I’m sorry. I really do owe this country my most sincere apologies.
When I proposed a referendum after a renegotiation of Britain’s place in the EU, I was indulging myself in the worst kind of political vote-grubbing. I was, I will be frank, running scared from UKIP, and under a lot of pressure from some of my party colleagues who felt their seat was vulnerable to a Faragiste challenge.
In my defence I will say this. Aided and abetted by the anti-European press, especially the Mail, Telegraph, Sun and Express, the idea of a referendum had started to seem like an inevitable and normal part of politics. It is only now, under the awful reality of trying to conduct one, that I realise they are rare for a good reason. Far from defending parliamentary sovereignty, I’m throwing it away by calling one.
Up till now, we have always held that it is for elected members to make complex decisions about the shape of our society, and the basis of our legal, economic and political life. That is the British way. That is the way of most advanced democracies. We have accepted the hard reality that most of life’s important questions can’t be reduced to the simplicity of a “yes” or “no” answer.
Tempted by the pressure of the press, and worried by the divided and fractious nature of my own party, I cynically thought I would take a move out of the play-book of that accomplished cynical manipulator, Harold Wilson. I employed the kind of PR trick that used to serve me well in business, and staged a renegotiation. Yes, I believe I did accomplish some real and lasting gains for Britain, but none that would justify a referendum, or persuade others the changes were sufficiently weighty.
However, nothing else has gone as my cynical self planned it. Not least I have been awed and horrified by how much I have been outdone in the department of cynicism, political self-advancement and deceitfulness by my old colleague Boris Johnson. Obviously being free of any real responsibility for the importance of the service and financial industries for the London economy, he feel able to strike one irresponsible and economically dangerous pose after another.
It is only as I face the very real possibility of a vote for Brexit, that I realise how irresponsible I have been to act as I have. Yes, I will be honest, I have exaggerated the worst case scenarios for the economy and for world peace. I regret that over-exaggeration too. But fundamentally, I really do believe that voting to leave will place a huge burden on the economy. Fundamentally, I know that Mr Putin wants to loosen European democratic influence in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet empire, and if we vote “out” we strengthen his hand, and weaken peace and stability in Europe. It is our country’s enemies who want Brexit, our friends who want us to remain.
I rely in making those judgements not only on the experience of Europe and the world I have gained as your Prime Minister (and all former Prime Minsters – having similar experience – share my view), but also on the judgement of experts. By far the larger majority of economists, leaders of large and successful businesses, respected scientists, senior staff in our armed forces, and the security services have all advised me, as they are advising you, Britain is indeed “Stronger In”.
My old friend (and I hope our friendship will survive this bruising campaign) Michael Gove has told people “not to trust the experts”. I hope you will recognise that for the stupidity it is. Yes, experts can and do get it wrong, and that’s why quite a few disagree with the majority. But people become regarded as experts because they get it right more often than they get it wrong. If you were a betting person, who would you bet your future pension-pot on: Stephen Hawking or the local pub-bore?
In making this apology and appeal, it is true that I am sufficiently selfish to be thinking of my legacy. I do not, quite frankly, want to go down in history as the worst Prime Minister since, well … that’s an interesting question, but I think I’d say Sir Anthony Eden. It was his disastrous miscalculation over Suez that showed us conclusively that Britain’s place in the world had changed forever.
We took some time to appreciate that lesson (and some of colleagues, alas, seem still to inhabit a past century), but our membership of the EU is the fruit of it. Partnership in a larger community of nations, bringing the healing balm of friendship to the corrosive after-effects of war, is the greater part of what we have learnt and benefitted from. My lifetime has seen an astonishing increase in prosperity undergirded by our shared European peace and co-operation.
The resurgence of Russian nationalism, the growing political and economic power of, especially, China, India and Brazil, the looming problems of a global pattern of climate change, the threat of Islamic State, and the widespread people movements deriving from that and other violent instability in the world – all these things show that the world is changing again. This is not a time to destabilise Europe, and make the global situation even more uncertain and dangerous than it already is.
To say this is not to indulge in “Project Fear”. It is to be realistic, and not imagine we can wake up after Brexit and fill in a blank piece of paper with all our most extravagant and uncosted policies, and assume the world will reorganise itself to suit our fantasy. Today’s world is potentially a very dangerous place.
We have already benefited much from being in partnership with our fellow European nations. We have built peace, and marched steadily towards greater prosperity. Yes, the EU is flawed, we all know it, and not just in this country. Our fellow European nations want Britain still at the table because they recognise we have a unique perspective that can only improve the EU, and help fix what isn’t working. There is work still to be done, and Britain has a role to play.
I deeply regret having foisted this decision upon you because of my political weakness and vanity. I genuinely never expected us to be where we are now. I can only say sorry. But, please, don’t compound my folly by listening to those who want to break up this partnership. Instead help me, help our country, work with other nations to make the EU a greater success, an opportunity for even more shared prosperity, and a beacon of collaborative democratic peace in a world that needs to see democracy and international co-operation working.
You may forgive me or despise me for my folly in foisting this referendum on you. I hope you will forgive me. But set that to one side. Please, I beg you, on 23 June, do what I passionately believe to be our duty to this great nation’s future, and vote “yes” to remain in the European Union.
Your Prime Minister