24th January 2021
Eight years ago yesterday the then prime minister David Cameron gave a speech at Bloomberg.
The speech was to have significant consequences.
The speech can be read here and can be watched here:
And, for background, there is also this Wikipedia page.
What should make of Cameron’s Bloomberg speech eight years later?
The speech is undeniably important in the telling of the story of Brexit.
Indeed, when historians come to write of the causes of Brexit, this speech is likely to be be emphasised as a key short-term cause.
It was the first of a sequence of events that led to the Brexit we now have: the Conservative manifesto commitment for a referendum; the 2015 general election; the return of an overall Conservative majority; the referendum bill, the (supposed) ‘re-negotiation’; the calling of the referendum; the (lacklustre) government campaign for remain; the referendum result; and so on.
In terms of a linear sequence of events, the Bloomberg speech would seem to have more reason than many others to be the prime-mover – at least in the short-term.
The first of an apparent chain reaction of political explosions, some with bigger bangs than others, that lead to the biggest bang of all: the rushed departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union.
As Voltaire once said somewhere, history is a box of tricks we play upon our ancestors.
And so what looks neat and linear in hindsight can often be misleading.
This is because although historical narratives are (necessarily) linear if not always neat, past events are complex and invariably messy.
Accordingly, to reckon the significance of a politician’s speech – or of any text or any other speech act – one needs to place that text in contexts.
Otherwise one can fall into the error of thinking, in this particular case, that had Cameron not made that speech in 2013 there would not have been the Brexit we now have, or indeed perhaps no Brexit at all.
One context for the speech is the political situation of the Conservative party in and around 2013.
The party was in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and the party itself had not had a majority in the house of commons since the early years of the premiership of John Major some twenty years before.
And in 2011 to 2013, the Conservative party looked as if it was being out-flanked by the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip).
So until and unless the Conservative party addressed the reasons for Ukip support – either by facing Ukip down or by engaging with its politics – there was a real prospect that the Conservatives would go yet longer without a parliamentary majority.
The Conservative chose to share the politics of Ukip: to make the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union a real possibility.
(And the general election results of 2015 and indeed 2019 indicate that this Conservative political strategy has worked.)
Of course, had Cameron not made the Bloomberg speech in 2013, the surge in Ukip support and its political threat to the Conservatives would not have gone away.
Even with that speech, and the Conservative manifesto commitment of a referendum, Ukip performed strongly (at least in terms of votes) in the 2013 local elections, the 2014 European Parliament elections and the 2015 general election.
As such the Cameron speech was not a cause but an effect, and had a Conservative leader not done something in response to the rise of Ukip support eight years ago yesterday, there would have been something else before not much longer instead.
Some would say that a Conservative leader could have taken on the Ukip threat – like, say, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock did with Militant in the 1980s – but that was not realistic.
The Conservative party – like the Labour party – had not made a positive case for the European Union for decades: to the extent the European Union impinged on domestic politics, it was invariably in terms of what the United Kingdom had opposed or had opted out of.
So as long as the Conservatives sought to obtain a parliamentary majority and Ukip would challenge that, then the place and timing of the offer of any referendum was incidental.
And given that the issue of membership of the the European Union would dominate the general election of 2015, it is quite plausible to see a referendum with a Leave victory happening afterwards, even if no speech had been given at all, at Bloomberg in 2013 or elsewhere.
Another context for the 2013 Bloomberg speech and its referendum commitment was the casual approach of Cameron to constitutional matters generally and referendums in particular.
There had already been a United Kingdom-wide referendum on the electoral system in 2011 which Cameron and other opponents of that electoral reform had defeated comfortably.
Cameron and the Conservatives were also bullish about the impending Scottish referendum (that the United Kingdom government had then recently agreed would happen and which took place in 2014).
Referendums must have seemed a doddle.
And, in any case, that there would be a referendum on any future European Union treaty ‘giving powers to Brussels’ was part of the law.
This general lack of constitutional seriousness can be evidenced in other examples from around the same period: in 2014, the Conservatives put forward an especially flimsy proposal for repeal of the human rights act and in 2015, Cameron sought fundamental reform of the house of lords just because of a defeat on a tax credits proposal.
The historical caution of the Conservative party in respect of constitutional matters was non-existent by the time of the leadership of Cameron.
And so eight years ago yesterday for Cameron to make a commitment to a referendum of such potential constitutional import was not a big thing for him or most of his party.
He probably put no more serious thought into the actual implications of a referendum defeat than he would have put into an essay on the topic of referendums on a PPE degree course.
In hindsight one can now see the serious consequences of such a referendum – not least how it can create a ‘mandate’ that undermines not only effective parliamentary scrutiny but the very doctrine of parliamentary supremacy.
But in 2013 this was not given a second thought, nor indeed much of a first thought.
A third context for the speech eight years ago yesterday is not provided by a thing, but an absence of a thing.
In the late 1980s, the 1990s and the early 2000s there was such a thing as ‘Euro-scepticism’.
(I know this because I happen to have been a Maastricht-era Euro-sceptic.)
This approach had two broad features.
First, it insisted that it was primarily about being wary of the direction of the European Economic Community (and then European Union).
In this, the guiding text was another speech by a Conservative leader, at Bruges in 1988, where Margaret Thatcher said:
“We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels.”
(Euro-sceptics, however, tended to ignore a later part of the same speech where Thatcher also said “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”)
But when this juggernaut of new treaties came to a halt with the treaty of Lisbon of 2007-9 – there have not been any such significant treaties since – Euro-scepticism lost the yin to its yan.
The development of the European Union entered into a settled stage.
And Euro-scepticism, as it had existed, served no purpose – the question became not about how the latest (supposed) treaty push towards integration should be countered but about membership itself.
There was now just a binary choice.
Any referendum would not be (and could not be) about any new treaty – as envisaged by the 2011 referendum legislation – because there were no new treaties.
The only thing left for a referendum to attach itself to was the question of membership itself.
And so a further context for the 2013 speech and the 2016 referendum is that – paradoxically – the end of substantial formal moves towards European Union integration at Lisbon meant that there was more risk that membership of the European Union was in question.
Those opposed to the European Union had now the cake of no further integration, and the supper of potential withdrawal.
There are many other contexts – geopolitics, migration, the credit crunch and austerity, and so on.
This post is not and does not pretend to be exhaustive.
But as with another post at this blog, on counterfactuals, this post avers that Brexit was not about just one bad decision.
There are many ways things could have happened differently and the United Kingdom could still today be in a post-Brexit predicament.
(And alternatively, there are no doubt certain decisions which could have led to substantially different outcomes – such as the decision by former prime minister Theresa May to rule out membership of the single market and the decisions by opposition leaders in late-2019 to nod-along with a general election.)
But the way Brexit did happen, at least in the short-term, followed a fateful speech eight years ago yesterday – when Cameron opened a box of tricks to play upon his contemporaries.
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