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Political column – Saturday

By Toby Neal | Politics | Published:

Don't blame yourself Dave.

It wasn't your fault.

As he goes round plugging his new book, David Cameron has been wringing his hands and saying he accepts his share of responsibility for the Brexit imbroglio.

Blame him if you want. But that lets the true architects of this mess off the hook.

Step forward, John Major and Tony Blair.

They have suddenly become very keen on referendums to "give people a say." But had they given the British people a say on the UK's future within the EU at two key points, we would not be where we are today.

Their failure to seek the public nod of approval set off a slow process of moving of tectonic plates.

For years this went undetected or wilfully ignored by the political classes. There were some insignificant rumblings and tremors, but as they looked around their little world and sought comfort in their group mindset, the landscape seemed the same as it had always been.

Poor David Cameron was the sucker who thought he would drill down, confident that the outcome would be an apathetic sputter. Instead he triggered an earthquake, years of democratic deficit released.

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In the only previous occasion the public had been given a direct vote, the national approval rating for the EU (or Common Market, as it was) was 67 per cent. By 2016 it had fallen to 48 per cent.

There is a lot of talk these days about how the 2016 referendum result has robbed the young generation of their future.

But it is the young generation which turned against the EU. Not the young generation of today, but the teenagers of the 1970s and young adults of the liberal swinging sixties who so overwhelmingly voted to cement Britain's place in the then Common Market in the 1975 referendum.

After a 41-year road test of this particular product, these same voters gave a damning judgment in 2016. Quelle surprise for our politicians.

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In 1975 Salopians were even more in favour of continuing EU membership than the national picture, with 72 per cent voting to Remain. In 2016 this had fallen to 43 per cent in Shropshire, and just 37 per cent in Telford & Wrekin.

If the 2016 old voters were the same as the 1970s young voters, that points to a tidal wave of disillusionment and changing of minds.

In the early 1990s Prime Minister Major faced rebellions from his MPs over the Maastrich Treaty. You will of course know that treaty inside out, but suffice to say it saw the end of the Common Market and the European Economic Community, and the birth of the European Union.

Had John Major called a referendum at that time, he would surely have won.

The Tory rebels were hopping up and down, but they were in a Parliamentary and political minority, and to the general public Maastricht seemed a bit abstract. Probably the public would have seen the referendum as a bit of a waste of time and would have wondered why he had bothered calling it in the first place.

But Prime Minister Major didn't call a referendum, in line with the political wisdom that these things were too important to be put to the public, and the politicians would decide on their behalf, armed with the mandate gained from general elections.

The next crucial point came on Tony Blair's watch. It was during his time that the EU went into expansion mode, with the addition of a host of East European states. Mix that in with the free movement rules – which looked modern and progressive – and the scene was set for major changes.

Had Tony Blair put EU membership to a referendum before the impact of the changes manifested themselves, he would surely have won as well.

In polls around that time, and until relatively recently, the EU was virtually invisible in the list of things people thought important or were concerned about.

Yet Blair didn't give the public a say.

For Remain, these were two missed opportunities, under Major and Blair. Both had a chance to gain a democratic seal of approval which would have lasted at least a generation.

They could have reset the clock. Instead, David Cameron inherited a legacy of a building momentum which he imagined was a little local difficulty, easily managed.

He was not alone among politicians in failing to sense how profound was the movement of the ground beneath their feet.

Cameron's commitment to an in-out referendum seemed like party political tactics to confront and defeat UKIP.

In any event, he was not expected to win an overall majority in the 2015 general election, and a hung Parliament would have been a good excuse to drop the referendum idea on the basis that there was no mandate to hold one.

However, he won, and the die was cast. Having fought an election with the in-out referendum being a central manifesto commitment, he was left with no option but to honour that manifesto pledge because, as we all know (irony alert), no politician would dream of going back on a manifesto commitment.

So you don't have to apologise for doing what you said you would do, David.

What you can apologise for is for running such a rubbish Remain campaign.

Toby Neal

By Toby Neal
Feature Writer

A journalist in Shropshire for 40 years, mainly writes features and columns, especially about aspects of Shropshire history. Lives in Telford and is based at the Ketley headquarters.

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