Before you blame ‘Leave’ voters, blame the man that started it all.
In his review for the Evening Standard of David Cameron’s new memoir, George Osbourne recalls the night of the EU referendum. He describes himself and Cameron as “helpless witnesses to an event that destroys our careers, wrecks our political project and […] ends an era of political stability and rationality”. Over three years have passed since the results of the EU referendum were announced, yet it still seems neither Cameron nor Osbourne have taken any real responsibility for the major role they played in the remain campaign’s defeat and the subsequent pandemonium that Brexit has turned into.
Osbourne’s attempt to portray the pair of them as innocent victims of Brexit is laughable; both Tory and Labour voters alike will tell you that they were, in fact, the perpetrators. Not just because of their poorly-run remain campaign, their naivety, and recklessness in having no real plan for the possibility of leave; nor because of their selfishness in calling for an EU referendum primarily to heal divisions within the Conservative party. The real crime in all this was the creation by the Tory government of the abysmal social and economic conditions within the UK that made a victory for leave almost inevitable. A report by the Social Market Foundation, which analysed the severity of welfare cuts in each area of the UK, alongside each area’s growth in support for UKIP, showed that austerity had a central role in the result of the EU referendum with those most negatively affected by austerity being most likely to support leave. Since 2010, over £30bn of welfare cuts have been made in the UK. The UN criticised the government for inflicting “great misery” on citizens with their “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies; yet last month David Cameron said his biggest regret about austerity was that he didn’t make the cuts “harder and faster”.
Since the referendum, many have referred to the power of Boris Johnson’s vastly exaggerated pledge to spend £350m a week on the NHS instead of the EU – famously plastered on the side of a bus – in influencing people to vote leave. However, similar exaggerations were made by the remain campaign; take then-chancellor of the exchequer, George Osbourne’s, threats of a “punishment budget” of £30bn total tax rises and spending cuts were the UK to vote leave. Why wasn’t this as effective at convincing people to vote remain as Boris’ bus was in convincing people to vote leave? The answer is obvious: we were already living under a punishment budget, we had already suffered billions of pounds of cuts, and Cameron and Osbourne’s threats of a post-apocalyptic society after Brexit were unlikely to scare the families reliant on food banks to survive, or the severely disabled person deemed “fit for work” by the Department for Work and Pensions: how much worse could things get?
Another undeniably major factor in the outcome of the EU referendum was the increasingly negative public perception of immigration. Indeed, the UN has warned that a “growth in the acceptability of explicit racial, ethnic and religious intolerance” has occurred since the EU referendum, but this seems a massive undersight; racial hatred and anti-immigrant sentiment was already festering prior to the referendum, and was only emboldened by the Cameron government, both in policy and in rhetoric. Under Cameron’s leadership, vans reading “Go Home or Face Arrest” patrolled the UK in a bid to scare illegal immigrants. During his premiership, Cameron also came under fire for falsely accusing Sadiq Khan of sharing platforms with so-called IS supporters, and for referring to refugees in Calais as a “bunch of migrants” during Prime Minister’s Questions. Massive welfare cuts and what was described as the “biggest crackdown on trade unions for 30 years” under Cameron also led to many blaming immigrants for poor public services, low wages, and poor working conditions. With people angry at immigrants and not the Tories, it is unsurprising that Cameron only sought to deepen racial, ethnic, and religious divisions whilst he was prime minister.
Remarkably, despite David Cameron and the Conservative party under his leadership creating exactly the oppressive and hostile environment needed for a leave victory, it seems ordinary leave voters are bearing the brunt of the blame for the disaster of Brexit. Let’s be clear, leave voters did not gamble the future of our country to heal divisions within their own party, and leave voters were not the ones who failed to properly prepare for the possibility of Brexit: it was David Cameron who did that, and it is he and the rest of the government who must be held responsible.