With the fraught negotiations over Brexit continuing to embroil British politics, the nation's former prime minister, David Cameron, says his "greatest regret" is that those who advocated to stay in the EU lost the vote — which ultimately divided the country, paralyzed the government and left Britain increasingly at risk of leaving the European Union without any deal.
After resigning in 2016 in the wake of Britain's vote to leave the EU, Cameron has broken his silence on his role in unleashing the ongoing political drama around Brexit. He writes about it in the new book For the Record.
In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Cameron laments his call for the Brexit referendum — a vote that shocked Britain and the whole of Europe when 52% of voters chose to leave the EU.
"The greatest regret is that we lost the referendum, that I didn't prevail, that we could've fought perhaps a better campaign, we could have conducted perhaps a better negotiation — perhaps the timing wasn't right — and that I didn't take the country with me on what I thought was a really important issue," Cameron said.
Even though he opposed Brexit, the former Conservative Party leader said he underestimated the extent to which voters understood the stakes of the referendum.
"I think the biggest mistake was letting expectations about what a renegotiation of Britain's position in the European Union could achieve," he said. "I allowed people to think there were much more fundamental changes — that we could almost have a sort of pick-and-choose aspect to which European laws we obeyed and which we didn't. And this, I think, was damaging."
In the three years since his resignation, Cameron has come under fire from critics who say he recklessly called for a referendum in an effort to appease more conservative elements of his party, and then stepped aside when he lost the vote. Cameron said he resigned because he felt he could not carry out negotiations in good faith for a cause he did not himself support.
"I was wholly on one side of the argument and so I felt it was right to resign, having lost because the country needed a new prime minister with the credibility to take us forward and deliver the outcome of the referendum."
"But of course, you know, I will, to my dying day, wonder whether there was something more we could have done to secure what I thought was the right outcome — which was to keep Britain in."
The man now charged with finding a solution for Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, has vowed to leave the EU even if Britain is unable to forge a deal with Brussels — a scenario that economists warn would be devastating for the country's economy. But Johnson was rebuffed in that effort last week when Britain's Supreme Court ruled that his effort to suspend Parliament with just weeks remaining until the country's scheduled departure from the EU on Oct. 31 was illegal.
The ongoing political drama has left Britain deeply divided between the "Remainers" and the "Leavers."
"I think what Boris is doing right is he's trying to get a deal from Brussels. He wants to take that deal back to Parliament and he wants to deliver the outcome of the referendum. In doing that, he's got my support," Cameron said. "I think what would be a mistake is trying to leave without a deal because I think that would lead to a lot of economic dislocation and would be damaging."
Asked about whether he has a responsibility to help mend political divisions in the country, Cameron said he does not see a role for himself.
"As the person who called the referendum and lost the campaign, I'm not sure that I should be active in current politics. But I am deeply depressed by what's happening."
Cameron still said he believes Britain would "be better off inside" the European Union, but understands what led voters to support leaving.
"It's not an illegitimate choice for the sixth biggest country in the world to say to the European Union, we want to be your friends, we want to be your neighbors, we want to be your partners," he said. "But we don't want to be members, and that's the choice that we've taken. And I don't think that is an illegitimate choice or an impossible choice to deliver."
In an earlier Web version of this report, we incorrectly wrote that David Cameron's greatest regret was calling for the Brexit referendum vote. In fact, he says his greatest regret is that those who advocated to stay in the EU lost the vote.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If politics in the U.S. seems fractious right now, consider it the U.K. A deal to leave the European Union, the Brexit, still has not been reached after three years of negotiations. The country is so divided between leavers and remainers it's hard to get the two sides in the same room. And the political climate is so hostile that some members of Parliament are getting death threats and even accuse fellow members of encouraging them.
How did it come to all this? David Cameron has many thoughts about it. He'd been a star of British politics for a decade leading the Conservative Party and then a coalition government when he won an outright conservative majority in 2015. It was the first such majority in 23 years. But just a year later, he resigned after the referendum he called on Britain's membership in the European Union resulted in a vote to leave, which he'd opposed.
The former prime minister has remained largely silent until now. He's written a detailed account of his side of the story, including some deeply personal thoughts. It's called "For The Record," and David Cameron is with us now live from New York.
Mr. Cameron, it's an honor to speak with you.
DAVID CAMERON: Great to be on your program. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: Thank you. I certainly want to talk about the book. But I need to talk about now the current prime minister, Boris Johnson, is facing setback after setback. He tried to suspend Parliament. The Supreme Court has said the decision was unlawful. Members of his party - your party - are resigning and being essentially dumped. What is he doing wrong?
CAMERON: Well, the fundamental difficulty with British politics right now is that the government doesn't have a majority in Parliament. And when you don't have a majority, you have a situation that I suppose in the U.S. you'd call a sort of gridlock, and you have to find support from different parties to get your proposals through. So I think what Boris is doing right is he's trying to get a deal from Brussels. He wants to take that deal back to Parliament, and he wants to deliver the outcome of the referendum in that way. And in doing that, he's got my support.
I think what would be a mistake is trying to leave without a deal because I think that would lead to a lot of economic dislocation and would be damaging. But the fundamental fact is he doesn't have a majority, so he has to reach out across party to try and get support for that deal if and when he brings it back from Brussels.
MARTIN: But in the book, you suggest - actually, you say that Boris Johnson doesn't even really believe in Brexit. You write, it soon became clear that while Boris cared about the issue, it was secondary to another concern - what was the best outcome for him. And, in fact, you say later he risked an outcome he didn't believe in because it would benefit his political career. So, in essence, the government - this effort is being led by someone who doesn't believe in it. So what should your countrymen and women do now?
CAMERON: Well, I try and explain in the book how I think this came about. And look - I take my share of responsibility because I called the referendum. I campaigned for us to stay in the European Union on an amended basis. But I lost that campaign, and that loss has had very serious consequences for our country. What I try and reflect in the book is at the time, Boris Johnson had never previously argued for leaving the European Union. So I find it hard to understand why when there was a better deal on offer - albeit a deal he didn't think was good enough - why he'd suddenly start arguing for leave. But that's in the past. That's in the book, and I've tried to accurately reflect what I felt at the time and what I think about it now.
MARTIN: OK. Let us focus on that now, if you would. You are very clear about the fact. You say very openly and actually several times that we made some big mistakes in the campaign. You said you won't deny it. What was the fundamental mistake you made?
CAMERON: I think the biggest mistake was letting expectations about what a renegotiation of Britain's position in the European Union could achieve. I mean, I still think the things that we did achieve were worthwhile. We got Britain carved out of ever-closer union. So the other countries were going to go ahead and have more symbols of statehood, but Britain would stand aside from that. We managed to get agreement that when European Union citizens came to Britain, they could work, but they wouldn't get access to welfare for up to four years. We got protection for the pound because, you know, a lot of Europe's financial services are in the U.K., but we're not a member of the Euro currency, and so we wanted safeguards like that.
But I think what I got wrong was that I allowed people to think there were much more fundamental changes - that we could almost have a sort of pick-and-choose aspect to which European laws we obeyed and which we didn't. And this, I think, was damaging. So when my negotiation was complete, you know, it didn't fulfill some people's expectations. And that's a - it's a difficult thing in politics. You have to lead every day. You have to explain every day. You have to take people with you every day and not let people start to think things that aren't possible.
CAMERON: But one of the reasons that I think many people find that this is so hard to understand is that you campaigned as a reformer. I mean, one of the reasons you took leadership of the Conservative Party is that you wanted to modernize it - you wanted to bring it into the modern age. That's one of the reasons that you campaigned, for example, for same-sex marriage. So it's hard for people to understand, then, how did you call it so wrong? Because it seems as if you were either way out of touch with what was going on in the ground in your country or, as some argue, that this really was about your party and not your country. And you know that many people argue this vociferously to this day.
CAMERON: Well, I don't accept that. I mean, first of all, the modernization of the Conservative Party was important, and, you know, that continues today. Yes, I'm out of step with my party on Brexit because they're pursuing Brexit, and it's our party that wants to do that. But there's overwhelming support in the Conservative Party today for same-sex marriage, for making sure we keep our promises to the poorest in the world. The party is a transformed party in terms of its makeup, in terms of ethnic diversity, the number of women members of Parliament. So that was important.
Look - on the issue of Brexit and the European Union, it wasn't something that simply obsessed the Conservative Party. Every single political party - the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens - all fought an election at some stage between 2005 and 2015 with a pledge to hold a referendum on the issue of Europe. This was an issue that in many ways divided the country as well as individual political parties.
MARTIN: Forgive me...
CAMERON: Britain has always been, as it were, the slightly reluctant member of the EU.
MARTIN: Forgive me - may I interrupt? Forgive me. We have so many...
MARTIN: ...Things we want to discuss.
MARTIN: When Britons were asked one year before the vote to list the issues that concerned them most, Europe did not make the top 10.
CAMERON: But it was an issue of concern. That's why every political party pledged to hold a referendum at some stage between 2005 and 2015. And also, you can only deal with things as you see them as prime minister. And I became prime minister from 2010 not wanting to have a government that was beset with European issues, but straightaway, there was the issue of, should Britain contribute to the bailout of eurozone countries? Should Britain stand behind eurozone banks even though we weren't in the euro? Another treaty was proposed that would impact the U.K. It's - I don't think it's credible to say that this wasn't an issue of concern. This wasn't an issue that needed to be dealt with.
MARTIN: I take it...
CAMERON: Indeed, in the 2014 European elections, which was a whole year after I'd said we needed to have a renegotiation and a referendum, a party whose whole raison d'etre was having a referendum topped the poll - the first time that a non-traditional party had topped the poll in an election for decades.
MARTIN: Let's talk a bit more about what some of the underlying other issues may be. I take it you feel the economic recession played a role in the rise of Brexit. In that sense - I know a lot of people compare your tenure to that of George H.W. Bush. You talked about compassionate conservatism. But in that sense, you sound a lot like Barack Obama in 2008. I mean, he was ridiculed for this in some quarters, but he argued that social forces are making people's lives unbearable and that they're looking for something to blame. In that sense, do you think that that is true - that it's the recession, and it is the underlying sort of economic instability that many people felt that led to it?
CAMERON: I think it's deeper than that. I think that the 2008 economic crisis, I think, demonstrated that the people were feeling economic instability and were concerned about parts of the country and parts of the world that were being left behind by globalization. But I also think it highlighted a sense of cultural instability that in Britain, in European countries - indeed, in the United States, people felt that immigration had been very high for very many years. Politicians from the mainstream parties had talked about it, but they'd failed to put in place systems to properly deal with it and reassure people about it.
And this combined sense of sort of economic and cultural insecurity, I think, have been some of the things that were behind perhaps the election of Donald Trump, perhaps part of the Brexit vote. (Unintelligible) this European Union and all the sovereignty issues involved. But if you're asking whether there are deeper forces at work, yes, I think we've seen them in our politics.
MARTIN: Well, comparing the U.S. and the U.K., for example, many people have made the comparison between Boris Johnson and President Trump. What do you make of the fact that the U.S. and the U.K. are being led by these rather elite figures leading populist revolts? What does that say?
CAMERON: Well, I think what it says is that because of the sense of economic insecurity and cultural insecurity and because of the way the media works today, where it is possible to sort of curate your own television channel and for your supporters to only hear your own arguments and for all of us to live in echo chambers, I think it does make it easier for this sort of populist politics to fly.
But I'm not one of those people who just rails against Brexit or Trump or what have you. We have to deal with the underlying causes and issues, and that is about trying to give people a greater sense of economic security - you know, higher minimum wages, cutting taxes for the lowest-paid, making sure there are training programs to give people good jobs, making sure parts of the country that get left behind get help. These things need to be dealt with. It's no good complaining or, you know, just sort of saying, can't we go back to a sort of international, more liberal, more open politics? We have to deal with people's genuine concerns.
MARTIN: And that leads me to where I want to sort of conclude our conversation - is that, what role do you think you should be playing in all this? I was interested in why you wanted to write this book now. What is its goal? Is it to say that leadership is hard? Is it to say that...
CAMERON: I think...
MARTIN: ...You are sorry for how it's turned out? What?
CAMERON: I think the first thing on leaving office - you know, I do believe doing the job of being prime minister is hard enough without your immediate predecessor giving a sort of running commentary, and so I have been pretty quiet for the last few years and allowed Theresa May as much, you know, space to try and get a Brexit deal and fix these problems as possible. But I also think prime ministers and presidents and what have you should at some stage write down, you know, their sort of personal account of what they were trying to do and why and what they felt at the time and what they think now.
I mean, historians will pore over all this stuff and will write I'm sure very accurate accounts of who said what and what decision was made. But there's something I think as a former prime minister or president you can write about how you felt and what you thought and what you were trying to do. And that's what I've tried to do accurately in this book.
MARTIN: But you would agree your country is deeply divided. I mean, it - the tenor of the conversation in Parliament last week was, in fact, shocking and frightening to some. Did you not feel you have some role to play in bringing the sides together? I mean, you talked about how you feel passionately that the center can hold. It wouldn't seem that way now. What - is there something you should be doing?
CAMERON: I'm not sure that there's something - as the person who called the referendum and lost the campaign, I'm not sure that I should be active in current politics. But I am deeply depressed by what's happening. It can be solved if we get a deal from Brussels and take it through Parliament. And look - I think, at the end of the day, we are a democracy, and the decision whether or not to belong to a supranational organization like the European Union - I think it is right that these issues fundamentally are passed back to the people from time to time and for them to be given a choice.
And look - I would stand back from it all, in a way, and say, look - Britain is the sixth biggest economy in the world. It may not be my choice that we're going to leave the European Union. I think we'd be better off inside. But it's not an illegitimate choice for the sixth biggest country in the world to say to the European Union, we want to be your friends. We want to be your neighbors. We want to be your partners, but we don't want to be members, and that's the choice that we've taken. And I don't think that is an illegitimate choice or an impossible choice to deliver.
MARTIN: What's your greatest regret?
CAMERON: Well, the greatest regret is that we lost the referendum - that I didn't prevail, that we could have fought, perhaps, a better campaign. We could have conducted, perhaps, a better negotiation. Perhaps the timing wasn't right - and that I didn't take the country with me on what I thought was a really important issue. And I resigned because I felt - I didn't fight the referendum as a sort of chairman - on the one hand, on the other hand, you decide. I was wholly on one side of the argument. And so I felt it was right to resign, having lost, because the country needed a new prime minister, a prime minister with a credibility to take us forward and deliver the outcome of the referendum.
But, of course, you know, I will to my dying day wonder whether there was something more we could have done to have secured what I thought was the right outcome, which was to keep Britain in, but to recognize we were, in many ways, the odd one out.
CAMERON: We've always been the European country that has found European Union reform and the deepening of the European Union...
MARTIN: Prime minister...
CAMERON: ...Very difficult. And I know a country - the United States, so proud of its own sovereignty and independence, I hope will show some understanding of that.
MARTIN: We are out of time. David Cameron is the former prime minister of the United Kingdom. His book "For The Record" is out now. He was with us live from New York.
Mr. Cameron, thank you so much for speaking with us today.
CAMERON: My pleasure. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.