definitely not do OK. The EU “passport” of regulatory equivalency that EU institutions grant to banks to operate under UK financial regulations will be withdrawn when the UK leaves the single market. This will be a lethal blow to the most rewarding sector of the UK economy (11 percent of Treasury revenues) that accounts for 10.2 percent of GDP and 3.3 percent of employment, mostly very high end. The migration of high-paying City of London financial jobs to a new financial centre in Frankfurt, Dublin, Amsterdam or Paris will seriously downgrade London’s status. Why didn’t you say so?

9. Why didn’t the Remain campaign say more about non-industrial benefits from the EU? Is it because of a visceral inability to praise its merit after years of denouncing it? The contribution to the EU budget by the UK has been exaggerated beyond belief. It only accounts for 1.3 percent of the UK’s budget. On the other hand, British farmers love the 55 percent of their income coming from the Common Agricultural Policy. The cultural and arts community needed its 230 EU grants. The one third of university students hoping for Erasmus support for study in Europe will be stuck at home. Britain’s rank as fifth in the world in scientific papers despite being only twentieth in science spending owes a lot to the additional US $11.6 billion in EU competitive research grants (2006-15). All of these sectors have constituencies. Leave courted the wistful retirees in the shires and marginalized “victims of globalization” in the once-industrial North – did Remain sufficiently target the younger generations whose futures were being bound by a senile chase after a receding past?

10. Many who voted Leave say it was because they are unhappy over Britain’s “domination” by the EU. Why didn’t you demystify this toxic fable? Have you, as prime minister, felt “dominated” in the EU Council? Do you think British (I mean “English”) identity has been eroded? Whose is the de facto working language of the EU institutions? Britain opted out of the Euro and border-free travel – in what real and convincing way is it nonetheless compromised in its sovereign capacities by “faceless bureaucrats in Brussels?” Sure, the European Court of Justice rules against Britain in cases of adherence to EU regulations. (It rules more often against France.) Does this really erode the British Parliament and courts?

11. Immigration is the issue people say they care about most. The EU is again the popular scapegoat, though it’s not responsible, obviously, for the millions of people and their children, now British, who came from the old multi-coloured Empire back in the day. You surely don’t share the fear that Syrian refugees  that the UK isn’t taking because it’s not in Schengen and doesn’t have to – will rush to take British jobs the moment they qualify as German citizens. Do EU workers actually replace British workers? Sixty percent have jobs lined up before they arrive because UK employers need them. Unemployment across Britain is only five percent. The UK has a minimum wage – does a Pole accepting it “undercut” a Brit who thinks he would get more if the Poles weren’t around? Could the NHS do without the 10-20 percent of its professional staff that is from the EU?

The referendum shouldn’t have been a response to party politics.

12. What if you had told the English they are not being “overrun?” 2015 was said to be disastrous because net immigration was 333,000 (half from the EU) despite your promise several years ago to limit it to 100,000. They represented nine in 1,000 persons in the UK, an intake less than Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Sweden, Ireland and Norway. “How would you cope in Canada?” a correspondent asked sarcastically. Well that’s about how many we aim to take this year. Foreign-born residents of the UK are 11.3 percent of the population, smack in the middle of the range for EU countries. By comparison, the four “settlement immigration” countries which seek qualified immigrants register the percentage of foreign-born as follows: U.S.: 14.3 percent; Canada: 20.7 percent; New Zealand: 25.1 percent; and Australia: 27.7 percent. We’re all coping pretty well.

13. Britain is over-crowded, not “overrun.” Of the 64.1 million who clog your roads and services, only two million are EU citizens. Nonetheless, public opinion argues for a temporary brake on EU workers who come seeking jobs, as opposed to those who are coming to fill one. But you must accept the principle that the free movement of labour is fundamental to being a member of the EU’s single market. It’s delusional or deliberately misleading to have gone along with the notion that Britain can deny this essential principle and still have full access.

14. Your European colleagues liked you. They know the pressures of highest office. They didn’t want the UK to leave the EU. In their guts, they know that the British lift the EU game in many ways. But they will not reward England’s nativists because you and their many British colleagues are pleasant and professional. They were never going to give the UK a break in negotiations to unravel 43 years of gradual integration and institutionalized accommodation. They have identity-driven nativist adversaries baying at them in their own capitals.

15. Allow me to observe that partisan politics is all you have ever done. It’s a handicap. Professional politicians over-react to tribal voices and noises from their camp. In your case, it’s against the continuous drumbeat of jingoistic anti-EU right-wing journalism (oddly promoted for years by non-EU status-seeking owners of the Times and the Express), two of whose exponents led the Leave campaign.

16. The referendum shouldn’t have been a response to party politics. Its significance is existential. It can’t be undone. But people can’t be expected just to absorb the pain and stay calm and carry on. There is real disbelief those about to take charge know what they are doing. Public antipathy and division will increase. The elected Parliament is against Brexit. Your friends abroad are aghast.

17. I understand why you walked away abruptly. But given that your decisions ultimately enabled this crack-up, you can’t leave for good without being clear about the size of the casualty ward to expect. Pasting it together will require the skill of the ages and the thoughtfulness of good and honest people to commit to a workable solution that is going to have to involve compromise. You delivered a majority to your party, one it would not win today. Conservatives owe it to you to listen if you now have something to say. You do. Take it on.


Jeremy Kinsman
Former High Commissioner of Canada to the United Kingdom and former Ambassador to the European Union

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