The Prime Minister Who Cried Brexit (Ep. 392)
In 2016, David Cameron held a referendum on whether the U.K. should stay in the European Union. A longtime Euroskeptic, he nevertheless led the Remain campaign. So what did Cameron really want? We ask him that and much more — including why he left office as soon as his side lost and what he’d do differently if given another chance. (Hint: not much.)
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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Stephen J. DUBNER: You know, there’s research that shows that happy endings are really powerful, that even a bad experience — like going to the dentist or having a colonoscopy — if the last couple minutes is somehow made more pleasant, people remember the entire term as being not so bad. It strikes me that you got that exactly backwards with your political career.
David CAMERON: Well, obviously, as this uncertainty continues, there will be those who say, “Well, you made a promise about having a referendum, you kept that promise,” and that is a credit. But there’ll be those who say, “We shouldn’t have had a referendum, and look what’s followed,” and I accept my share of responsibility for the situation we face. Look, at some stage, this will be resolved. We will either leave with a deal and people will see a sort of certain path for Britain on the outside of the E.U. but with a partnership with it that I believe will be very close. Or, who knows, maybe we’re going to get so stuck we have to go to a general election or a referendum and that might mean a different outcome. One way or the other, this uncertainty has to come to an end. It has gone on already for too long, and I for one can’t wait for it to end.
Today on Freakonomics Radio: the man who many people believe to be singularly responsible for Brexit: David Cameron, former prime minister of the United Kingdom. He explains why he called for the referendum that effectively ended his political career. And he explains the other stressful parts of being prime minister.
CAMERON: It is very intense — very noisy, pretty terrifying.
CAMERON: I found in the end I just couldn’t trust what he was saying.
All this from a man who, it turns out, loves American football.
CAMERON: Yes, I’m a bit of a cheesehead, actually.
But not, alas, American cheese.
CAMERON: I think it’s one of the very few weaknesses of your great country.
David Cameron has just written one of the most candid political memoirs in recent memory. It’s called For the Record.
CAMERON: Well, the discipline I put on myself was thinking, what did you think then, what do you think now? What decisions do you think you got right, what decisions do you think you’ve got wrong? And look, all memoirs are exercises in self-justification, and I accept there’s quite a lot of self-justification in the book. But I tried to be honest about things that could have gone well, could have gone better.
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On June 23, 2016, voters in the United Kingdom — that’s England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — were asked to vote on a referendum put forward by Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party. It asked a simple question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” — the European Union, or E.U., being an economic and political consortium of 28 member states. The outcome of this Brexit vote, as you likely know, has been anything but simple. A couple foundational facts to keep in mind: Cameron was a longtime Euroskeptic, believing that the U.K. contributed much more to the E.U. than it got back. But: he also said he didn’t want the U.K. to actually leave; rather, he wanted to negotiate with the E.U. better terms on trade, regulation, immigration, and so on. So even though it was Cameron who put forth the Brexit referendum, he led the campaign for the U.K. to remain in the E.U., not to leave. The vote was widely expected to go his way — but then it didn’t.
ITV: An extraordinary moment in British history—
BBC: The British people have spoken, and the answer is: we’re out.
The vote was 52-48 percent in favor of leaving.
Channel 4: The immediate economic and political consequences tonight are grave, and the future deeply uncertain.
Those who voted to leave were thrilled:
Channel 4: We’ve got our country back!
But those who wished to remain — younger voters especially, and those concentrated in London, Scotland, and Northern Ireland — they blamed David Cameron. After all, who calls for a referendum, campaigns against it, and then loses? As weird as that was, it instantly got weirder. Cameron had promised to stay on as prime minister whatever the vote’s outcome:
CAMERON (archival): I will do everything I can as prime minister to steady the ship over the coming weeks and months.
But then he didn’t:
CAMERON (archival): But I do not think it would be right for me to try to be the captain that steers our country to its next destination.
His resignation had the whiff of noble intentions, but it wasn’t received that way. It was received as if Cameron were a party guest who’d knocked over a tower of Champagne glasses and then ran for the door. He was replaced as prime minister by Theresa May, his Home Secretary. She began trying to negotiate a sensible exit from the European Union. But no country had ever done that before, and as it turns out:
Nick SMITH: The ayes to the right, 202. The nos to the left, 432.
It was difficult, and complicated.
Theresa MAY: It is clear that the House does not support this deal. But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support.
Simon COVENEY: You can’t say we’re leaving the single market, the customs union, and the European Union, we’re going to do our own free- trade agreements across the world — and, by the way, you have to allow us seamless access into your market too. Why would the E.U. ever facilitate that?
Jeremy CORBYN: The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray.
The government had lost control of events and ultimately, Theresa May lost control of the Conservative Party. She had spent three years trying to come up with a workable Brexit strategy, and failed. This past July, May was replaced as prime minister by Boris Johnson, her former Foreign Minister and, before that, the Mayor of London. A few foundational facts to know about Boris Johnson: he and David Cameron are longtime frenemies. They’d gone to the same schools — Eton and Oxford; they ran in the same political circles; and they seemed to irritate and snipe at each other in equal measure.
CAMERON (archival): If any other politician anywhere in the world got stuck on a zipwire, it would be, you know, disastrous. But for Boris, it will be an absolute triumph.
Boris JOHNSON: I was pleased to see that you’ve called me a blond-haired mop in the pages. Well if I’m a mop, Dave, then you are a broom.
During the referendum campaign, Johnson, unlike Cameron, was in favor of Britain leaving the E.U. — although, as Cameron writes about Johnson in his book, “He seemed to have done almost no thinking about what sort of referendum, when it should be held, or what the government’s view should be.” Given Boris Johnson’s reputation for operating with more vigor than rigor, this may well be true — and yet, it is now Johnson’s job to extricate the U.K. from the European Union. The deadline, twice delayed, is currently set for Oct. 31. There may be a “soft” exit from the E.U., with trade and border terms and other details agreed upon in advance; or there may be a “hard” Brexit, with a complete separation from the E.U. — the equivalent of an acrimonious divorce. Either way, Johnson is determined to leave.
JOHNSON: And though I am confident of getting a deal, we will leave by October the 31st, in all circumstances. There will be no further pointless delay.
It’s been very messy — even messier than I’ve made it out to be. There was Boris Johnson’s unlawful suspension of Parliament; investigations into the campaign finances for the Leave campaign; rumors of Russian interference in the referendum vote — all of which have produced a deep reservoir of uncertainty.
Financial Times: So the big question is, what happens next?
MSNBC: Nobody knows what’s next.
Neil DWANE: People just want a decision, are we leaving or are we staying, but let’s just get on with it, because the uncertainty is now killing the economy.
One of the few constants since the vote has been resentment toward the man who pulled the Brexit trigger.
Danny DYER: He called all this on—
And then vanished:
DYER: Where is he? He’s in Europe, in Nice, with his trotters up, yeah? Where is the geezer?
But last week, David Cameron was in New York City.
CAMERON: Thank you. Great to be here.
Over the years, he’s spent a fair amount of time in the States.
CAMERON: I love coming here. It’s the only place where your politics is almost as crazy as our politics at the moment. The difference being that at least in the U.K., you can watch one television channel and find out roughly what’s going on. Here, if I watch Fox, I think the president is doing brilliantly. If I watch CNN, I think he’s about to go to prison.
DUBNER: So I’ve read what you’ve written. I’ve heard what you’ve said. I’ve heard what everyone else has said. People are so angry at you, in some quarters.
CAMERON: Well, you’ve got— I mean, the 52 percent of people who voted to leave the E.U., those people are pleased we had a referendum, are pleased that their voice got across. There are many also on the Remain side, on my side of the argument, who lost, who accept that a referendum was inevitable, or accept that a referendum was mandated by Parliament. I mean, nine out of 10 members of Parliament did actually vote to have a referendum. But I accept there are some people who won’t forgive me for holding a referendum. They didn’t think it was a good idea. And they’re furious that my side of the argument lost.
So how did it come to this? How did a relatively popular prime minister, who seemed to be doing a relatively good job of steadying his country after the global financial crisis — how did he produce such a calamity? To be fair, there were a number of contributing factors, as we’ll hear today: economic pressures within the U.K.; what the U.K. saw as intransigence within the E.U.; even a faraway civil war. But it would be wrong to understate the role of David Cameron himself. He represented a new breed of political leadership in the U.K., especially in the Conservative wing: he was younger than usual, and more chipper, with an optimistic bent and an embrace of what’s come to be called “compassionate conservatism”: sober on the fiscal front but open-minded on social issues like gay marriage and eager to address climate change. On many issues, if he lived in America, he could easily be mistaken for a centrist Democrat.
CAMERON: Well, that’s what Obama always used to say to me, but I used to say, “Please don’t say that publicly.”
Cameron is a political animal, as one must be to thrive in British politics. How does he rate as a thinker? That’s hard to say. He was well-bred, well-reared, well-educated, and he married well too; he is tall, quite handsome, and he has lovely manners. Knowing what we know about cognitive biases, it’s easy to see why he might also be perceived as brilliant, or at least very clever. There’s a telling anecdote in his memoirs, when Cameron is being interviewed by three “badly dressed and disheveled dons” as part of the university-admissions process. “I still shiver at the memory,” he writes. They were asking Cameron which philosophers he’d read; it turned out the answer was “not many.” The three men, he recalls, were “trying to work out whether you were just the product of a good education, or genuinely bright. They were pretty convinced that I was the former.”
Cameron became prime minister of the United Kingdom in 2010. His Conservative Party hadn’t won a clear majority in the election, so it had to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats — not a natural fit, at least ideologically, but a workable one, and it was the U.K.’s first coalition government since 1945. That said, it was not the best time to come to power: the global financial crisis was still deepening, casting long shadows in every direction.
CAMERON: Well, Britain— we actually had the biggest. I mean, here we are in New York City, where you were very affected. But actually, the biggest bank bailout was the Royal Bank of Scotland in Britain. I think the longest and deepest recession was ours, because our financial sector was so big. So yes, we were very affected, and I inherited a pretty difficult situation.
DUBNER: So talk about generally, for people who don’t follow it at all — you had to consider austerity, and you enacted some austerity. You also wanted to do a lot of reform in the realm of education, crime-fighting, streamlining the National Health Service. Talk about whether in retrospect you feel that the reforms and cuts were sufficient. There were good outcomes on some dimensions — you got the unemployment rate way, way down. But wage stagnation is still a big problem. And then debt is still very, very high.
CAMERON: Yes, the fundamental point is that when I became prime minister, the deficit forecast was for an 11 percent budget deficit, which would have given us the biggest budget deficit in the world. And by the time I left office, we’d cut that by two-thirds. So we still had a deficit, but it was well under control, and now it’s been virtually eradicated.
DUBNER: But the ratio of debt to G.D.P. is still relatively very high.
CAMERON: It is high, but it would be a lot — if we’d carried on with a 10 or 11 percent budget deficit. And I tried to explain in the book, it’s pretty dry stuff, your debt-to-G.D.P. ratio, but to me it’s a fundamental thing about political responsibility. If you allow the debt-to-G.D.P. ratio to get up towards 100 percent, there’s no capacity left when the next crisis hits. And I don’t believe we’ve abolished boom-and-bust, we’ve abolished the trade cycle. I know there’ll be another crisis at some stage, and you’ve got to have the capacity to deal with it.
Look, we knew that you couldn’t stand aside as financial institutions went to the wall. We’d learnt the lesson of the 1930s — which was, you must recognize the monetary nature of the crisis. But we were very concerned that the budget deficit was out of control, that we had to have a program to bring it back. And we fought the election — very rare for a party to fight an election on the basis of, we’re going to cut spending and we’re going to have to put up some taxes and we’re going to have to make some difficult decisions. But that gave us a sort of window of permission to take these difficult steps.
DUBNER: We should say also, one measure that you improved a lot on — which in this country we have not improved on — is income inequality.
CAMERON: Yes, I— I’m not saying we’ve entirely avoided the sort of Piketty thesis, and what’s gone wrong in America with stagnant wages at the bottom. But we saw huge job growth, and then we also saw — partly because of the changes we made — inequality actually went down rather than up. We did protect the poorest in a number of different ways. For instance, we froze public-sector pay, but we omitted from that freeze the very lowest-paid. We cut taxes for the lowest paid.
DUBNER: So we’re sitting here in 2019. Let’s pretend you were still P.M. You would have been— you’d be a year away from the end of your second term. And let’s pretend that Brexit had never happened.
CAMERON: Or we’d won the referendum, I suppose.
DUBNER: Or you won the referendum. Do you think that your administration would be seen as largely successful?
CAMERON: I think if we had won the referendum — I mean, if you go back to 2014, we were the fastest-growing country in the G7. We had a very good relationship, obviously, with yourselves. The “special relationship.” But we also had very good partnerships with India, with China. We had been ranked the second-greenest government in the world. We had been ranked the most open in terms of information, and we were a very transforming government in terms of digital and online services and the rest of it. I’m not saying we were perfect. Of course we weren’t. There were lots of problems to deal with. Some reforms that didn’t go right.
DUBNER: Name a few.
CAMERON: Well, the health reforms were less successful. I love our National Health Service. I’m a great believer in free health care. But I think our reforms were too much about changing the bureaucracy rather than really focusing on the problems our modern health service faces, which is actually the costs of looking after the elderly, the costs of people with multiple health conditions, and the sort of divide we have in Britain between health care, which is free, and social care which is means-tested. So there are lots of areas we could’ve done better. But it was, I would argue, if you leave Brexit to one side for a second, it was a successful government, economically and in terms of reform.
DUBNER: So it is hard to leave Brexit to one side obviously, because it came to dominate the conversation. The way I assess it, and I may be totally wrong, is that you and your administration were making significant progress in renegotiations with the E.U. — on immigration and regulations, and the power of national governments — but you felt you weren’t making enough progress. And, therefore, it seemed like a good idea to propose a referendum to create more leverage for further renegotiation — while, however, hoping and thinking that the referendum would fail, because then you went out and campaigned for the Remain side. That’s the calculus that for me is difficult to understand.
CAMERON: The calculus was this: that I knew we needed reform of our position in Europe, because of this problem of the changes in the Eurozone. I was hoping that a more general treaty change was coming down the track. And to me, the referendum and the renegotiation went together. You wouldn’t get much renegotiation without a referendum. And I wouldn’t want a referendum on its own, because you’d just be saying, “Do you want in or out on the status quo?” I want to improve on the status quo. So these things did go together.
I think the reforms we achieved, which were carving Britain out of ever-closer union — so for the first time the E.U. was accepting not that we were going to the same destination, but in a slightly slower way, but actually we had a different destination in mind to the rest of Europe. Hugely important. We also fully protected the pound sterling as our currency, recognizing that the euro was the currency of 18 of the 28 members, but it wasn’t for everybody.
DUBNER: I always wondered what England would have been like had you accepted the euro.
CAMERON: Well, I think if we had joined the euro, I’ve got a feeling the whole project might have come badly unstuck by now.
DUBNER: Badly unstuck meaning—
CAMERON: Well, if you go back— there’s an important chapter in the book about when I worked in the Treasury as an adviser when we were in the Exchange Rate Mechanism, which ultimately failed. And that was one of things that taught me, we should stay out of the euro. There are times when economies need different interest rates, different economic policies. And the problem with the euro is easily stated. Here we are in the United States, you’ve got a single currency called the dollar. If Texas has a bad year, it gets more in federal spending, it pays less in taxes, not that Texas ever does have a bad year, of course. We don’t have those fiscal offsets in the European Union.
So I’ve always believed that the euro is problematic, because you’re creating a currency, but without a single banking system, without a fiscal union, without offsets to deal with it. And I’ve always felt it inherently unstable. Had Britain joined it, which I think would have been a disaster for us, I think it probably would’ve been a disaster for the euro as well.
DUBNER: Was the original sin, in your view, in terms of the U.K., having joined the E.U. itself?
CAMERON: No. I believe that Europe is our biggest market and our neighbors and friends. Our relationship with the French and Germans and Italians and others is very, very close. And I’ve always believed—
DUBNER: Not as close today as it was a couple of years ago.
CAMERON: No. But don’t underestimate the sense of partnership and shared endeavor that there is, and that there will be, even when we leave the E.U. If we do so. We will be their closest friend, neighbor, and partner. So I’ve always believed, for Britain, it’s in our interest to be round at the table with the other members of the E.U., making sure that the rules of the market, which is our biggest market, suit us. And making sure that as we deal with Russia, or as we deal with Iran, that we have the leverage of working together and in many cases trying to lead. I’ve always loved that bit of Europe. What I’ve not liked is the sort of pretensions towards statehood that the E.U. has always loved — the flag and the parliament, and all the rest of it. So, like many British prime ministers, I was always sort of battling to stay in the bits that we liked but to try and carve us out a special place.
DUBNER: Well, it doesn’t seem so strange to me that lesser countries would want to feel that sentiment with a bigger union, because you already have it.
CAMERON: Well, there’s that aspect. If you’re a smaller European country, you feel sometimes your power enhanced, because you’re sat around that table. And often sitting round the E.U. table, you notice that the representatives from Malta or Cyprus or whatever, they’re loving it because they’re having— they’re around the big table. There’s that aspect of it.
But there’s another aspect, which is of course, the U.K., we’ve always seen our nationhood as part of the secret sauce of our success. And if we go back to such a crucial moment in British history as May 1940, when the rest of Europe had fallen and Britain was standing alone against Nazi Germany, why that’s so important to our consciousness is, it’s not only a fantastic thing that we did on behalf of humanity, but it was something our nation did. So we’ve not seen our nationhood as a source of trouble or strife or difficulty, we’ve seen it as a part of our success. So that has marked us out a bit, too.
One common critique of David Cameron is that he called for the Brexit referendum because he wanted to settle the so-called Europe question once and for all — to get it out of the way so he could spend his second term as prime minister on other priorities. He’d been re-elected in 2014, to a second five-year term. Going into that election, one poll showed that only eight percent of British voters listed “Europe” as one of the most pressing issues — although that answer doesn’t take into account concerns about immigration, which did feed the appetite for a Brexit vote. So too did Cameron’s austerity policies and public-spending cuts. For his part, Cameron was adamant that a Brexit referendum was just a matter of time. After all, Euroskepticism has deep tendrils in the U.K., going well beyond the Conservative Party.
CAMERON: Yes, of course. I mean, the thing I like reminding people is that, well, sometimes I do it as a quiz — can you name a British political party that didn’t support a referendum?
DUBNER: The answer is, there is none.
CAMERON: There isn’t one. Between 2005 and 2015, the Labor Party, the Liberal Party, the Conservative Party, the Green Party, they all, one stage or another, supported a referendum on Europe. So it was— it’s not just that the Conservatives were interested in this issue. It was an issue running through British politics.
Cameron’s own Euroskepticism dates all the way back to his youthful admiration of Margaret Thatcher, the budget-conscious former Conservative prime minister. Although, as Cameron writes, in a typical case of his have-it-both-wayism, “I had always felt myself more of a Thatcherist than a Thatcherite.” At Oxford, Cameron studied PPE — philosophy, politics, and economics — the gold-standard degree for Britain’s political elite. He went straight into politics, and wound up serving under Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont in the Treasury Department, just in time to see Lamont forced to pull the flailing British pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. That, as Cameron noted earlier:
CAMERON: That was one of things that taught me, we should stay out of the euro.
But it was once Cameron had been prime minister for a year-and-a-half that he experienced perhaps his sharpest bout of Euroskepticism. It happened during the so-called Eurozone crisis. Several weaker E.U. economies — Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and Cyprus — had massive debts or needed bailouts, and the value of the euro was dropping. So it fell to the richer countries, like the U.K., to step up. There was a proposed treaty change to address the crisis; David Cameron vetoed it.
CAMERON: I did veto, and then they went ahead and did the treaty anyway.
European Union treaty changes were supposed to be unanimously approved; in this case, as a workaround, the E.U. instead established an “accord.”
CAMERON: And that was the moment it seemed to me that Britain’s position within this organization was very precarious. And we needed to sort it out. And I believe that, allied to the fact there was growing political pressure to solve this problem, meant that it was inevitable and right to try and renegotiate and hold a referendum and sort things out. But I accept this attempt failed. I mean, in the end, my aim to keep Britain in, but in a special place, wasn’t successful.
DUBNER: Difficult decisions are inherently difficult to predict. You can make a good decision based on all the available logic and information, but you don’t know what the outcome will be. Had you the decision to make again today, whether to put forth a referendum, would you do it again?
CAMERON: Well, what I say in answer that is, I believed at the time that it was inevitable a referendum was coming, and I thought it best therefore to try and effect a renegotiation and improve and deal with these problems at the same time. And I still think that’s the case. So if you go back in time and say, “Could you have done things differently?” — I mean, if I’d put off the referendum, all I would have done was put it off. I mean, it still — it would have landed on maybe my successors.
DUBNER: But there may have been some value for you personally, reputationally. Correct?
CAMERON: My feeling was, what the job of a prime minister is, to try and confront the issues, not just in front of you, but the ones you see coming down the track. Not doing something is also a decision.
After Cameron’s impotent veto of the E.U. treaty but before his eventual call for the Brexit referendum came another referendum, in 2014: the Scottish Nationalist Party wanted Scotland to break away from the U.K., and they wanted to put it to a vote.
CAMERON: Of course, I could have said to them, “No, you’re not having it. Let’s put it off.” But that would have just made the problem worse.
DUBNER: So the Scottish referendum did come up, for independence. It failed. I was curious whether that may have given you and some of your allies a false sense of security that a Brexit referendum would also fail.
CAMERON: It gave me a sense that here was a problem that was coming down the tracks and we confronted it, and that was the right thing to do. So the way I think about it is, you have to try and confront and deal with these issues, and then there are all the decisions around the decision you make. Was it the right campaign? Was it the right renegotiation? Was it the right timing? And I’m pretty frank that I think I probably got some of those wrong. But on the central question, was this problem coming, and was a referendum inevitable? My answer is yes, it was.
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Former British Prime Minister David Cameron has just published a memoir, called For the Record. If you identify with the 48 percent of Britons who voted for the U.K. to remain in the European Union, the book may not improve your view of Cameron. But it’s a remarkably interesting account of a remarkably tumultuous era of modern history. It’s also rather direct. Cameron pulls few punches in his descriptions of world leaders — Vladimir Putin, for instance.
CAMERON: Look, I did try to forge a good relationship with him, because in spite of all the disagreements and difficulties, you should make an effort. And there were moments of success. But in the end, when it came to the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, when it came to what was happening in Syria, when it came to chemical weapons and what Assad had done, who was his ally, I found in the end I just couldn’t trust what he was saying to me as true.
DUBNER: Here’s how you put it in the book: “For Putin, lying is an art form.” Which is, I guess, a left-handed compliment. He was very good at it, at least, yeah?
CAMERON: Well if we take what was happening in Ukraine, where effectively, Russia took a part of a sovereign country. Always trying to claim that it was sort of Ukrainian breakaway forces. But we all knew that they were largely Russian soldiers. He is very good at information war. Modern war is fought not just with tanks and bombs and guns, but with P.R. and media and manipulation—
DUBNER: And cyberattacks as well.
CAMERON: And cyberattacks. That was something the Russians got very good at, and frankly, we need to raise our game at it.
DUBNER: Now, Germany — Angela Merkel you seem to hold in very, very high regard.
CAMERON: Yes. I mean, she is a remarkable politician, also, with huge staying power. I mean, I remember watching her back in 2006, I think it was, when she first sort of fought her campaign and became chancellor and here we are in 2019 and she’s still there.
DUBNER: Well, just barely, I mean—
CAMERON: Barely, but still—
DUBNER: I get the sense from reading your book that she very much empathized with your desire to disentangle the U.K. from the E.U. And I wondered if she was a closet Brexit fan, and maybe even a Gerxit fan — would she, given the opportunity—
CAMERON: No, no, no. Look, I would phrase it differently. She didn’t want Britain to disentangle itself from the E.U. But I think she did have an understanding that Britain was quite a Euroskeptic nation, that we were in the E.U. for the things that we wanted, the trade and cooperation, but we didn’t want deeper political union. She did understand that. You can argue that she didn’t do enough to help us with that.
DUBNER: What should she have done, or could she have done?
CAMERON: Well, I think she did help, and we cut the budget together. That was important. We were cutting budgets at home and it would have been outrageous to just keep spending more in the E.U. She did help with my renegotiation. But I think we came up against this problem, which was, the free movement of people in Europe is a good thing. Millions of British people go and live and work in other European countries. But what was originally the free movement of workers became the free movement for everybody.
DUBNER: Well. Let me ask you about — this is a complicated conversation, but let’s try to have a quick version of it. Merkel, one could say, was brought down primarily by her generosity in accepting refugees. Yes? Primarily.
CAMERON: Look, I think she made a mistake. Because I’m all for showing generosity. We actually went out to the camps and brought people back from the camps and gave them the right to live in Britain, and educated their children and housed them and clothed them and fed them. And I think that’s the right answer.
I think the wrong answer is what Germany did, which was just to say, “All who can make it are welcome.” It was a green light to the people smugglers to just keep going with their work. And I felt that Europe handled this issue very badly. You’ve got to demonstrate, look, we all know that border control is only one aspect of a sensible immigration policy. But you do need to have borders, particularly if you’ve taken down the internal borders between France and Italy and all the rest of it — if you take down the internal borders, you do need a strong external border. So, I thought big mistakes were made.
DUBNER: Well, let’s unpack that, going back to Syria. Because you write incredibly about your desire to get involved in Syria, to retaliate or to stop Assad. You write about your conversations with Obama, which led you to believe that America would lead the strike. And then you write this — it’s hard to believe, I read it three times, it was so hard to believe that it was true. That you called Obama to help finalize the plan. And he didn’t return the call for four days.
CAMERON: Well, this was after— there’s sort of two Syria chapters, and two Syria, sort of, things to focus on. One is the appalling civil war and events that have taken place. And the question, could America and Britain and others, could we have done more to try and help resolve this crisis? And I believe we could have done. Then there’s a second question, which is, on the use of chemical weapons, where Barack Obama rightly said it was a red line, why was it that we failed to respond to that red line?
And while I make the point that after it happened, it took too long for us to speak, the real mistake we made was that when we drew the red line, and we discussed it sometime before the chemical-weapons attack took place, and we were at the G8 in Northern Ireland, we should have agreed at that moment, “Right, we’re setting a red line, if he uses chemical weapons, here’s what we’re going to do.” And if we’d agreed it, we could have taken instant action before having a sort of parliamentary and U.N. debate and all the rest of it. I blame myself as much for that as Barack, because we — I could have made that argument, and I should’ve made that argument.
DUBNER: Were you each waiting for the other to take the lead?
CAMERON: No, it was — and he would say this too, I hope — we were both operating in the sort of post-Iraq world. And President Obama was very much elected on the basis of, let’s try and end some of these entanglements, and make sense of them. In Britain, we had lost a lot of people in Iraq. We were operating in an environment where the public and Parliament was deeply skeptical about getting involved in these entanglements. I just thought the chemical weapons issue was different. Apart from Saddam Hussein at Halabja, chemical weapons hadn’t been sort of used on the battlefield for decades. And there was a taboo about it, and there was international rules about it. And I thought we’d have been totally justified to say, this is a red line. The red line’s crossed, bang.
DUBNER: But by the time Obama then reappeared or reconnected with you, you had had a vote in your Parliament, correct?
CAMERON: We reconnected before the vote in my Parliament, but because we hadn’t prior-agreed the actions, I got onto a track of having to take it to Parliament. And then I made one of these sort of miscalculations, and I thought that others like me would be so shocked by the use of chemical weapons and would sufficiently separate it from the other foreign-policy issues. But actually people in my own party, in my own caucus as you would say, a lot of them said, “I’m voting against this action because of what happened in Iraq.” And I was saying, “But this isn’t Iraq, this is chemical weapons, this is Syria.” This is, you know — but I didn’t convince enough of them, and I lost the vote in Parliament, which was a very bad thing to do.
DUBNER: So when we look at foreign policy, we know that economic sanctions don’t often work the way they’re supposed to. We know that military intervention is costly on many, many, many, many dimensions. But can you talk for a minute about the cost, in the case of Syria, of non-intervention?
CAMERON: I think what’s so hideous about the Syrian conflict is, there were so many bad effects from it. Obviously, predominantly, the appalling suffering of the Syrian people, and the civil war that has gone on for so many years. But it also helped to spawn the growth of ISIS. It also created the background to the refugee crisis that has caused so much human suffering, and possibly, you could argue, led to some of the problems in Europe, perhaps even Brexit itself.
How much, if at all, did the Syrian war and the resulting refugee crisis contribute to the demand for Brexit? That is very hard to say. And there were, of course, plenty of other economic factors already pushing the U.K. in that direction. But it’s a compelling argument. The Leave campaign certainly took advantage of anxieties over immigration. As Cameron noted earlier, the free movement of people is written into the European Union treaties, and it gives the citizens of any member state the right to move and live in any other member state without needing a permit. This provision was a major target of Cameron’s renegotiations with the E.U. before he called the Brexit referendum.
CAMERON: To the E.U., free movement and not reforming it was something of an article of faith. And I couldn’t persuade them that we needed some reforms to free movement. So in fact, what I did in the end was I persuaded them to accept something which was difficult for them, which was that new arrivals to Britain couldn’t access our welfare system for up to four years, which was a huge give for them. And a great gain for me. But in the end it didn’t quite take the trick in the referendum that I needed.
DUBNER: There was an economic analysis of migrants done after the referendum, which showed that European migrants to the U.K. produced more gains for the U.K. economy than the standard existing British citizen. So people were coming to Britain because the British economy was doing well.
CAMERON: And they were coming to work, and that was great. There were two problems I’d mention. One is, when Poland and the other seven Eastern European countries joined the E.U. back in 2004, the U.K. government said, “We expect about 14,000 people to come and live and work in Britain.” And in the event, it was actually more like a million people came. So that had created a sense amongst the British people that the politicians just didn’t have a good handle on the numbers, and that created a worry.
The second thing was, that yes, these people were coming to live and work in Britain and contribute and pay taxes. But the way our welfare system worked meant that a new arrival could actually claim up to £14,000, sort of $20,000, in their first year, in terms of tax credits. This was an issue. And I thought that my negotiating the welfare side of it would really help. And it helped a bit. But it wasn’t direct enough at sort of demonstrating a control of the numbers.
DUBNER: You love and were petrified by, at the same time, Prime Minister’s Questions.
DUBNER: Maybe you could just in a sentence or two explain what this tradition is.
CAMERON: What happens is, every Wednesday at 12 o’clock, the prime minister turns up to the House of Commons and you take questions from everybody for half an hour. You don’t know what you’re going to be asked. The leader of the opposition gets six questions at you. And because our House of Commons is small — it was bombed in the war, and Churchill rebuilt it on exactly the same size, where you can’t actually fit all the people in. And he did that because he said he liked it being small because it made it an exciting cockpit of debate, and that’s true. So for that reason, it is very intense — very noisy, pretty terrifying. And you can get caught out. So you can go from a triumphant, brilliant, off-the-cuff or previously planned answer:
CAMERON at P.M.Q.s: And for the first time in a long time, the number of doctors is growing very quickly, and the number of bureaucrats is actually falling.
CAMERON: To really screwing up and failing to remember the right fact or figure.
Ed MILIBAND: Mr. Speaker, in case the prime minister didn’t realize, it takes seven years to train a doctor. So I’d like to thank him for his congratulations for our record on the N.H.S.
CAMERON: While it is terrifying, there’s a purpose to it, and that is that because you know it’s coming, it’s a great moment of accountability, where the prime minister’s tentacles have got to get all over Whitehall and the government machine and know the answer to every question. And it’s often a time where you find out some of your own government’s policies and you realize they’re not the ones you thought they were, and you change things.
DUBNER: So let me just devil’s-advocate this for a moment. I love Prime Minister’s Questions, I’ve been a few times. It’s a thrilling exhibit of democracy, which is what it’s supposed to be. On the other hand, if we think about it economically, you think about opportunity costs. So you’re getting your first round of prep on Monday, along with all your other work. Then some more on Tuesday, then Wednesday is really devoted to it. Then afterwards it sounds so draining that you have to go have some roast beef and red wine immediately after to refortify yourself.
CAMERON: It takes up a lot of time. I think really it takes up Wednesday morning, is very intense preparation. The rest of the time you’re perfectly capable of doing other things. And don’t underestimate — if you didn’t have this, you’d have to find some other way of absolutely mugging up on every different aspect of what the government’s doing. So I find it quite useful as a sort of accountability mechanism. But it is— look, it is more theater than reality.
DUBNER: But let me ask you — and I mean, I really do admire the fact that every week, the leader of the country stands up before the Parliament. We don’t have that. We have nothing like that, and I think it would be—
CAMERON: Obama once said to me, “I’m thinking of doing something like that.” So it was, “Just hold on a second before you dive in. You might want to think about this.” But no, there’s a justification for it.
DUBNER: Okay, let me again be pure devil’s advocate for a moment and say this. One thing that many in your country, especially from the educated class, like yourself — Eton, Oxford, and all the Oxbridge universe — one thing that you’re particularly good at is talking, which we underestimate as a skill. But it’s a very effective skill. P.M.Q.’s are in a way a pure demonstration of how well you all speak about the issues, about disagreements, so on. So let’s put that in the pro column. In the con column, however — I believe it’s in your book — a saying that goes back a ways in, to the military setting, that amateurs strategize, and professionals execute.
CAMERON: Yeah, I used the phrase that — one of my generals said, yeah, amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics. And no, I think your critique is a good one. I would argue that good leaders have to be good teachers. You have to take the country with you, you have to keep explaining. And Prime Minister’s Questions can be — it is a time when you’re trying to explain, you’re trying to set out your course of what you’re doing. And looking back, I wish we’d done more of that. Just trying to explain. Whether you’re reforming schools or you’re intervening in Libya or you’re trying to win a referendum on Brexit, just communicate, communicate. One thing we don’t have that you have is that State of the Nation moment. I find sometimes — I find this a bit frustrating, that too much of our politics is very confrontational, and you know, in that sort of cockpit of combat.
DUBNER: But you’re confronting each other in person, which is a totally different dynamic than sniping in the press. I mean, you do a lot of that, too.
CAMERON: So I know— what I’m saying is, your critique has got some fairness to it. But don’t underestimate the importance of the communicating part of politics, it does matter. On the part of politics which is actually delivering change and making things happen, and the importance of logistics, I completely agree that I don’t think there’s enough attention to that in most governments. I joke in the book that early on as prime minister, someone asked me, “What’s the job?“ And I said, “Well, there’s two jobs: first we’ve got to find out what the government’s doing, and second, you’ve got to stop it,” because it’s an enormous machine that you’re running.
I’m a huge fan of the British civil service, but if I had a criticism, it’s that they are great at developing policy but not so good at implementing policy. In schools of government, in training of politicians and civil servants, in thinking about these things, we need to spend a lot more time on how to get things done rather than how to develop a policy.
DUBNER: It’s something we talk about on the show a lot. So in the medical field, for instance, innovations happen in medicine all the time, but they take on average about 12 years to work their way in. So government, I can understand why that’s difficult. In the real world, however, what do you see as ways to shorten that lag between good ideas and implementation?
CAMERON: Let me give you one example, which shows all the things we’ve been talking about. I became obsessed by the power of genomics to try and get to the answer of rare childhood diseases and cancer and other things. I said, “Right, let’s be the first government in the world to sequence 100,000 genomes.” And the officials all said, “That’s a great idea, Prime Minister, we’re going to do that.” Six months later, I say, “How is my 100,000-genomes project going?” And literally nothing had happened. Lots of people sat around and talked about it, and then we set up a company. And now as we sit here today, more than 100,000 genomes have been sequenced. Britain is still leading the world, we are now heading for a million sequenced—
DUBNER: Is this an argument for the private sector providing the proper incentives?
CAMERON: Where I’m going to is, A, sometimes you think you’ve done something in government, but nothing happens. B, you have to drive change by going back and back and back and checking. But C, where I was going to, is actually I think genomics is a good example of how we must get new clinical discoveries into clinical practice faster. And I suspect we can because of the way we can change education modules, the way that we can educate people online, the way that doctors can share research, etc. It must be possible.
DUBNER: We should say, your personal connection to this story is your son Ivan, your firstborn son, who died at age 6, yes?
CAMERON: Yes, that’s right. And he had a rare— he had Ohtahara syndrome, which was a rare childhood disease, which meant that he had — he was quadriplegic, he couldn’t move his arms and legs, he had terrible epileptic seizures. This was one of the things that sparked my interest in genomics, because when he was born, it was very, very tough, and— rewarding, looking after someone like that, but very, very tough. And interestingly, when we sort of asked the doctor, “Wan we have other children, what will happen?” And back then, genetic counseling was, “Well, it could be genetic, in which case, one in four, it might not be, it which case, one in—”
DUBNER: It’s remarkable, it wasn’t that long ago.
CAMERON: This was — exactly. They gave us a blended probability of one in twenty. And luckily I’ve had three healthy children since then.
DUBNER: Has there since been a better test for Ohtahara in utero?
CAMERON: Interestingly, one of the breakthroughs from genome sequencing has been in some cases discovering children with Ohtahara syndrome much faster. And I think in some cases, actually some changes in diet and vitamins has led to some better outcomes. But like all these things, when people say Ohtahara syndrome, what they really mean is, it’s a description of the symptoms. We still don’t know some of the underlying causes.
DUBNER: I was always curious why you named him Ivan. It’s not a common name in Britain.
CAMERON: No! I can’t— my wife liked it. I took the view that she was the one who had the children, and I always used to argue my corner on names, but on the whole, she’d win these battles.
DUBNER: Let’s get back to Brexit for just a moment. As we speak, it’s the 27th of September. A lot of things are going to happen in the next month, including a Conservative Party conference. And then theoretically the Brexit deadline. It’s impossible to predict the future. But if I asked you to give me a high-certainty prediction of something that you definitely think probably will or probably will not happen. And really, I’m mostly interested in what you think happens for Britain economically.
CAMERON: It is too difficult to make an absolutely categorical prediction about what will happen next. The best you can do is sort of attach some probabilities for what might happen next. What I want to happen is for the prime minister to go to Brussels and negotiate a deal and for that deal to go through, so we leave on the basis of a deal. There’s a good chance of that happening, but I can’t absolutely for certain say it will happen.
DUBNER: Are you speaking with Boris regularly now?
CAMERON: We have texted a little bit.
DUBNER: He asks for advice?
CAMERON: Not so much. I mean — I want to do everything I can. That is the right thing to do. But of course, if that doesn’t happen, you want a range of other possibilities from a no-deal Brexit, which I hope won’t happen, it looks like Parliament has closed that option off. And then you get into general elections or potentially second referendums to unblock this situation. So I’m afraid, and I hate to say this, it is a period of great uncertainty.
DUBNER: All right, final question: do you harbor fantasies that someday the average Briton will look at you as the man who saved the U.K. on some dimension, who salvaged its independence?
CAMERON: I don’t harbor any fantasies about almost anything. I hope people will take a sort of balanced view and say that important changes were made in terms of our economy that strengthened it. Important social changes were made. So I hope people will look across the record. But obviously until the Brexit uncertainty is ended, that’s going to be a very big question. But look, you don’t get to write your own legacy. Historians do that. I’ve written a book to try to explain my perspectives, and I hope people will say that it’s a frank and reasonable effort, and some important things change for the better. But there are lots of challenges still to answer.
DUBNER: I thank you for writing it. I thank you for speaking, and I feel we need to let you go see the rest of America now, but thanks for stopping in.
CAMERON: Great pleasure. Thanks.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Daphne Chen. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Matt Hickey, Harry Huggins, Zack Lapinski, Greg Rippin, and Corinne Wallace. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.