I’ve just returned from a few days of work in London. They happened to coincide with yet another humiliating setback for Prime Minister Theresa May. This one on Thursday, at a summit in Salzburg, where a series of European Union leaders made painfully clear they considered her overarching attitude toward Brexit uncompromising, and her specific proposal for leaving the EU unworkable.
Pity the poor PM. Whatever her deficits as a leader, she was handed by her predecessor, former Prime Minister David Cameron, the weakest of possible hands. I have said for some time that Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum in which British voters could decide “leave” or “remain” – that is, quit the European Union or stay in it – was a miserably bad one. I am increasingly convinced that it was the single worst decision made by a leader of a liberal democracy in the last ten years.
Cameron was by every measure qualified to be the head of what even now, long after its prime, is one of the world’s most fabled nation states. He was highly educated, long experienced, and judged clever and competent. But it turned out he was a fool. He did not understand that leadership had changed, that followership had changed, and that he could not, therefore, simply presume that voters would follow his lead. He held a referendum on Brexit because he was sure he would win. He seems never to have carefully considered the possibility that he would lose. He seems never to have carefully considered the possibility that to have people to vote up or down on a proposal they could not possibly properly understand risked proving an historic mistake.
In consequence of Cameron’s 2016 referendum, the United Kingdom since has been consumed by this single issue – how to execute Brexit without doing irreparable harm to itself and, by extension, to the European experiment. Unless this question is reasonably resolved, the implications for Europe, and for the West more generally, threaten in the long run to mutate from damaging to dire.