LONDON – The European question is the grim reaper of British politics – dividing parties, debilitating governments, and destroying careers. But never before have the stakes surrounding the question been so high. Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum – perhaps as early as June – on the United Kingdom’s continued membership in the European Union could bring down his government, destroy his political party, and literally tear his country apart.
Cameron is doing all he can to renegotiate the terms of membership in order to persuade voters to choose to remain in the EU. But referendums are notoriously unpredictable. And there is no reason to believe that the storms of populism blowing across the continent will not make landfall in the UK.
A decision to leave the EU would fall like a sledgehammer on the British economy and greatly diminish its international stature. Far worse, it could lead to the dissolution of the UK. The Scottish National Party has threatened to hold a second independence referendum if British voters decide to leave the EU. This, the SNP’s leaders argue, would allow an independent Scotland to remain part of Europe, even as England, Wales, and Northern Ireland set out on their own.
Were this to happen, the dismemberment of the UK would make Cameron’s legacy the worst of any prime minister in British history. That might seem like a high bar, given that the title is usually associated with Neville Chamberlain, who famously tried to appease Adolf Hitler. But while the stakes were certainly higher in Chamberlain’s case, at least his polices could be reversed before they destroyed the country (and Winston Churchill did just that). If Cameron loses both the EU and Scottish referendums, his successors will not be able to put the EU or the UK back together again.