This was written in a hurry, and in a state mixing elation from the events of June 8th-9thwith anger at the events of June 9th-10th. Nonetheless, if there are any mis-representations or poorly thought through criticisms I take responsibility – because that is a thing that people should do.
I think May was right to call this election. Not just ‘right’ in the sense of ‘correct based on available evidence’, but also morally right. The various political upheavals of 2015-16 had left too many unanswered questions. We were being led, at a time of vital political decisionmaking, by an unelected PM who hadn’t even faced a proper leadership election within her own party. The government May had formed extremely different to the one elected in 2015, both in terms of ideology and personnel. Meanwhile the deep question of Corbyn’s wider unelectability – a question which could only really be addressed by a general election – was simmering within the Labour party, deeply weakening the ability for democratic opposition. And we still didn’t really know what the ‘will of the people’ was on Brexit. All these – some more than others – were creating deep, simmering resentment at the heart of British politics. May’s decision may have been an opportunistic one, designed to answer those questions in a way which massively supported her side. But there was at least a chance to answer them.
Where May loses all respect from me is that she, like Cameron before her, framed the decision in a manner which suggested she expected people to do exactly as she wanted. Let me elaborate on that comparison. The question of whether we should ever have had an EU Referendum is a complicated one, raising many issues of direct versus representative democracy. What I do think is that Cameron made a series of assumptions about how straightforward the referendum would be, which given the risks intense potential upheaval involved in leaving the EU were extremely dangerous. I do not think 72% of the British voting public – 46.5 million people – massively cared one way or another about the EU before the referendum, and I do think (in line with many pundits) that the result came from a surprisingly aggressive Leave campaign which left Remain continually reactive and unable to produce a positive message. Leave mobilised a coalition of values – anti-technocracy, anti-immigration, pro-competition, pro-change – against a single institution voters probably didn’t care or know that much about. The same is true of Remain, of course (being pro something doesn’t mean you know more about it) – this isn’t about claiming one side was more ignorant, but rather that Cameron a) should have factored in the power of messaging and b) seeimingly assumed the EU’s values spoke for themselves. If all this is true, we are leaving the EU not because it is what the British public had always wanted but because of how a five month referendum was framed – and in my view Cameron has to take much of the responsibility for that.
Cameron should have acknowledged that defending a massive, complicated, bureaucratic organisation in the face of public (and, more importantly, media) attention would require some pretty careful messaging. Yes evidence suggested that remaining was the most likely outcome, but the whole thing could have been handled in a way which acknowledged there was a debate. Maybe instead of Cameron being the face of EU negotiations he could have visibly gone alongside David Davis or another prominent Eurosceptic, framing the whole enterprise as a genuine attempt to find a deal palatable beyond Europhiles. A bit of prior ground research could have shown the divide between soft and hard Brexit voters, giving a three-way ballot paper and (hopefully) some more nuanced debate. Those didn’t happen, and neither did much in the way of framing the debate in a way that wasn’t just bish-bash-bosh let’s get this over with and back to normal quickly. Given that Cameron was presumably acquainted with Euroscepticism from within his own party, to me this speaks volumes about the power of individuals at failing to engage with alternative views.
One could maybe tell a similar story about the Corbyn-style Labour vs. Blair-style Labour fights, and how neither side seemed – as far as I could tell – to accept the other side could have a point at all. But that’s a complicated one, and one I would prefer to hear others’ views on. And at least now they seem to be moving towards that engaging with one another – the sight of Alistair Campbell and Paul Mason nodding at each other’s contributions was just one of the unexpected sights of the election coverage. I mention this purely because, if my argument that arrogance and complacency vis-a-vis the existence of other viewpoints is one of the major shaping forces in British politics today, then Labour is perhaps better placed to be on the right side of history right now.
The bigger problem is that saying ‘I was wrong’ is rarely enough. One has to be able to undo any harm your wrongness did. Or, even better, predict and mitigate in the first place. Particularly when the recipients of said harm are almost totally powerless to stop it. If Brexit does turn out to be disastrous, then Cameron will be at fault for that. For Conservatives, May has already brought irreparable harm. But for the country, May could still just about pull it back. This will require caution, humility, and engaging with multiple views. You can see where I’m going with this.
For a politician previously famed for taking time to deliberate, May is moving surprisingly fast. Most probably because a moving target is easier to hit. The more active she is, the more any immediate leadership challenge will look like ‘disrupting the Brexit process.’ But it’s hard to see any good in that decision beyond simple self-interest on May’s part. In the process she is making decisions which can entrench serious long term damage. If, as is widely suspected, her days as leader are numbered then a formal coalition with the DUP is a much less flexible arrangement for a future leader (let alone doorstep activists) to deal with. But there’s little evidence of her thinking about that sort of stuff. Moreover, the idea of a coalition with the DUP makes many in the country (understandably) extremely uncomfortable. May has not addressed these concerns. An intervention from Ruth Davidson has forced May to discuss the status of LGBT+ legislation under a DUP deal, but one is forced to wonder if such a thing would have happened in the absence of a prominent gay Tory with a strong personal profile. As with the dementia tax, May has shown that when she makes unpopular decisions she wants to pretend that other people, with their views and fears, simply don’t exist.
May is currently – and I think deservedly – paying a heavy personal price for her decisions. Her party are unavoidably doing so too. The question is the price others will be made to pay – and whether this is, if May is prepared to look beyond herself, avoidable.