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Westlake Legal Group > David Cameron

Matthew Lesh: The radical neoliberal programme which can revitalise the Conservatives

Matthew Lesh is the Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute.

As the flus from last week’s Conservative Party Conference slowly fade, it is worth turning our minds back to a conference that we must never forget.

It was the autumn of 1980. The country was facing economic turmoil. Decades of Keynesianism was taking its toll with high inflation and low growth.  But there was a leader, a radical neoliberal, who refused to accept the status quo or allow the doomsters to take her off course.  “You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning,” Margaret Thatcher told Conservative Party Conference.

Thatcher unashamedly spoke not just of policy change but creating “a new independence of spirit and zest for achievement”. She called her administration “one of the truly radical ministries of post-war Britain”.

Boris Johnson’s party conference speech last week has been lauded for its political nous: get Brexit done, and fund the NHS and other public services.

This makes a lot of political sense, particularly for the party’s ‘Go Midlands, Go North’ strategy: the plan to win northern Leave working class areas who traditionally voted Labour Party.

But Johnson’s spending is frustrating to many free marketeers, who have traditionally found their home in the Conservative Party. Boris speaks of a “dynamic enterprise culture” and the Conservative Party’s history in pioneering “free markets and privatisation”. But so far there has been little meat on the bone, while the party is giving up its reputation for fiscal conservatism by committing to big-spending plans.

Politically, this approach undermines support from economic liberals in London and the Southeast. This danger is heightened by the likes of Sam Gyimah’s defection, signalling the acceptability of the Liberal Democrats to Tory economic liberals. With the Lib Dems also winning over the likes of Chuka Umunna there’s a danger the two main parties are seen by voters to leave the centre stage to the Liberal Democrats — and leave governing alone to the scrap heap of history.

To get a strong majority, Boris needs to win both Chelsea and Fulham as well as Stoke-on-Trent. He needs to be able to hold up his economic credentials to win back Remain-voting Conservatives voters – not just give them another reason to abandon the party.

But this balancing act is nothing new. Thatcher, despite some reforms to childcare and housing subsidies, oversaw a huge increase in social spending. She declared that the NHS is “safe with us” and bragged about “enormous increases in the amount spent on social welfare to help the less fortunate”. David Cameron similarly declared that the NHS is “safe in my hands,” while cutting taxes, introducing free schools and reforming welfare.

Thatcher and Cameron balanced public spending with undertaking fundamental free market economic reform to boost the economy. To ensure the Conservative Party remains a broad coalition, it is important that Boris’ free market rhetoric is given meaning. There needs to be some meat on the bone. The Conservative Party will be much weaker if it does not have a serious economic policy offering that creates a clear distinction with Labour.

On the political left, while many may disagree with their approach and ideas, there is undeniably a radical reimagining of policy and a clear agenda: a four day work week, shutting down private schools and nationalising industry.

Some on the Right have chosen to respond to the emboldened Left by adopting parts of their agenda in the hope of placating and preventing the worst. But, as Theresa May’s premiership displays being Labour-lite and adopting policies like the energy price gap, or nanny state policies like the sugar tax, simply does not work.

The Neoliberal Manifesto, a joint project between the Adam Smith Institute and 1828 released last week at the Conservative Party Conference, presents a positive vision for Britain’s future. In the past, the word “neoliberalism” has been twisted by those seeking to manufacture a strawman on which to blame every societal ill.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Neoliberals are champions of freedom. We want government to protect and facilitate your ability to flourish; we believe in the power and ability of each individual; we believe in doing what is most effective; we are optimistic about the future; we support market intervention to address specific issues but reject paternalism; we are cosmopolitan and outward-looking to the world.

The manifesto calls for a liberal, free market approach to trade that encompasses cutting tariffs and pursuing deals based on the principle of mutual recognition. It declares that need to reform Britain’s outdated planning laws to allow for the building of more houses to fix Britain’s housing crisis. The manifesto also calls for a simpler, fairer tax system by getting rid of stamp duty and allowing capital expenditures to be expensed in full immediately.

On migration, it calls for a liberal system that brings the most talented people to our nation. On education, it explains the need for more choice. On innovation and technology, it calls for an optimistic approach defined by permissionless innovation.  It also calls for a liberal approach to drugs and personal choices, a compassionate but cost-effective approach to welfare, and addressing climate change without sinking our economy.

Many of these ideas are radical, and today can be expected to receive a mixed reception. But we think that our politicians should lead from the front, not the back. These policies are not designed with the idea of what may or may not be popular today, but rather setting the agenda for the future.

While not every action she took was immediately popular, Thatcher’s agenda transformed the country for the better and proved a politically successful formula across three general election victories. Cameron similarly won a majority after undertaking difficult decisions.

If the Government does not have an offering for people who want lower taxes and the state to live within its means, they risk unexpected losses.  Johnson can follow in the footsteps of successful leaders with his own liberal, free market agenda.

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Howard Flight: The damage that EU membership has done to our constitution is clear to see

Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Forty-five years ago the Wilson Government introduced an important change to the unwritten British constitution.

The first major referendum helped to address, politically, the then divisions within the Labour Party on Europe, but more importantly established the precedent of putting an issue of major national importance, above party politics, for the people to decide upon directly by a referendum.

Since then both Scotland’s position visa vi potential independence and changing the voting system to a PR basis have been decided by referenda. But the Remainer cabal has chosen to ignore the position and role of a major referendum in which the British people decided they wanted to leave the EU.

As Alistair Heath has pointed out, membership of the EU has already undermined our historic, unwritten constitution such that we will need to codify how we are governed, both to protect individual rights and liberties and to ensure that democracy can no longer be routinely subverted or disregarded by an arrogant, know-it-all elite. It will be a key component of a rebooted, newly-independent UK.

We should never again accept the dysfunctionality that has overshadowed the past few years, with MPs trying to cancel the most important referendum decision in modern British history and the Speaker abetting the creation of a parallel executive. We do not want a US-style Supreme Court, being encouraged to turn themselves into yet another set of legislators.

Our catastrophic membership of the EU, the leftward shift of the governing classes, the Blairite legal reforms including the 1998 Human Rights Act, the emasculation of other forms of local government, and the creation of the separate Supreme Court have all conspired to undermine our uncodified constitution.

It also requires politicians to allow unwritten conventions to guide their behaviour – a principal which Brexit Remainers have trashed.

The first and most important reform will be the repeal of the Fixed-term Parliament Act. Second, the power to conduct international treaty negotiations needs to be left solely to the Executive. But there are more. The Speaker needs to be bound by clear rules; an MP who wants to change party should be obliged to call a by-election; the second Chamber should be used more to appoint accountable, “special adviser”, ministers.

Too many decisions have been taken by the courts rather than resolved by democratically elected politicians. The courts should not be un-elected legislators. We need to allow direct and indirect democracy to co-exist, with voters able to force referenda as in Switzerland and US and the outcomes being legally binding.

David Cameron’s book, ironically, set out a powerful case for Brexit. He started out as a Eurosceptic who thought the irritations of the EU were a price worth paying for the free trade advantages. In power he soon discovered the horrors to which we had become exposed – the directives, the stitch-ups, the knives out for the City. He voted against a Eurozone bailout package which threatened to cost Britain dear, only to see the rules changed so the UK veto would not count.

In contrast to Germany’s unfailing ability to get what it wants, Britain’s has been non-existent. We have opposed only 70 pieces of EU legislation during the time of our membership, of which none have been accepted.

The process under which Jean-Claude Juncker became President of the European Commission also shocked Cameron, and he finally grasped that the EU process of powers being transferred to Brussels – and never taken back – is a formula to erode national democracy via the use of increasingly complex law and regulations.

In short, Cameron learnt how the EU grasped and exercised its powers – and became the strongest candidate for reform. He never explains, however, after so many losses, how he thought he could possibly achieve the necessary changes. It is even more difficult to understand how Cameron thought he could win the fight for reform by backing Remain.

There is nothing in his book explaining why he thinks EU membership is a good thing; nor is there a single example of anything emanating from Brussels that benefits Britain.

The best possible outcome of Brexit would be a Canada-style trade deal with the EU on the bulk of mutually traded goods, together with a clean exit restoring full British sovereignty.

‘On the Record’ effectively exposes why the latter is perhaps the most important. Britain’s great democracy has been squeezed inside an unaccountable EU bureaucracy. No-one else in Europe has been willing to challenge this, or give their voters the chance to escape.

The danger that, for the sake of a deal, full British sovereignty is not restored. Here it would be better to leave without a deal. While the Remainer cabal continues to plot and abuse the constitution in order to frustrate Brexit, it is extraordinary that they do not seem to realise that an even bigger and growing majority of citizens who, having voted Leave in the referendum, would not accept remaining in the EU

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Neil O’Brien: Fifty shades of conservatism

Neil O’Brien is MP for Market Harborough.

You might say socialism and liberalism are ideologies, while Conservatism is more like a character trait. But that’s not quite right. Socialism and liberalism are ideologies about maximising one thing, be it equality or freedom. In contrast, Conservatives believe in a wider variety of ideals.

So what kind of conservative are you?

Since the classic Liberal party gave way to Labour, we’ve been the party of the free market and sound money, even more so since the Thatcher/Reagan era. The free market is a such huge part of what we are about, it tends to dominate, but there’s much more to conservatism.

Perhaps you are a law and order Conservative: patron saint Thomas Hobbes, who, inspired by his experience of the civil war, observed that without strong authority and law and order, life tends to be “nasty, brutish and short.”

But in a nice example of how conservative ideas fit together, a strong law and order policy is also a One Nation policy: because who suffers when there is crime and disorder? Those who live in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods are 50 per cent more likely to be victims of crime than those in the richest fifth.

Or perhaps you are a constitutional conservative. Do you believe in keeping the Monarchy? A House of Lords that isn’t elected? Do you believe in keeping first past post elections, and an unwritten constitution? Do you believe in the common law and rule of law? Those ideas are more important now Labour believes in expropriation of your pension, your shares, your house, and anything else that isn’t screwed down.

Perhaps you’re a conservative because you believe in Liberty. Habeas Corpus. Limits on Government. Legal protection of personal and family life. Liberty always raises contentious issues like hunting or drugs. Or think of recent cases like the gay marriage cake. I thought the courts got it right: a business can’t refuse to serve gay people, but people can’t be made to promote political views they don’t hold, even if I disagree with those views.

What do we think about the growing deployment of live facial recognition technology in public places? Liberty lovers might want to ban it. Law and order fans might want to allow it.

Liberty-loving conservatism can also clash with another ideal – social conservatism. Are you worried about family breakdown? What do you think about transgender issues? What do you think about full facial veils? That question pits liberty against traditional pattern of our society. France banned them, we allow them.

Do you think what you get out of the welfare system should be linked to what you put in? And how should we make choices about immigration: do we just think about migrants’ skills and earnings, or how easily they will integrate into our culture? I incline to the latter view.

One big idea that I think fits under social conservatism is the idea of the nation state. National self-determination and the lack of a shared European demos powers the idea of Brexit, but it also explains why we are prepared to make compromises to try and keep the United Kingdom together.

Zooming down from the nation to the individual, conservatism is about individual self-reliance. That’s why we strongly support individual home ownership. Mrs Thatcher expressed this well. She said that people: “are casting their problems at society. And, you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”

Things like the doubling of the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Living Wage – and also welfare reforms – are about self reliance. George Osborne was onto something when he talked about a “higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare spending” society. Personally, I believe tax should be based on the ability to pay, and so we should bring back the higher tax allowances for children Labour abolished in the 1970s.

But conservatives don’t just believe in individualism. We are the society party. Civic conservatives know that many problems can’t be solved by either the free market or the state. David Cameron said: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same as the state.” When we think about problems like loneliness in an ageing society, we can only solve them by catalysing and helping voluntary groups and family life. The Big Society may have been a good idea, badly timed. But the ideal of voluntary action remains very attractive, I find particularly to younger conservatives.

Conservatism is also about gradualism. Burke attacked the French revolution as a huge, risky, leap-in-the-dark.
Gradualism is behind all our biggest policy successes. Welfare reforms started under Peter Lilley, continued under New Labour, and then under another Conservative government – and now have the record employment. The academy schools programme also spanned governments: from Kenneth Baker to Gavin Williamson.

In contrast, Socialists believe in utopian leaps. In the USSR and under China’s Great Leap Forward millions died, yet John McDonell still says, “I am a Marxist”. In contrast we should be proud gradualists. What do we want? More use of evidence. When do we want it? After randomised control trials.

As well as gradualism, Conservatism is about pluralism and decentralisation. Environmentalists have shown us why it is dangerous to have a monoculture of anything, because if things then go wrong, they do so on a huge scale. Think about the Irish potato famine.

Take a more recent policy example: during the heyday of disastrous progressive teaching methods, they swept all before them. But independent schools and grammar schools were a bastion for traditional methods (like phonics), which could then make a comeback after trendy methods failed.

Devolution allows experimentation. In the US they say the states are “laboratories of democracy”. Ideas like welfare reform or zero tolerance policing were tried locally and taken up nationally when they worked. Conservatives also believe in pluralism in a deeper way. People have different ideas of the good life.

That’s one reason I think we should keep the honours system – to recognise those who are motivated by something other than money, whether they want to serve their country on the battlefield, or help their community by running a youth club. That should inform our thoughts on things like childcare. Do we just focus on maximising employment or education? Or let people choose if they want to be stay at home parents?

I’m sure readers will point out things I’ve missed. But those are some of the main elements of Conservatism.
Law and order. The Constitution. Liberty. Social Conservatism. Civic Conservatism. Individual-self reliance.
Gradualism. Pluralism. Ideas that are sometimes in tension, but which fit together.

Conservatism is a bit like the roof of parliament’s Westminster Hall: which is held up by a lot of huge, ancient beams all resting on each other. Likewise, the elements of conservatism fit together, and have also made something really strong and enduring.

This article is based on a contribution by the author to a Centre for Policy Studies event, “Free Exchange: The case for conservatism”, at last week’s Conservative Party Conference.

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Ryan Shorthouse: Brexit is seeing struggle enough. Communitarians and libertarians don’t have to be in conflict.

Ryan Shorthouse is the Founder and Chief Executive of Bright Blue.

After Brexit – and trust me, that glorious day must one day come – the Centre-Right will face another blistering battle. Between two camps fighting for their philosophy to be prevalent in the Conservative Party’s domestic policymaking and public offer: freedom-fighting liberals versus socially-conscious communitarians.

This tension has been simmering for some time, especially since the 1990s when Conservative politicians and thinkers sought to challenge the caricature of Thatcherism, which had been adopted by opponents, even members, of the Conservative Party: of excessive individualism, of just leaving people and businesses to get on with it. They instead championed a civic conservatism, which DavId Cameron rebranded ‘the Big Society’, that sought to emphasise and nurture what lay between the individual and the state: family, charity, community.

The Cameron years managed to unite both camps. Deep fiscal retrenchment, necessitated by the financial crash of the late noughties, saw a shrinking of the state that appealed to the libertarians. But there was cuddlier conservatism too: think same-sex marriage, the increase in the minimum wage, the sugar tax, and the Troubled Families programme.

Then Theresa May ended the truce, foolishly and unnecessarily picking a fight with both libertarians and liberals within the centre-right movement. Right at the start of her 2017 general election manifesto, she declared: “We must reject the ideological templates by…the libertarian right and embrace the mainstream view that recognises the good that government can do.”

This was a political mistake. Instead of uniting the Right against a straightforwardly socialist threat, she and her coterie indulged in the stuff of student seminars and sought to settle scores. It’s too early to tell which direction Boris Johnson will head on domestic policymaking. He’s keen on a quirky but vague philosophy of ‘boosterism’. And he’s surrounded himself – both around the Cabinet table and in Number 10 – with folks in both camps.

He’d be wise to not pick sides, but instead draw on both traditions. Not just for political reasons, but philosophical ones too. The ideas of liberals and communitarians are not necessarily conflicting – in fact, they can be complementary.

Communitarians will often criticise modern liberalism for going too far, of prizing geographic and social mobility that has wrenched people from family and community life, which is good for their wellbeing. This is a peculiar argument. If people have been pushed into a life that is miserable, then it cannot really be said that they are free. It seems nonsensical to me to suggest that liberalism – a philosophy with individual decision-making at its heart – can force people into a way of living.

A lot of this is lifecycle stuff, to be honest. As people become older, settle down and have kids, familial and civic life understandably matters more. But when you do grow up, there’s no need to be so guilty about your carefree, hedonistic youth. And suddenly sermonising to twentysomethings about their supposed narcissism makes you not only a tad hypocritical, but a needless killjoy.

Young people who leave the place they grew up in to chase their dreams and some fun, typically in London, should not be made to feel they have abandoned their families or communities. Such an argument, which has become increasingly commonplace, is rooted in envy. It is judgementalism fuelled by stereotypes not facts. It echoes what used to be said, sometimes still is sadly, about mothers who go back to work. Just because you’re ambitious professionally, doesn’t mean you don’t talk to and support your family and friends, even when they’re miles away. There are enough hours in the day to do both. In fact, there’s lots of evidence showing people in the UK today are managing to work more and spend more time with their families in a typical day than previous decades.

This notion that there is a whole class of people – university-educated professionals living in big cities – that have no time for civil life and are rootless ‘anywheres’, as the thinker David Goodhart puts it, is baloney. Communitarians are right: nearly all of us are social animals, craving connections and community. But people should have the freedom to find communities they’d like to join – which match their interests and outlook – rather than having to settle for only what they were born into. And if communities are to survive and thrive, they need to be inviting of people from different backgrounds. These are foundational principles for a modern, ethnical and popular philosophy: liberal communitarianism.

The Conservative Party should stand for both the liberal stress on independence and the communitarian emphasis on interdependence. They need each other. The goals of liberalism—individual flourishing, power and respect—can only emerge through the support and guidance of others. Conversely, the interdependency communitarians care about most can only truly be realised if we respect the liberal insight that all and different individuals are equally worthy.

A One Nation party needs to represent people all of ages, from young adults who want the freedom to spread their wings to those who seek stronger roots when they get older.

This article is taken from the autumn edition of Centre Write, Bright Blue’s Magazine.

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WATCH: Cameron – “Is the cause of a modern, compassionate Conservative Party lost? Absolutely not.”

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WATCH: Cameron’s advice for Johnson – “No deal is not a good idea…focus everything on getting that deal”

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‘We probably didn’t cut enough’ may be the most important revelation from Cameron’s book

Understandably, most of the headlines about David Cameron’s new book have been dominated by other angles – be it his views on the EU referendum, on Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, or, thanks to the Guardian, the question of whether ‘privilege’ dulls the pain of loss – but it strikes me that when the current news agenda has subsided, some of the most lasting elements of the book are likely to be his reflections on public spending and austerity.

Here’s the crucial passage (with my emphasis):

‘Looking back over our first few months at the helm of Britain’s economy in 2010, what do I think? Did we cut too much?

My assessment now is that we probably didn’t cut enough. We could have done more, even more quickly, as smaller countries like Ireland had done successfully, to get Britain back in the black and then get the economy moving.

Those who were opposed to austerity were going to be opposed — and pretty hysterically — to whatever we did. Given all the hype and hostility, and yes, sometimes hatred, we might as well have ripped the plaster off with more cuts early on. We were taking the flak for them anyway. We should have taken advantage of the window of public support for cuts when it was open.’

It’s 2019, so the immediate reaction from various people has been to fire up the Outrage Bus about the very idea, which incidentally rather demonstrates his point about hysterical opposition regardless of the facts of an argument.

But ignore the ranters and consider the implications of Cameron’s conclusion. This was a live and controversial debate throughout his time as Leader of the Opposition, and well into the Coalition years. As Campaign Director of the TaxPayers’ Alliance between 2007 and 2010 I saw some of it first-hand.

Remember that despite the retrospective demonisation he has since been subjected to, Cameron was never desperate to reduce public spending. He didn’t see it as inherently wise or responsible to balance the books – or, at least, not sufficiently so to make it a priority.

In his 2019 account of events he writes that:

‘It doesn’t require a degree in economics to appreciate that if you keep spending faster than the economy grows, and faster than tax revenue grows, eventually you will be in trouble. Which Britain had been doing…’

but back in the first few years of his leadership he did not seem to appreciate this truth.

In 2007, George Osborne committed the Conservatives to matching Labour’s spending plans, whatever they might be, in Government. That could never have happened without Cameron’s consent, and the thinking was quite clear: they saw fiscal discipline as a reputational risk, and were keen to square it away by reusing the tactic Blair used a decade earlier to square away concerns about Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility. To reiterated: they felt that pledging to mimic Gordon Brown’s approach to fiscal policy was safer electorally than espousing the more traditional conservative view that Cameron now says was obvious.

If you doubt that, consider that it took until the second half of November 2008 before the Conservative leadership was finally willing to abandon that pledge. Then, Cameron argued that

‘The world has moved on. People are not fools… after 11 years of waste and broken promises from Labour, [voters] can see that spending more and more alone does not guarantee that things get better.’

What had ‘moved on’ most fundamentally was the start of the financial crisis, of course. By the time Cameron and Osborne changed policy, banks had started collapsing, the economy had been shrinking for months, and the crisis was well underway. Just as they had ignored the urgings of fiscal conservatives before pledging to match Labour’s spending plans, so they had resisted the growing pressure to abandon the pledge. They did so in the end, but it took months before the inherent truth of a conservative position became obvious to the point of being irresistible.

After that battle came a new disagreement about the scale and pace of fiscal restraint if and when the Conservatives got into power. Given the context above, it isn’t hard to imagine that there was still heavy reluctance to be radical in the scale or the pace of spending reductions. And yet there was a strong case to do so – in September 2009 the Institute of Directors and the TaxPayers’ Alliance produced a report proposing savings of £50 billion and explicitly arguing that the UK ought to follow the example of Canada in achieving a ‘rapid and durable fiscal consolidation’.

The political argument was precisely that which Cameron now espouses: that it is harder to go slow than to go quickly on such measures. Just as the original spending policy appeared to assume that voters and conditions would not change between 1997 and 2010, Cameron’s recognition in 2008 that ‘the world has moved on’ seemed to neglect the possibility that people might start to change their minds yet again once an austerity programme had been underway for some years.

He is correct now that there was a ‘window of public support for cuts’ that was not inevitably going to stay open forever. But there were voices telling him this at the time; they just weren’t listened to. It reflects well on him that he is willing and able to recognise – on this topic, at least – that error. (It’s notable, by the way, that George Osborne does not seem to have done so.)

The change in the former Prime Minister’s opinion has consequences today, beyond some people now having the right to say ‘I told you so’.

For a start, it’s a simple reminder that fundamental fiscal conservative principles exist for a reason, and are wise to follow. Imagine the political impact had Cameron already been arguing before the financial crisis that Brown was living beyond his means, rather than promising to do the same.

More specifically, it’s a lesson in the practical politics of doing what voters often call on the Conservatives to do: take the tough decisions after Labour mess things up. Such permission is powerful, but it can also be temporary. Fail to recognise that there is a ticking clock, and you risk failing to deliver on the mission you have been given.

Finally, it throws into relief the fact that there currently isn’t much discussion of fiscal policy in any direction on the centre right. What is the current fiscal policy, and what are the alternatives? Stian Westlake and Sam Bowman’s recent pamphlet on ‘Reviving Economic Thinking on the Right‘ is a rare example of people engaging in the necessary thought and debate which is required to answer those questions, but more should follow their lead and get stuck in. That’s the best way to avoid repeating the errors of a decade ago.

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Daniel Hannan: Cameron maligns Brexiteers because he misunderstands them

Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.

Everyone agrees that David Cameron made a terrible blunder when he called the referendum. Everyone, that is, except the country at large.

Journalists and politicians, civil servants and diplomats, subscribers to the Economist and the Financial Times, half-clever readers who get their opinions downstream from the Davos schmoozefest – all these people tell each other that the Brexit referendum was the worst mistake any British leader has made since the loss of the Americas. All forget how widespread the desire for a referendum was in 2015.

The Liberal Democrats, who now say that Cameron’s decision was “unforgiveable”, were demanding an In/Out referendum long before he was. Jo Swinson, along with the rest, told us as long ago as 2008 that only “a referendum on the major issue of in or out of Europe” would do. By 2013, plenty of Labour and Conservative MPs were taking the same line, largely in response to pressure from their constituents. There is no dishonour here: it is how a democracy is supposed to work.

Oddly, Cameron appears to have adopted the world-view of his critics. He defends his decision to call a referendum, but he does so…well, defensively. The line he takes in his memoirs is, in effect, that the referendum was forced on him by a combination of public demand and EU inflexibility. He had no choice but to go to the country, though he bitterly regrets the result. He reveals that he phoned EU leaders, as well as Barack Obama, to apologise for the way people voted. He still beats himself up about the whole thing.

For what it’s worth, I have always felt the former Prime Minister gets a tough rap. We forget the state the country was in when he took over: Gordon Brown had left us with a higher deficit than Greece’s. Cameron brought us back from the brink calmly and unfussily. Since stepping down, he has behaved with dignity – unlike, it must be said, every other living former Prime Minister. True, the timing of his memoirs is unfortunate, but that is hardly his fault: Brexit was supposed to have been done and dusted by now.

One thing, though, leaps out of Cameron’s book. He never really got Euroscepticism or Eurosceptics. He sees opposition to European amalgamation as an eccentricity verging on a mild mental disorder. The idea that it might matter to people more than, say, party loyalty leaves him genuinely nonplussed: “Michael [Gove] had backed something he did perhaps believe in, but in the process had broken with his friends and supporters,” he writes, in unfeigned bewilderment.

Gove did indeed pay a high price, because he was convinced that Britain would be better off outside the EU. He acted, in other words, from principle. But Cameron can’t understand how anyone could feel that way, and so puts it down to some sort of character flaw.

Similarly, he writes of the present Prime Minister: “Boris had become fixated on whether we could pass legislation that said UK law was ultimately supreme over EU law.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to him that this question – the essence of what it means to be an independent country – might genuinely matter. Johnson, we are invited to assume, cannot truly have cared about what Cameron describes as the “bugbear of the most evangelical Eurosceptics”. The only explanation for his behaviour, the former leader implies, is careerism.

In fact, Johnson – a long-standing critic of Euro-federalism – was tortured by the sovereignty question. I know, because I spent much of 2015 trying to persuade him to come out for Leave. Never once did he give any indication that he was weighing up which side would win. On the contrary, he kept coming back to the issue of legal primacy. If we could settle that then, as far as he was concerned, we could put up with the rest. But if we couldn’t, then staying in the EU would mean, over time, becoming a European province.

I am pretty sure that, if Cameron had been able to address this issue – the issue that had been the sticking point for Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Hugh Gaitskell and the other Eurosceptic Long Marchers – he would have won the support, not just of Johnson and Gove, but of the majority of the electorate. But he could never see the problem. He couldn’t – and he still can’t – believe that anyone is genuinely bothered by what he sees as an absurd and abstruse abstraction. No wonder he feels hurt.

Sadly, in his annoyance, he reruns the referendum campaign, angrily accusing the other side of dishonesty. And here, I’m afraid, he diminishes himself. After all, we can all remember that, right up until February 2016, he was solemnly declaring that, if he didn’t get the reforms he wanted, he would recommend a Leave vote. Now he says that will always blame himself for the “enormity” of withdrawal. At least he uses that word correctly, to mean dreadfulness rather than enormousness. But how are we to square that maudlin statement with his previous assurances that he would lead us out if he couldn’t tweak our membership terms? One of the two statements must be untrue.

We all have self-serving biases, of course. We all give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. When Cameron looks back at his previous promises, he doubtless sees them, not as lies, but as part of a standard political campaign. Here, for example, is how he explains his decision to resign as Prime Minister: “Why had I promised I would stay on if we lost? If I had admitted that there was any chance of my stepping down if remain lost, I would have jeopardised the referendum entirely.”

To which I say, “fair enough”. There is a difference between putting the best spin on your intentions during a campaign and calculated mendacity. The word “lie” should, in my view, be reserved for bigger offences than Cameron’s. It’s just that, with such a record, he should think twice before using the word “lie” about what was very obviously an honest mistake in one interview by Penny Mordaunt about whether Britain could veto Turkish accession.

More significant is the question of why he didn’t manage to get a better deal from the EU. This is the question that Remainers almost invariably avoid.

Had Cameron come back with any retrieval of power or, indeed, with a sovereignty amendment of the sort that Gove and Johnson had wanted, he would have won the referendum. But the EU was readier to lose its second financial contributor than to allow any diminution of its federal aspirations.

That inflexibility was the proximate cause of Brexit. It helps explain why, after the vote, it proved so hard for the two sides to agree on a common-market-not-common-government type of association. It remains the biggest barrier to a deal. Yet, bizarrely, it is hardly ever discussed. Even now, many Remainers would rather rail against the other side than face up to the reality of what the EU is turning into. The electorate as a whole, though, knows better.

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WATCH: Cameron – My Brexit regrets, my Brexit responsibility

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The Guardian’s dehumanising of Cameron confirms something ugly

I doubted that anyone could be unmoved by reading, in yesterday’s Sunday Times, the extract from David Cameron’s book about his son, Ivan.

It had a dual power – simultaneously communicating the love, loss and heartbreak of a bereaved parent, while leaving the reader certain that the full scale of each emotion was in reality beyond the reckoning of those of us who are mercifully trying to understand it from a distance. We can all conceive of the awfulness of such a situation in our imagination, reelingly and sickeningly so with the aid of an honest and effective writer, but none of us can truly appreciate the truth of it. Even the recounting left me – and many other readers, judging from the comments below the extract – with a tear in my eye.

Perhaps the author of this morning’s Guardian editorial had not read the extract in question. I certainly hope that’s the case, because had they done so it would be all the more inexcusable to have written this passage (now deleted by the newspaper):

‘Mr Cameron has known pain and failure in his life but it has always been limited failure and privileged pain. The miseries of boarding school at seven are entirely real and for some people emotionally crippling but they come with an assurance that only important people can suffer that way. Even his experience of the NHS, which looked after his severely disabled son, has been that of the better functioning and better funded parts of the system. Had he been forced to wrestle with the understaffed and over-managed hospitals of much of England, or had he been trying to get the system to look after a dying parent rather than a dying child, he might have understood a little of the damage that his policies have done.’

Like Cameron’s account of his experience, this has a dual impact. The first is an almost physical revolt against how vile and unfeeling it is to diminish and dismiss his family’s loss as merely “privileged pain”.

Obviously there is no such thing. Pain is pain – privilege might spare one a pain in the first place, but it cannot dull a parent’s feeling at the suffering of their child, nor provide a route to bypass the agony of bereavement.

It’s in the implication that it can do such things that the second impact of those words can be found.

The anonymous leader writer does not lack empathy entirely – indeed, they appear to issue their cruel verdict as an illustration of their empathy for those they see as victims of Cameron’s policies. Rather, this is a targeted lack of empathy, inspired by a political choice.

Most obviously it’s a particularly obscene outgrowth of the politics of envy: literally dehumanising Cameron because of his “privilege”, as though money or power gave him a thicker skin, or excised the part of his soul which mourns his son.

But it isn’t just that. Presumably the writer doesn’t believe this of all people blessed with privilege – or they would feel the same about their many Guardian colleagues who are fortunate to be well-heeled, well-educated and prominent in public life. No, this isn’t simply about the rich – it’s about the rich and right-wing being a different, supposedly inhumane, breed.

In other words, political disagreement, as well as a fortunate background, made the former Prime Minister a valid target for such treatment. I doubt it was deliberate; rather it has become a baked-in cultural assumption in some quarters, an unthinking bigotry which starts off from principles that the holder believes makes them a nice person and carries them by logical extension to a really rather unpleasant place.

That error is not new. Years ago, when Cameron occasionally made public reference to the widely known fact of his bereavement – something he could hardly hide, even had he wanted to, which I doubt – some were sufficiently partisan as to suggest that he was somehow seeking political advantage. Such people did not used to write national newspaper leaders, but apparently the beliefs that underlie such behaviour are spreading.

In that sense, the sorry episode is emblematic of a vicious undercurrent of our times. Even the original tweet flagging the Guardian’s comments began ‘I’m no fan of David Cameron but…’. That ought not to need saying – empathy if it is anything is free of implications of political alliance. That it was said is less a reflection on the Tweeter than the mean-spirited environment into which she knew she was stepping.

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