by Alan Wager
Monday, 23
January 2023
Anniversary
17:00

What if David Cameron had never promised an EU referendum?

A decade on from his pledge, it is worth asking how different Britain would look today
by Alan Wager
David Cameron on stage, ten years ago today. Credit: Getty.

Did he have to do it? That is the question that has been repeatedly asked in the decade since David Cameron’s decision in January 2013 to pledge that, if the Conservative Party were to win a majority at the next election, the UK would hold an in-out referendum to settle, once and for all, the European question in British politics. 

In one corner is the politician Cameron beat to the leadership of the Tory Party, the Eurosceptic David Davis. When he stood up 10 years ago today in front of assorted city types at Bloomberg’s offices, Davis says that Cameron engaged in a fateful act of ‘political self-harm’. An ambiguous position, sounding Eurosceptic but never quite meaning it, was ‘a touchline he (Cameron) could have run for a very, very long time’. 


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In the other corner, unsurprisingly, is Cameron himself — whose key defence in his memoirs is that if he had not called a referendum, at some point another Conservative leader, who would likely have made the case to leave, was bound to do so. 

One way of resolving this puzzle is through the counterfactual ‘what if’: what would have been the fate of the Conservative Party and the country (and, Cameron’s critics argue, his priorities were certainly ranked in that order) if he had simply ignored the siren calls to his Right and defiantly marched on to face the electorate without a big concession on Europe?

Something we can be sure of is that the pressure from within the Conservative Party for an in-out referendum would not have gone away. We know this because Cameron’s speech did not make a blind bit of difference to the size of the Tory rebellion on the European issue. In October 2011, 81 Conservatives defied a three-line whip to vote in favour of a referendum on EU membership. In May 2014, long after Cameron had promised a referendum, over 100 Tory MPs backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the absence of a referendum. 

We also should have a sneaking suspicion that what political scientists might call ‘extra-parliamentary pressure’ for a referendum — or, as most people would label it, ‘Nigel Farage’ — was not about to disappear any time soon either. We know that because UKIP had not reached their peak, or anything like it, by January 2013.  We also now understand — having lived through his topping the polls again in the next European elections in June 2019 — Farage’s remarkable staying power and pull. 

The next question is whether the Conservative Party would have won the 2015 general election, or if that referendum pledge was the difference between a slim Conservative majority and Ed Miliband entering Number 10. The British Election Study found just 1.3% named an EU referendum as the most important issue they were thinking about when casting their vote in May 2015. While it may have made a marginal difference, the evidence suggests David Cameron would nonetheless have re-entered Downing Street with a renewed mandate.  

Until May 2015 this parallel history looks roughly the same as what really happened. We then have to ask, as he sat in Number 10 and looked forward to another five years in office without the burden of an in-out vote, what Cameron’s immediate fate would have been. Would he have been able to finally get close to meeting his promise to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands? The answer, as we live today in 2023 with the highest levels of net migration ever, is inevitably no. Would he have moved decisively away from the programme of austerity that had contributed to the wide sense of political disaffection? Without the shock of Brexit, the Conservative Party’s attachment to austerity would have remained absolute.

This means that, in our alternative reality where Cameron decided not to promise a referendum a decade ago today, the popular discontent with politics-as-usual would have simmered as the country grew ever more unequal and fed up with empty political promises. The lever marked ‘EU referendum’, meanwhile, would sit there growing ever more attractive and waiting to be pulled by his successor.  

What all this means is that Cameron was right, but not for the reasons he thinks: eventually, the effects of austerity and his failure to level with the public on immigration meant a reckoning on Europe was not a matter of if, but when.


Dr Alan Wager is a political scientist based at Queen Mary University of London and the Mile End Institute.

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Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago

The answer, as we live today in 2023 with the highest levels of net migration ever

I keep reading this being presented as a matter of fact but it is probably not true.
From the A10 enlargement of the EU in 2004, it was impossible to count the number of Europeans entering the UK so the net immigration figures are unknowable.
We know that the estimates (which relied on questionnaires being handed to a sample number of people on flights from Europe) were completely wrong because when we offered post-Brexit right-to-remain visas to EU citizens living in the UK, twice the number of people that we had estimated had ever arrived here applied! We were probably undercounting the number by 3 or 4 times.
In 2016 the annual number of National Insurance numbers handed out was over 600k. Indeed this was a critical news story during the referendum.
And we know that the UK’s population grew from 60M in 2005 to almost 68M today. Given that the birthrate is below the replacement rate, this suggests an average net immigration rate of 444k per year.
So it is very likely that net immigration topped 500k in a number of years preceding Brexit.
By the way, I strongly believe the annual net immigration rate should be below 100k and am in no way trying to excuse the current situation. I am just saying that journalists should be a bit careful about repeating things without checking them – especially if the source is Remoaner Central (the FT).

Last edited 6 days ago by Matt M
D Walsh
D Walsh
6 days ago

The majority wanted a referendum, AND they also wanted to leave

Thats life, deal with it

Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago
Reply to  D Walsh

And thank God they did!

j watson
j watson
6 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Says Xi Jinping and Vladmir Putin. It worked.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Please just stop this rubbish. The British people voted. They voted to leave. Any supposed “foreign interference” was not consequential. Apart, perhaps from Obama’s “back of the queue” advice – almost certainly worth at least 1% to the leave campaign. If you’re unhappy about the result, take it up with the remain campaign for failing to make their case – though I recall they all got gongs for their pitiful efforts.
While we’re on the subject, you might want to check back in with Putin about how happy he is that Boris Johnson became PM. Hard to argue now that Boris was a Putin stooge !

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

I do appreciate slightly uncomfortable to point out you are indeed bed fellows with Xi and Putin, but regardless of degree of FSB and CCP interference they of course delighted folks like yourself pushed for Brexit. Made it easier for them. And Boris as PM – of course they wanted that. Just like they wanted Trump. Helping get mendacious buffoons into key places all part of the strategy.
To be fair the one good thing Boris did was quick support to Ukraine, albeit the distinct impression this was also somewhat self-serving. Putin still wanted a Brexiteer in No.10.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Assume and believe what you like, but I can assure you I have nothing in common with Putin and Xi and have always opposed them.
Coming back to my original point, which I don’t think you addressed. If your team loses at football, you don’t blame the opposing team or manager for the result. You might complain about the ref or sack your own manager though. Of course, in this case the “ref” was the UK government and civil service – who were opposed to Brexit !
So again I say to you – if you’re unhappy with the result, take it up with the incompetents who ran the remain campaign and stop deflecting by trying to blame leave.
If Cameron has had an ounce of sense he would have done two things differently:
1) Held off the negotation with the EU for “better terms” until after the referendum. If the referendum were lost, he’d at least have some leverage and a basis to re-run the referendum if he secured any concessions. As it is he came back with nothing.
2) Not got personally involved in campaigning (consistent with point #1). This simply ecncouraged people who didn’t like Cameron to vote leave (especially since almost no one believed that leave would win – much as voting for Corbyn in 2017 was seen as “risk free” since he wouldn’t win).
Schoolboy errors. Yet no one in the remain campaign had the sense to figure this out.
But nothing to do with Vote Leave. Or Xi. Or Putin.
Xi, Putin and I are not the “guilty men” here.

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

You would agree that you, Putin and Xi favoured Brexit? Therefore you do accept at least on this you have something in common? It may be coincidental and the only thing you have in common with these tyrants, but nonetheless. The sort of bed fellows that would make me pause and think to be honest. Why we were they keen on this too?
You then contend that folks should stop pointing out the failures to deliver Brexit promises. Had the promises been delivered we’d all be happy. Who wouldn’t have been happy with all that was promised. Political lies have to have consequences.
Remain got lots wrong too. EU certainly needed reform. Of that’s there’s no doubt. But the winners now need to deliver and they haven’t. In fact they’ve made things worse. And that’s the long and short of it.

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Just pondering bit more – I think one of the key problems was Brexiteers stopped thinking after they won the Vote. They thought that was it. Nirvana would just happen without much further effort. And when confronted with realities arising they tend to still not want to think, because it’s awkward and complex, so instead just blame. Gradually we are realising that wasn’t v mature and we need to find a way to make the best of this. But been a dreadful struggle to get engagement beyond the superficial.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Read my earlier reply. It was the clear, legal responsibility of the *government* to enact the will of the people. The responsibility of the people was simply to vote on the question in the referendum. No less. And no more.
If you think the government/civil service’s implementation of Brexit is sub-standard, that is nothing to do with me. I don’t work for either of those organisations. I’m really not sure how you expect me to do anything about it. Government/civil service means the people who aere paid to do that work *regardless of whether they voted for Brexit or not*. That is their job and their responsibility.
You keep trying to shoot the messenger and failing to identify the people actually responsible for the management and execution of policy. You’re clearly pretty intelligent, so I’m surprised you seem to be struggling with the basic concepts on this subject.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Noise. I don’t give a damn what Putin and Xi do or don’t think about Brexit. I’m quite capable of making my own mind up. And so is the rest of Britain.
You are seriously suggesting that I cannot freely exercise my vote for something I believe in because Putin or Xi happen to share my opinion on that subject (which I am in any case probably unaware of and certainly don’t care). Just read that back to yourself and ask how that can possibly make sense ? In that mad world, you would be obliged to first check the opinion of Putin, Xi and anyone else you don’t like (being careful to check first whether you actually believe what they are saying – I suggest a non-trivial exercise !) and then vote the other way *on principle* and *regardless of your real opinion* just to feel comforted that you do not have the wrong “bedfellows” !!! That’s bizarre, convoluted, a complete waste of time. And frankly insane !
I said *absolutely nothing* about your alleged failures to deliver on “Brexit promises”. Check the transcript. But that’s completely beside the point. Your obvious frustration with Breixt is blinding you to the facts. You’re trying to shoot the messenger.
If Everton lose to West Ham, you fire your own manager (Frank Lampard) and not West Ham’s (David Moyes). It really is that simple.
The vote was very simple – whether or not we wanted to saty in the EU. Period. It was *not* about what shape that might take or any particular promises (or in the case of the red bus, suggestions). Check the question.
The government need to deliver. It is not the responsibility of those who were asked their opinion/ belief about the EU to deliver. I as an individual have neither the authority nor the means to “deliver”, do I ?
If the remain campaign didn’t like the question, they should have thought about it before they overwhelmingly passed the legislation for the referendum in parliament. We must assume they agreed with the terms of the referendum, since almost all of them voted for it.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
4 days ago
Reply to  j watson

This is a stupid and offensive comment. You should be ashamed and embarassed to have written it. The question in the Brexit referendum was a simple one: do you wish to choose the people who represent you politically and who will make the rules under which you live, or would you like them to be chosen for you by a self-selected elite? A majority of the voters made the right choice, a choice that represents the polar opposite of everything that Putin and Xi stand for.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 days ago

The Brexit referendum was the greatest act of democracy in action for a very long time.
I’m so impressed that the British electorate weren’t cowed by the duplicitous shenanigans of the Establishment and their elitist luvvies with their nightmare scenarios.

Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Well said! It is the best thing we have done as a country for many years.

j watson
j watson
6 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

‘Shenanigans of the Establishment’? Perhaps some validity in this and certainly the Brexit leaders were all v establishment – ex-Eton, ex Winchester, Stock Brokers, Right Wing media owning millionaires, Right wing funded research institutes keen to hide their funding sources – all of course insulated anyway if it went wrong.
And of course the establishment of Xi Jinping, Putin and even Trump utterly delighted we made the choice we did and as regards the first two, pleased their inputs helped. Doh, should be telling us something shouldn’t it?

Last edited 6 days ago by j watson
Dog Eared
Dog Eared
6 days ago

I’d have thought the most influential pressure was the continuing growth of UKIP and how they were splitting the Tory vote in marginal seats.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
6 days ago
Reply to  Dog Eared

I agree. Reformkip or whatever they’re called will threaten exactly the same in the next GE. They’ll get bought off of course, but with what, I wonder.

Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago

Reform are campaigning on Stop the Boats and reducing legal immigration. Assuming (it is a whopper of an assumption) that Sunak does stop the boats, the promise will have to be a limit on legal immigration.
If on the other hand he can’t stop the boats because of ECHR judges, then the price will be leaving the ECHR.

j watson
j watson
6 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Withdrawal from the ECHR make no difference to the boats. It only has a role, albeit fairly minor, after they’ve arrived. And withdrawal from ECHR will put us up there with Putin and undermine a whole range of other treaties. The Golf club bores in Reform can blather on about it but it won’t happen. Once you actually have to engage with what it means you think again. And like I say a Court doesn’t float in the middle of the Channel and demand boats turn back.
Sending them back to wherever also still requires arrangements and agreements with individual countries, many which we don’t have. We may get a dribble to Rwanda, but the cost will prove astronomical and we’ll be taken to the cleaners.
Now were we to try to get back into the Dublin agreement, where we can return them to where they first entered the EU then we’re talking. But guess what – yep you got it we pulled out of that.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
6 days ago

“…just 1.3% named an EU referendum as the most important issue they were thinking about when casting their vote in May 2015”. But that was because Cameron had temporarily neutralised it as a political issue by promising a referendum. If he hadn’t, EU membership would have been a bigger issue, and the UKIP vote would have been higher.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 days ago

The decision to put the question of our relationship with the EU to a national plebiscite was absolutely necessary and long overdue (regardless of which side of the debate you happen to support).
In a representative parliamentary democracy it is entirely right and proper that the people should be allowed to decide for themselves on large constitutional changes that do not naturally follow party political lines. A referendum is the best way to achieve that.
The Lib Dems recognised this – indeed a referendum was a manifesto pledge. “….the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future.”
Tony Blair was similarly sure it was the right thing to do, he also pledged a referendum on the EU Constitution, “Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe not because we believe in Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain, make ours.” …. “Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined.”
Despite such stirring stuff he weaselled out of his promise, pretending the Lisbon Treaty was somehow different from the Constitution (despite all the main actors since admitting they are one and the same thing). Having lied publicly about his reasons for abandoning the vote he later, and rather more honestly, stated the reason as being his worries about “the perilous fragility of public support for the sensible choice”
I cannot speak for all 17.4 million Leave voters but I would hazard that a very large number of them would agree that the Common Market had made sense. A group of entirely sovereign nations agreeing to cooperate on trade. Had we remained simply as that there would never have needed to be any referendum. Since Maastricht, it had been the creeping usurpation of powers without a democratic mandate that has been the cause of rising euroscepticism (not merely here in the UK but across all of Europe).
Cameron – like Blair, Brown, Clegg and Major before him – recognised that UK voters had not been given a chance to express a view on our place in the EU since its direction of travel away from a simple trading bloc and towards political and fiscal union had become apparent. They all knew it was the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do, the only morally justifiable thing to do.
They’d all known it – they’d all recognised it was a political game of pass the parcel, no one in power wanted to hold a referendum and had previously always reneged on their promises. Ever since Maastricht those in Govt were always fearful about giving the electorate the choice – because they knew full well that Euroscepticism was the default position for at least half the electorate.
Had Major, Blair or Brown had the courage of their convictions they could have offered the UK electorate the chance to vote on our place in the EU. They chose not to – always fearful of the result. Perhaps they could have won such a referendum, we will now never know. Mr Cameron, who I always felt lacked conviction, cornered himself into such a position, rather against his better judgement.
The “Sage of Canning Town”, Danny Dyer, famously noted that Cameron was “A [email protected]” – possibly, though not for actually keeping the promise that his predecessors didn’t. For that he should be applauded- despite the utter shambles that followed.
If the British people in such huge numbers decided (by an admittedly narrow majority) to defy their lords and masters and vote to leave despite all the overblown and dire warnings from the remain side then surely, as a simple matter of democratic legitimacy, it has been proved that it was right to at least put such a question to a national vote. If the majority of MPs in a parliamentary democracy are out of step with the wishes of the majority a national plebiscite is a required correction.
The simple fact that the majority voted out, despite all the obstacles placed in their path, at the first opportunity they had since 1975 surely demonstrates that, as a point of democratic principle, it was in fact right to hold such a referendum. The fact that some posters here, and much of the commentariat, were dismayed at the result has precisely no bearing on that.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
6 days ago

It is rare that I come to the defence of David Cameron. This however I think should not be lightly dismissed. ‘[His] key defence in his memoirs is that if he had not called a referendum, at some point another Conservative leader, who would likely have made the case to leave, was bound to do so.’
Cameron was just the PM left holding the timebomb from Maastricht. It it hadn’t exploded on him I do believe him when he says it would have exploded on someone else.
What was established at Maastricht was a poor-mans two-tier system. It was always far from theoretical to think that the EU INs and OUTs would over time have divergent interests. Cameron was just the one holding the timebomb. The inherent flaws in structure set up at Maastricht was always going to be trouble. The only way around it was full membership of the single currency, something wisely avoided. I never got the impression that Cameron was really all that animated about high levels of immigration – indeed if you look at the Bloomberg speech there is no mention of free movement.
I do however suspect the more interesting question here might be what if Cameron had called for a referendum and come out for LEAVE? That would have put out his corporate backers of course. But I suspect it’s not totally unthinkable. So a LEAVE campaign based on a straight(er) assessment of immigration. It likely would have been healthier than what actually did follow.

Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

I think this is the nub of the current problem.
Most people that voted LEAVE expected it to lead to lower immigration.
The only people who didn’t were the small number of free-market Brexiteers who led the campaign. The hedged around the message of greater control of immigration.
Not unreasonably, most people heard that – coupled with the Tory pledge to reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands – and thought that was what they were signing up for.
But it isn’t too late. If Rishi Sunak were to set out a path to 100k which encompassed his illegal immigration plans, a push for vocational training to fill some of the skills gaps reduced immigration would leave and tax incentives for industry to automate (and reduce the demand for low wage immigrants) he would be on to an election winner. The argument – keeping population growth within the bounds that house building, the NHS, schools etc can cope with – is easy to make.
It would be an even stronger message for Keir Starmer to deliver. It would dispel the suspicion he wants to return to the EU and appeal to his former Red Wall voters.

Last edited 6 days ago by Matt M
Sam Hill
Sam Hill
5 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

I think the issue with FOM in the UK was more about a lack of any real reciprocity. If 3 million young people had headed to the A8 countries for jobs, wages, benefits etc then we’d have had a 90% in vote.
But it’s not reciprocal – those in the East voted with their feet and remainers basically treated stark reality with contempt.
Of course no one ever said that free movement was reciprocal movement, but politicians were not exactly forthright.
It was very easy for academics and journalists to see FOM as about not having to queue at airports in ski resorts and having a flow of tenants for the buy to let empire. Everyone else was being asked to believe that very hard and fast flows of people were totally neutral and at the referendum they just stopped being taken for fools.

Matt M
Matt M
5 days ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

Great point Sam. Despite 44 years of membership, very few Brits ever emigrated to Europe except to the English-speaking enclaves on the Spanish coast. The most popular places for Brits to emigrate to are (and always have been): Oz, NZ, Canada, USA, Spain (read Costa Del Sol) and Ireland.
By the way, I like queuing in the non-EU lines when travelling in the EU and getting a stamp in my (blue) passport. What’s wrong with standing with the American, Aussie, Chinese and Indian tourists? It probably adds 2 minutes to the overall travel time.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 days ago

What a stupid question!! If a Government announced a decision to fuse our sovereignty with France (as Churchill mooted in 1940) do you think British voters should have no say?? Every EU State KNEW they were obliged to consult their electorates on the radical constitutional changes of Maastricht. Blair just knew the British public here would – like the French who DID get a vote – reject the march to federalism. So he reneged on his duty. But we were owed a referendum. The status quo without one was fundamentally illegitimate.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 days ago

The decision to put the question of our relationship with the EU to a national plebiscite was absolutely necessary and long overdue (regardless of which side of the debate you happen to support).
In a representative parliamentary democracy it is entirely right and proper that the people should be allowed to decide for themselves on large constitutional changes that do not naturally follow party political lines. A referendum is the best way to achieve that.
The Lib Dems recognised this – indeed a referendum was a manifesto pledge. “….the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future.”
Tony Blair was similarly sure it was the right thing to do, he also pledged a referendum on the EU Constitution, “Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe not because we believe in Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain, make ours.” …. “Let the issue be put. Let the battle be joined.”
Despite such stirring stuff he weaselled out of his promise, pretending the Lisbon Treaty was somehow different from the Constitution (despite all the main actors since admitting they are one and the same thing). Having lied publicly about his reasons for abandoning the vote he later, and rather more honestly, stated the reason as being his worries about “the perilous fragility of public support for the sensible choice”
I cannot speak for all 17.4 million Leave voters but I would hazard that a very large number of them would agree that the Common Market had made sense. A group of entirely sovereign nations agreeing to cooperate on trade. Had we remained simply as that there would never have needed to be any referendum. Since Maastricht, it had been the creeping usurpation of powers without a democratic mandate that has been the cause of rising euroscepticism (not merely here in the UK but across all of Europe).
Cameron – like Blair, Brown, Clegg and Major before him – recognised that UK voters had not been given a chance to express a view on our place in the EU since its direction of travel away from a simple trading bloc and towards political and fiscal union had become apparent. They all knew it was the democratic thing to do, the right thing to do, the only morally justifiable thing to do.
They’d all known it – they’d all recognised it was a political game of pass the parcel, no one in power wanted to hold a referendum and had previously always reneged on their promises. Ever since Maastricht those in Govt were always fearful about giving the electorate the choice – because they knew full well that Euroscepticism was the default position for at least half the electorate.
Had Major, Blair or Brown had the courage of their convictions they could have offered the UK electorate the chance to vote on our place in the EU. They chose not to – always fearful of the result. Perhaps they could have won such a referendum, we will now never know. Mr Cameron, who I always felt lacked conviction, cornered himself into such a position, rather against his better judgement.
The “Sage of Canning Town”, Danny Dyer, famously criticised Cameron (in terms that keeps getting this comment moderated) – possibly his description was apt, though not for actually keeping the promise that his predecessors didn’t. For that Cameron should be applauded- despite the utter shambles that followed.
If the British people in such huge numbers decided (by an admittedly narrow majority) to defy their lords and masters and vote to leave despite all the overblown and dire warnings from the remain side then surely, as a simple matter of democratic legitimacy, it has been proved that it was right to at least put such a question to a national vote. If the majority of MPs in a parliamentary democracy are out of step with the wishes of the majority a national plebiscite is a required correction.
The simple fact that the majority voted out, despite all the obstacles placed in their path, at the first opportunity they had since 1975 surely demonstrates that, as a point of democratic principle, it was in fact right to hold such a referendum. The fact that some posters here, and much of the commentariat, were dismayed at the result has precisely no bearing on that.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
6 days ago

A great many things that happen in history are, in some sense, inevitable over a period of time. Had Gavrilo Princeps not assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1913, there would probably still have been a World War I. It would have started somewhere else for a different reason and might have gone differently depending on how much longer that took and how far along military technology had advanced in the intervening years but most historians concede it was only a matter of time. The New Deal reforms, along with other such reforms in other countries, were to some extent a necessary concession for the nation to avoid Communist revolution. Had Japan not attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, it would have attacked America somewhere else within a fairly narrow window of time in the early 40’s. We know or suspect all these things because we understand that the forces that led up to the events in question and we know what happened, but it isn’t clear what else might have happened. We can imagine some possibilities in many cases, but there are, invariably, probably a lot of things that could have happened that we would never conceive. It can thus be argued entirely in hindsight that most of the things that happen politically are more the result of impersonal economic, cultural, demographic, and social forces rather than from governments or any human agency. Is it actually so, or do we use hindsight simply to confirm our own logic, a closed deterministic loop? Since it was, so it must have been, so it must always have been. A question for philosophers perhaps. The Brexit referendum seems to be one of those things as well. Was there another way? Like the author, I doubt it, given that I expect the rest of the EU will collapse eventually. In truth we will never know for certain, because our ability to wonder what would have happened is just as faulty as our ability to predict what will happen.

Last edited 6 days ago by Steve Jolly
Graeme McNeil
Graeme McNeil
5 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

“Had Gavrilo Princeps not assassinated Franz Ferdinand in 1913, there would probably still have been a World War I”
I think any analysis that starts like this can be safely ignored…

Chris Twine
Chris Twine
6 days ago

England (note, not the whole UK) has always, and will always, have a dilemma regarding how much it wants to be part of Europe. That’s a function of its geography and history and no singe referendum was ever going to solve that. How close we want to be to continental Europe (and its institutions and affairs) will always be part of our polity. As we can see the Brexit referendum did not resolve this – if it had never been held, or held with a Remain majority, the debate would still be there. What the referendum did do was weaponise Europe for both “sides” and create a proxy term for other issues, not least the culture wars.

j watson
j watson
6 days ago
Reply to  Chris Twine

Agree CT. The ‘Europe’ issue was a proxy war for certain Politicians, but where I’d slightly differ was how much the English, and British electorate really comprehended the complexity and the issues. They/We didn’t and we are learning many hard lessons regarding things most did not appreciate. What ‘We’ (less so myself but I certainly understand the sentiment) wanted to do was metaphorically punch our politicians in the face, esp after 6 years of austerity and the financial crash prior. And deservedly so.
Problem is we largely punched ourselves in the face at the same time.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
6 days ago
Reply to  j watson

We had to “punch ourselves in the face” to achieve the freedom to set our our own laws again.
The face will heal soon enough …

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

What law do you want to outline? Just so we can assess if it’s had a positive impact?
Of course we helped set many of the laws in the Single Market but I do appreciate that nuance is lost on many folks.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

Reality check ! The “Single Market” never actually happened for services – the one area where Britain is super-competitive vs the EU. Funny that. Not – I suggest – a coincidence.

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Peter B

Not quite. The TCA has sections in it related to Services, and as we know the TCA will need renegotiation in 2025. UK businesses can supply services without corporate presence in the EU and vice versa. But there are limitations in the TCA annexes worth folks checking. New EU regs may apply Travel of course for business reasons now more bureaucratic – check visa, a work permit, and sometimes other documents, complete declarations for goods or cash you’re taking with you etc. You will also need to make sure your qualifications are recognised. Happy days. 

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

I think you may have missed the point. Having the “freedom” to change laws in the future is what matters – and “the future” runs for an eternity.

j watson
j watson
5 days ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

3yrs on, what’ve we changed? When do you think we’ll see some of these freedoms actually mean something? In time to help BrritishVolt perhaps? Oh drats too late.
I’d also read the section in the TCA about ‘level playing field’ that we signed.

Peter B
Peter B
5 days ago
Reply to  Chris Twine

You do know that Wales also voted to leave ? People keep trying to pretend that didn’t happen. But it did.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
6 days ago

I’ve tried commenting on this article 6 times now – reformatting it and excising any words that I thought might have caught the moderation filter.
Each ends up “Awaiting for approval” – which is infuriating for two reasons. Firstly that I spent time writing something I can’t seem to post, and secondly the expression itself – “Awaiting approval” or just “Waiting for approval” would be marginally less irksome.
Is anyone else suffering at the hands of the censor-bots this evening?

Matt M
Matt M
6 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Not tonight but it happens to me from time to time.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
6 days ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I’ve sometimes seen that once a comment is marked for review, it doesn’t matter what you do to it in editing, it doesn’t lose the review marker. At other times taking out an obvious word does the trick.
When in the former situation, after crafting your masterful insight, try dropping the initial comment, (copying the precious nugget of genius before you delete it), refreshing the page and then starting a new comment, pasting in the words of wisdom, shorn of the suspect words.

R Wright
R Wright
5 days ago

UKIP would have shredded the Tory vote in 2015. It is madness to think otherwise.

Charles Corn
Charles Corn
5 days ago

I’d understood the main purpose of the ‘promise’ was that it could be the hefty first concession to persuade the Lib Dems to stay in coalition following the widely anticipated second hung parliament in 2015.

Which just shows Cameron as even less of a conviction politician and even more of a chancer.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
4 days ago

Had Cameron not promised the referendum, UKIP would have cut as or more deeply into the Tory vote than in did into the Labour vote in the 2015 general election. Cameron would not have won a majority. Having failed to beat both Brown and Miliband in a general election, Cameron’s political career would have been over.

j watson
j watson
6 days ago

Groan. Let another article trying to mask the disaster and embarrassment that has been Brexit, albeit this one with a different slant – it was unavoidable and a Vote was inevitable so don’t blame us for this shambles! It’s a new one at least.
However a better counter factual might be – what would have happened if we’d not had an infantilised discussion on the EU for the prior 25yrs? What would have happened if we’d actually administered free movement with the controls that the relevant articles allowed – minimum capital requirements, jobs advertised locally first, home if no job after 3mths, any benefits at the value of those in the immigrants home country etc, and even decided to underpin with ID cards? What would have happened if in the prior decades we had weaned ourselves off a low wage economy and properly invested in an industrial strategy? And what would have happened if we’d grasped a leadership role fully in the EU, pulling it our way, instead of sulking more often to one side?
As regards Cameron decision – he could and should have pondered the wording and options on the referendum ballot slip more carefully but he was over-confident following IndyRef 1. ‘Do you want a Hard or Soft Brexit’ with some definition of each just might have stopped us committing ‘hara-kiri’ . Not easy but the over-simplistic binary choice is largely why we are now in a right mess. A softer Brexit and the vast majority of us wouldn’t be talking about it anymore and we’d have moved on and the ship would have stabilised. But didn’t happen because crucially the Brexiteers also believed in Cakeism. ‘The German Automobile manufacturers will insist we retain access to the Single Market and just allow us to junk the free movement bits hee hee hee’. Doh! Didn’t work out like that did it. Our arrogance led to hubris and here we are now scrambling for excuses.

Chris Keating
Chris Keating
6 days ago
Reply to  j watson

What you are suggesting requires leadership and you don’t have that in Britain. You are run by lightweight fantasists who think nothing through.

j watson
j watson
6 days ago
Reply to  Chris Keating

Yes that has some truth CK, but it’s not just an issue of political leadership – which I think is primarily what you mean. Fundamentally IMO the way the right wing Press works, and has worked for 30yrs has much to answer for. The structure of it’s ownership, the insidious way it was played divide and rule, and more latterly the confirmatory bias it perpetuates to deflect attention from the real economic imbalnce in the UK. The left wing press has some similar problems but it has much less reach. The right wing press even has some Russian oligarchs now owning key publications.
Our Press, especially the more tabloid element, is distinctly different to that you get in Western Europe or the US. Yes they have tabloids but not with the reach. Hence we have infantilised ourselves far more. This accelerates with uncontested and untransparent social media allowing the FBS and CCP even more opportunity to sow division.
That all said there was poor political leadership too compounding the problem.

Sam Hill
Sam Hill
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

With the greatest of deference to you, the lack of refined understanding on the leave side of the debate does not excuse a similar lack of understanding on the remain side. This line and variations of it were trotted out during the referendum and it is simply not true.
‘What would have happened if we’d actually administered free movement with the controls that the relevant articles allowed – minimum capital requirements, jobs advertised locally first, home if no job after 3mths, any benefits at the value of those in the immigrants home country etc.’
There is no three month rule, and barely any conditionality. It’s not even totally clear to me that jobs can be advertised locally first an in any case they would still be open to EU free movers. An EU passport under Free Movement is not a visa. You couldn’t ‘overstay.’ The purpose on (for example) benefits is that someone from the EU would be entitled to the same response as a UK national. You can and perhaps should have an debate about the nature of the UK welfare system, but in terms of free movement it is at best beside the point. For example nothing in the treaties requires a free mover to be housed – rough sleeping on EU FOM is fine.
It has to be said that the academic commentariat that is so quick to bemoan a lack of understanding has not exactly been fulsome in putting out explicit articles about the real nature of FOM.
Don’t get me wrong by the way. Free movement with meaningful conditionality, an ECJ that respects the rights of member states to set eligibility for welfare, no expansion to non-EU national family members and real restrictions on employers would have been a fine and wonderful thing for Europe. FOM in its present form is massive overreach and it wouldn’t have hurt those who wanted to remain to say as much.

Peter B
Peter B
4 days ago
Reply to  Sam Hill

An excellent comment. There are several EU policies that are great *in principle*. But the practical implementation of many of them is often very poor and the benefits not fully realised while unwelcome side effects are tolerated (and often encouraged). It all looks great *on paper*, but if you don’t actually enforce policy consistently across all countries (they don’t) or punish and eliminate fraud (they don’t) or do the basic accounting (they don’t), the reality is always going to fall short.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
5 days ago
Reply to  j watson

At the end of the day the EU was about centralizing power to a layer of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats. Staying in the EU would have meant less ‘people power’. Even though British politicians may appear to be largely self-serving, they at least can be held accountable by the British people. The EU is mostly run by corporate interests who lever great financial power over many countries by releasing or withholding funds depending on how well individual nations states bend to EU political whims. Britain did well to get out of it when it did.

Last edited 5 days ago by Julian Farrows