September 27, 2019

I’m a sucker for “what if?” historical scenarios. Even when they’re horrifying, they’re fascinating. But are they useful?

Yes, if they help us explore what might have happened in slightly different circumstances; no, if they’re merely what the author wishes had happened.

There’s a ripe example of the latter in The Economist — where the Bagehot column takes the form of an imagined extract from the memoirs that David Cameron “might have written had he won the Brexit referendum”.

I’m not sure whether ‘Bagehot’ is describing his own wishes, or channelling what he imagines Cameron’s might be – but either way the fantastical nature of the scenario is revealing. Its premise is that if the referendum had gone the other way, we would have seen “the death of Euroscepticism”:

“The fever of Euroscepticism eventually broke and Britain entered its current age of Euro-contentment. Nigel Farage moved to America for a gig with Fox News and a slot on the speaking circuit. I’m told that he has built quite a place in southern Florida — a mock-Tudor mansion complete with red telephone boxes and a working pub serving real ale, pie and mash. With his guiding hand removed, the UK Independence Party was captured by people who were so nauseating and ill-disciplined that membership collapsed.”

Like a lot of ‘alt-history’, this ignores the lessons of actual history. Take the result of the Scottish independence referendum – a clear defeat for the ‘Yes’ side, but did the “fever” of Scottish Nationalism break? Did the SNP collapse? No, they were greatly strengthened as a result — the beneficiaries of a nationalism that is defiant, not defeated.

A similar example is the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which helped to energise and radicalise the Democrats. Then there’s the actual result of the Brexit referendum, which created a mass Remain movement, capable of getting hundreds of thousands of people on the streets — and re-animating the Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile, the evident willingness of the Remain Parliament to block Brexit has prompted a rebellion among Leave voters. Nigel Farage was able to bypass his dysfunctional old party, start a new one and take it to first place in the Euro elections. His comeback sealed Theresa May’s fate and propelled Boris Johnson into Downing Street.

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Therefore the notion that a Leave defeat in 2016 would have prompted British euroscepticism to obediently curl-up-and-die is fanciful.

Bagehot (in the voice of David Cameron, remember) does try to make his scenario plausible:

“Millions of good people had voted to leave, not because they were fed up with Europe but because they were fed up with Britain. I tackled the Tory problem by forgiving the most talented Leavers, such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, while simultaneously marginalising the irreconcilables… I dealt with the problem of the left-behind by announcing the end of austerity at the 2017 party conference and encouraging Boris, as business secretary, to make revitalising the North and the Midlands his priority — or, as he put it, a matter of ‘do or die’.”

But, again, this doesn’t stand up.

For a start, an alternative history in which Remain prevailed is most plausibly one in which the likes of Johnson and Gove did not join the Leave campaign. Therefore, there are no such figures to magnanimously bring back into the fold, because they never wandered off in the first place.

Also, what makes Bagehot think that Cameron would have reached out to the North and Midlands with a latter-day Marshall Plan? The essay-crisis Prime Minister, having got away with his referendum gamble, would sink back into his habitual complacency. His Chancellor, George Osborne, though happy to devolve power to England’s cities, would have continued his strategy of targeting the local government and social security budgets for the harshest cuts. As for the “end of austerity”, any extra money to play with would have been deployed with the 2020 general election at the forefront of his calculations. For a Remain Tory government, that would have meant holding on to southern seats gained from the Lib Dems in 2015, holding off a Labour advance in London and supporting Ruth Davidson’s progress in Scotland.

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Bear in mind that even when the Conservatives have every electoral reason to make a compelling offer to Leave-voting Labour heartlands (as in 2017), they can’t seem to manage it. So the idea that this would have happened in the wake of a Cameron-led Remain victory is unconvincing.

Bagehot goes on to suggest that Cameron would have gradually patiently bent the EU to his will — for instance caving in on freedom of movement. But, most likely, the compromises would have been in the other direction. EU leaders like Emmanuel Macron, Guy Verhofstadt and Ursula von der Leyen have continued to press for further expansions of the EU’s remit.

Though Cameron’s renegotiation deal prior to the referendum included an agreement to exempt the United Kingdom from the objective of “ever closer union” — those words, in the preamble to the Treaty of Rome, are of purely symbolic significance, therefore so was the exemption.

And yet with every new directive and regulation the UK would indeed find itself drawn closer into union with its neighbours — provoking bitter accusations that the renegotiation had been violated. The same would apply to every inevitable increase in the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget.

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As for net immigration (from the EU), it’s reasonable to suppose that without Brexit it would be at a higher level — especially now with several Eurozone economies slowing down again. Cameron would have come under intense pressure to activate the renegotiation agreement’s ’emergency brake’ provisions — and would have faced the possibility of humiliation given the need for European Parliamentary approval. The same goes for the so-called Red Card provision — in theory a way of sending proposals back to the European Commission, but in practice requiring the support of 15 other EU member states.

Of course, it’s also reasonable to suppose that the UK economy would have grown faster over the past three years had Remain won. But that would have meant extra pressure on the UK to pay more into EU funds, employ more of Europe’s jobless and take in more external migrants. Even without the EU-ultras winning immediate victories on federalist measures such as a European Army or EU-wide taxation, Cameron would have had to make a never-ending series of smaller concessions — each one condemned by his enemies as a ‘betrayal’.

So, no, a Remain victory would not have ended the argument over Britain’s place in Europe. As is the case with independence for  Scotland, there’d have been calls for a second In/Out referendum by now — a ‘people’s vote’, if you will.