The EU referendum: what precisely did it seek to settle?

The EU referendum. So 2016, I know.

But crossing my Twitter timeline several times late yesterday evening were references to this post, from a blog also hosted on WordPress, by Dominic Cummings, whose most immediate former guise was the Campaign Director for Vote Leave. (Just for posterity, here is his car-crash appearance before the Treasury Committee back in April, being comprehensively ‘kebabed’, to use a word from a former political generation, by the Chair, Andrew Tyrie, not least on the words written in his campaign’s leaflets as well as on that bloody bus.) My post here is not intended to be a response to Cummings – I haven’t read the post, only glanced through it – and no doubt he highlights some important lessons which political campaigners will be taking into account in future campaigns.

I’m not a particular fan of 20,000-word blog posts, for a number of reasons, especially when they seek to dress up barely-disguised revisionism with the use of cod-history. However, Cummings’s latest effort is noteworthy for a couple of reasons and I did want to contribute a few thoughts about the important issues he raises.

Firstly, he spends a lot of time distancing himself from the events of the summer. Apart from the thoughts of writing about the referendum making him ‘feel sick’ (though he seems to have overcome that now: a catharsis, of a type), Cummings confesses to having kept no diary and to having a ‘lousy memory’ – both of which make him something of an unreliable witness, even at this short distance (as indeed does his desire to put the knife into others at frequent intervals). Most importantly, we should not lose sight of Cummings being politically closely associated with Michael Gove, and that his work (not least here) is informed fundamentally by that relationship. Cummings also comments that ‘by far the best’ book on the referendum thus far otherwise encourages people ‘to exaggerate greatly my importance’. For the person who was the Campaign Director on the winning side of the referendum, this is quite an astonishing admission. It doesn’t seem to stem from false modesty, and neither is it in any way an apology for it (at least, not yet). But if Cummings is indeed attempting now to minimise his role in the campaign, or distance himself from it, why on earth would he do that?

Secondly, this led me to wonder about Cummings’s own motivations to get involved at such a senior, strategic level with such a potentially-disastrous campaign (as he himself initially sets out): what burning views did he himself have as to why the UK should leave the EU? There is, buried among the ramblings and the political knifings, a brief section on ‘why’ about three-quarters of the way through, containing four views of his own. Cummings’s view seems to be that we should indeed leave the EU, but his reasons for doing so, as set out here, are, quite frankly, half-formed, incoherent and contradictory. I don’t actually want to repeat or respond to them here (although responding would be very easy). Unsurprisingly, perhaps, giving the money that we spend on the EU to the NHS doesn’t feature among these reasons (although Cummings does report elsewhere in the piece that spending some of it in this way was his own view about what should happen).

But my point here is that this, by itself, is also quite astonishing. Cummings is a professional campaigner and a political activist: acting by a set of principles and values, and believing in the things that you espouse when you campaign for things, probably comes more easily in one of these roles than the other; and professional campaigners, like lawyers, have little reason to inspect too closely the morals of those for whom they work. But for a Campaign Director of one of the two designated EU referendum campaigns not to have a clear, coherent and robust view on the major political issue of the day, which will shape this country’s future over the next century, is notable.

For me, Cummings’s post simply re-emphasises and reinforces the existing view that the referendum was about the divisions within the Tory Party and not about the EU and, in Cummings’s case, designed to elevate the political ambitions of Gove in particular. We all knew or at least suspected that so, in this respect, he has done us all a bit of a favour. Having – and importantly – secured the official ‘anti’ campaign designation from the UKIP-dominated Leave.EU, Vote Leave never expected to win the campaign, or to have actually to deal with the aftermath of a referendum which emerged with the result it espoused; it thought this was its best chance to do serious damage (in internal party political terms, and acknowledging that not all in Vote Leave were Tories) to Cameron. Hence the sclerosis in government now on the issue (and, indeed, in Labour: compare this, today, with this at the time of the development of the – actually, very good – Conference policy): the government is scrambling around to address a policy outcome that was actually a side-issue to the main reasons why the campaign was run and which few of the individuals now in government actually wanted. No wonder Brexit seems to mean no more than Brexit. Or a red, white and blue Brexit. Or a hard Brexit that is, honestly, not really a hard Brexit. Clarity is, indeed, not only long overdue but really, one would think, quite important. (And that, by the way, is one of the reasons why parliament – not government – must instigate this process.)

Using the EU to further Conservative Party politics, and juggling so lightly with this country’s economic, political and social future in consequence: no wonder the thought of his role in retrospect, given subsequent events, makes Cummings ‘feel sick’.

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