Shortly after David Cameron had become leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition I had a conversation with a young friend who was a wonk in those dying days of Labour government, and in a spirit of eceumenical good fellowship (having worked at Conservative Central Office at the same time as DC myself, though we never got matey) I offered this observation: that the only thing Cameron truly believed in was his duty and right, as a highly intelligent and highly educated wealthy aristocrat, to lead the nation. Everything else was a matter of pragmatism. In other words, the only principle he actually held dear was the only one to which he could not publicly admit.
This went down a storm with the young Labourite – until I added that I rather approved of the Tory leader’s attitude. I’m not out of that drawer myself, but I’ve never been very good at envy or resentment, which is largely why I’m not a socialist. Poverty, not inequality, is the enemy in my book. And the idea that you have a moral obligation to use your privilege for the public good is noble, and is possibly the only instinct that unites Cameron with John Lennon, or any of the lesser celebrities of our own time who use their names to promote causes in which they believe. Their opinions tend to be ignorant and fatuous, and I wish they’d shut up, but that’s not the point. I still admire them for their sense of responsibility, for not just soaking up the cash and keeping their heads down.
But that’s another topic. In the current referendum campaign our Prime Minister has fallen upon another principle to which he cannot admit. All the dire warnings of economic collapse and war in Europe have been received with admirable scepticism by the public, and of course he doesn’t believe them either. He has been seduced by the drug of politics, and is fighting for his record in the history books for its own sake, and by any scare-mongering tactic available. But much deeper lies a truly held belief: that a popular movement expressed in a referendum cannot be allowed to succeed in defiance of an elected government’s will. What would be next? Referendums on capital punishment, the foreign aid budget, the treatment of convicted paedophiles? All of these would drag us down to barbarism. Just look at Strictly and Eurovision!
And, again, I’m kind of with him. We elect people whose job it is to know stuff to take decisions on our behalf, because we don’t have the time. And yet when the experts disagree they refer the matter to the ignorant, and vie for popular support through hyperbole. It is a repudiation of an electoral system that has kept Britain far more stable and secure than most of its European neighbours for two centuries and more, and opens the door to the rule of the mob – unless the side that is challenging the Establishment always loses, as it always has, so far.
This referendum is binding on government only because Cameron said it would be, and only he made it possible. We have no conventionally, let alone constitutionally enshrined popular trigger for referendum, only a very recent one for a parliamentary debate, so it’s his own stupid fault for creating this show-down. If he had made membership of the EU a general election issue he would have skewered an Opposition in pieces on the floor, with Corbyn obliged to oppose and discredit Brexit as he is now discrediting Remain, and won by a country mile. But of course that is mere fantasy. If Cameron had gone down that road he would have been leading a united cabinet for Brexit, with the feeble Corbyn hopelessly opposing for Remain. Popular will cannot undermine government, and the actions of a privileged Prime Minister cannot undermine the native conservative instinct of British voters to trust a disinterested toff. If Cameron had stuck to those two principles he would now be on the brink of eclipsing Thatcher as the saviour of a nation facing ignominy, whereas he is now, win or lose, politically doomed. He should just have said what he truly believed. It wouldn’t have taken very long.