David Cameron’s Referendum Speech: In and Out of Europe

The question of Europe has fashioned the fortunes of British political party leaders, in particular, Conservative Party leaders. It has significantly fashioned the image of the Conservative Party as a united – and more often disunited – party. Europe has been the issue that wracked the Conservative Party under the leadership of John Major (1990-1997). He was harassed by his own strident anti-Europeans (in part because his majority was so thin) and was unable to stop the public squabbling, and the dramatic underlining of his leadership status. As regards that leadership image, Major’s position as Prime Minister was undermined even by his own core executive. So to repeat, the European question fashions – positively, and especially negatively – leadership image, its mediation and political outcomes.

The editorial and journalistic responses to David Cameron’s speech on the UK’s membership of the European Union on 23rd January focused upon the impact that an ‘in/out’ referendum would have for the U.K. economy, its business, its electoral fortunes, and the fate and fortunes of the political parties, and its place in Europe. What has been neglected is what the speech tells us about how the whole question of Europe has affected Cameron’s leadership status, and how the speech itself was an attempt to reimpose his leadership upon the party and the country.

Cameron’s speech on the E.U. was delivered in London at the headquarters of Bloomberg (a U.S. based news service specialising on financial data) on 23/01/2013. In fact, a small part of the speech (the bit about the referendum) was given to the press the night before. The audience (the public, media and Europe) already had an indication of Cameron’s view on Europe – if he didn’t get a deal, he would hold a referendum on the UK’s membership. What we want to focus upon is the rest of the performance.

Cameron’s speech was, paradoxically, pro and anti-European, but both approaches were broadly ‘rightist’, and based upon sentiment rather than policy. The audience (the public, the media and ‘Europe’) were presented with his intention to renegotiate the terms of the U.K.’s E.U. membership, followed by an in/out referendum by 2017 if re-elected in 2015. But he began the speech with references to World War II and the shift in Europe ‘from war to sustained peace’. Thereafter, throughout the speech, Cameron used a tone that was almost reminiscent of the legacy of Empire and Britain as a traditional world power (on the one hand) and of neoliberalism (on the other) in order to justify his pro and anti-worldview on European Union membership. The traditional theme was contrasted with the modern theme of New Right neoliberalism.

References to Britain as a traditional world power, were, in a strange way, conditions for remaining part of the E.U. In his romanticisation of Britain’s history and Churchillian discourse (‘and in Europe’s darkest hour, we helped keep the flame of liberty alight’), Cameron provided an emotional perspective on the historical, and by evoking the character of Britain as open, independent, strong and proud appealed to both past and present populist sentiments. Through evoking of memories of British history, Cameron invented a shared relationship with the audience – or rather the multiple audiences, at home and abroad – upon a romantic Britishness, see extract below:

‘For all our connections to the rest of the world – of which we are rightly proud – we have always been a European power – and we always will be.

From Caesar’s legions to the Napoleonic Wars. From the Reformation, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution to the defeat of Nazism. We have helped to write European history, and Europe has helped write ours.

For all our connections to the rest of the world – of which we are rightly proud – we have always been a European power – and we always will be.

Over the years, Britain has made her own, unique contribution to Europe. We have provided a haven to those fleeing tyranny and persecution. And in Europe’s darkest hour, we helped keep the flame of liberty alight. Across the continent, in silent cemeteries, lie the hundreds of thousands of British servicemen who gave their lives for Europe’s freedom’.

There is a second theme in Conservative discourse that Cameron draws upon in the speech in order to justify an anti-European/renegotiation stance: neoliberalism, and this too an emotional disposition as much as a policy. The economic doctrine of the free market was pursued highly publicly, as was the celebration of individualism, privatisation, deregulation, and less state dependency under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher. For her, as for Cameron’s speech, these are both desirable and moral from a Rightist perspective. And Thatcher shifted the discourse of political towards personalised rather than to collective leadership. And it is in this tradition that New Right neoliberal dispositions were used by Cameron as the personalised-political to justify his renegotiation/anti-European stance. References to the Eurozone crisis, European competitiveness, the U.K.’s position on fiscal co-ordination and banking reform etc., were all presented as personal choices, decisions, and commitments; by contrasting two (historical and modern) Conservative themes, Cameron took on Churchillian and Thatcherite character traits, the two most highly personalised leaderships in Tory – indeed, in British – history.

The lack of policy detail in the speech and emphasis upon his mood, his wishes, and intentions, makes Cameron now committed to a personal struggle: for a new E.U. deal, to pushing back UKIP, and to personally holding onto Conservative support. The negotiation process will force Cameron to become clearer in policy terms, but his personal commitment will soon turn into a personality contest, as other European leaders react to his forthcoming E.U. political actions, and as political, diplomatic, and economic developments take their course.


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