Troops of the 1st Australian Division advance towards the Ypres front line, October 1917. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Before the First World War: what can 1914 tell us about 2014?

Old world decline, rogue empires, killing for God – looking at 1914, we can discover that there are many uncomfortable parallels with our own time.

As we enter the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, many uncomfortable parallels with our own time spring to mind. In 1914 the superpower that dominated the world, controlling the seas and ruling over a global empire of colonies, dominions and dependencies – Britain – was being challenged by a rival that was overtaking it economically and building up armaments on land and sea to assert its claim for a “place in the sun” – Germany. All of this is alarmingly close to the situation today, when America’s global supremacy is increasingly being challenged by the rise of China.

The ideological rivalries between the superpowers now and then look strikingly similar, too, at first glance: on the one hand, Britain then and America now, with their democratic political systems that make governments responsible to legislatures and removable by popular elections; on the other, Germany then and China now, with appointed and irremovable governments responsible only to themselves. A free press and open public on the one hand contrast with a controlled public sphere on the other, in which censorship and the trappings of a police state in effect muzzle the government’s most trenchant critics.

And of course there was, and is, the baleful influence of nationalism, with China’s sabre-rattling over disputed islands today yielding little in rhetorical vehemence to the kaiser’s bombastic speeches asserting German claims in Africa and the Middle East before 1914. The clash of ideologies and religions was evident before 1914, just as it is today, and in both cases concentrated on trouble spots in specific parts of the world.

Currently it is the conflicts in the Middle East we have to worry about, with a vicious civil war in Syria between rival Islamic factions standing proxy for the rivalry between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia, while an additional element of danger is provided by Israel, with its nuclear arsenal, and again Iran, with its persistent attempts to build one. China and Russia are lining up behind one side while Nato and the US line up behind the other.

Before 1914 the critical trouble spot was the Balkans, where nationalist passions were overlaid with religious conflicts between Christian states, such as Greece and Bul­garia, and the Islamic Ottoman empire. The Habsburg monarchy, run by a Roman Cath­olic elite, was being challenged by Orthodox Serbia. Just as there have been wars pre­viously in the Middle East (in 1948, 1967 and most recently in 1973), so too there had been wars in the Balkans, between Russia and Turkey in 1877-78 and between Serbia and Bulgaria in 1885. So 1914, sometimes known in the region as the third Balkan war, was nothing new for these countries.

All the Balkan powers were heavily armed, buying up the latest weaponry from Europe’s leading manufacturers with loans supplied by the British, French and German governments. All of these countries were politically unstable, with governments being violently overthrown and terrorist organisations such as the Serbian “Black Hand” and the Internal Macedonian Revo­lutionary Organisation flourishing.

The Balkan states, much like nations of the Middle East today, to a degree stood proxy for larger powers, notably tsarist Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. They had come close to the brink during the first Balkan war in 1912-13, when Montenegro in alliance with Serbia attacked northern Albania, where there were virtually no Serbs or Montenegrins among the inhabitants. Austria-Hungary demanded Serbia’s with­drawal, Russia began to mobilise in support of the Serbs, and France declared its support for the Russians. The situation was defused only by a British intervention, resulting in an international conference that guaranteed independence for Albania.

The whole episode was an ominous foretaste of what happened in August 1914. With the break-up of the alliance of the Balkan states in 1913, Bulgaria went over to the patronage of the Germans, while Russia’s only client left in the region was Serbia. Serbian ambitions had already prompted Austria-Hungary to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina, with their substantial population of Serbs, in 1908. It would be just as wrong to dismiss all of this as irrelevant to the ambitions and rivalries of the Great Powers, as Boris Johnson has done recently, as it would be to dismiss the violent antagonisms in today’s Middle East as unimportant to international relations on a wider scale.

And yet the Balkan nations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were no more mere puppets of Germany or Russia than the Middle Eastern states of today are puppets of America, Russia or China. As President Obama has discovered, trying to control Israeli governments is no easy task; he might tell the Israelis not to build any new Jewish settlements on the occupied West Bank but they carry on regardless. China and Russia might block western attempts to impose sanctions on the Assad regime in Syria and may continue supplying it with arms, but they have not been able to control it or stop its opponents, so they have become willing to explore ways of ending the conflict peaceably; their co-operation in the removal of chemical weapons signals their refusal to back the regime all the way.

China supplies Iran with weapons and with nuclear technology but can do little to mediate its policy in the Middle East, and its approach is tempered by the need to keep up good relations with the United States. Not least because of the growing importance of economic ties with the west, Russia has bowed to international pressure for sanctions on Iran and has curbed its arms supplies to the country. In all of this, there are few indications that the world’s great powers today are being drawn into regional conflicts as closely as they were in 1914.

One important reason for this lies in our changed attitudes to war. In Europe, the wars of the 19th century were limited in duration and scope, and seldom involved more than a handful of combatant nations. All told, deaths in battle between 1815 and 1914 were seven times fewer than combat deaths in the previous century. The wars of German unification in the 1860s, the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 and similar conflicts were swiftly resolved by decisive victories for one side or the other. Even the Crimean war of 1854-56 did not move much beyond the hinterland of the Black Sea.

In the 19th century fear of the upheaval and destruction caused by the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars brought the leading European states together time and again in what was known as the Concert of Europe to resolve potential conflicts through international conferences. Though it was severely damaged in the 1850s and 1860s, the Concert was patched together again in the 1870s, when the Congress of Berlin redrew the map of the Balkans, while another Berlin conference sorted out colonial rivalries (without, needless to say, consulting any of the millions of people about to be colonised) in 1884. These institutions, like the United Nations of today, provided a forum in which diplomats and statesmen could work together to avoid war, and they largely succeeded.

If there is no sign that the UN, for all its inadequacies, is about to collapse, it is not least because the postwar settlement of 1945 rested on a general recognition that international co-operation in all fields had to be stronger than it was under the League of Nations, the UN’s ill-fated predecessor. The destruction caused by the Second World War, with its 50 million or more dead, its ruined cities, its genocides, its widespread negation of civilised values, had a far more powerful effect than the deaths caused by the First World War, which were (with exceptions, notably the genocide of a million or more Armenian civilians, killed by the Turks in 1915) largely confined to troops on active service. In 1945, Hiroshima and Nagasaki provided an additional, ter­rible warning of what would happen if the world went to war again.

In 1914, by contrast, very few people had any idea of the cataclysm that was about to descend on them. Just as admirals thought that the war at sea would be a rerun of the great naval engagements of the past, so the generals thought the war on land would be something like the conflicts of the 1860s, opening with rapid, railway-borne advances to the front, followed by a decisive encounter in which the other side would meet with a shattering defeat; peace would then be concluded after a few weeks or at most a couple of months. Since those days, however, barbed wire, patented in 1874, and the machine-gun, perfected in portable form a decade later, had become standard defensive equipment; at the same time, the internal combustion engine and armour plating were not yet advanced enough to produce tanks that could overcome these obstacles effectively and restore movement to warfare. A few recognised these inconvenient facts, notably the Polish banker Jan Bloch, whose Modern Weapons and Modern War, published at the turn of the century, argued that in the next major war, “the spade will be as important as the rifle” and forecast that the war of the future would be a gridlock in which quick victory would be impossible.

But nobody heeded this prediction, because generals, politicians and civil servants were unable to accept its denial of easy victory. By 1910 at the latest, the idea that a war was coming was shared by many – indeed, generated a momentum towards it. Admiral Jackie Fisher wrote of the atmosphere he created in the Royal Navy after 1902: “We prepared for war in professional hours, talked war, thought war, and hoped for war.” The chief of the German general staff declared in 1912 that war must come “and the sooner the better!”. War in this vision appeared as something not only inevitable, but also positive. A German novelist wrote of August 1914: “At last life had regained an ideal significance. The great virtues of humanity . . . fidelity, patriotism, readiness to die for an ideal . . . were triumphing over the trading and shopkeeping spirit . . . The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.” The war appeared as a chance to do something glorious in a prosaic age.

In like vein, British writers enthused about the opportunity that war would present:

To die young, clean, ardent; to die swiftly, in perfect health; to die saving others from death, or worse – disgrace . . . to die and carry with you into the fuller, ampler life beyond, untainted hopes and aspirations, unembittered memories, all the freshness and gladness of May – is that not a cause for joy rather than sorrow?

as Horace Annesley Vachell wrote in The Hill (1905). The war appeared as a release, a liberation of manly energies long pent up, a resolution to all the insoluble problems that had plagued European politics and society in increasing measure since the late 19th century: an escape into a simpler, clearer and more glorious reality.

War was also widely seen before 1914 by the upper classes across Europe as an assertion of masculine honour, like a duel, as it were, only on a much bigger scale. Duelling was a common way of avenging real or imagined slights to a man’s honour in virtually every European country at the time. The French politician Georges Clemenceau had fought a duel; so too had the Russian prime minister Pyotr Stolypin. Duelling was a frequent occurrence among the Junker aristocracy in Germany, and politicians in Austria-Hungary regularly engaged in duels. Only in Britain had they died out: the point of a duel was to vindicate one’s manly honour by standing unmoving as your opponent fired a bullet at you at twenty or thirty paces, and the invention of modern cricket, in which a man was required to face down a different kind of round, hard object as it hurtled towards him from the other end of the wicket, was a satisfactory (and comfortingly legal) substitute. Forcefulness, strength of will, self-assertion and standing firm against an enemy were all part of a code of behaviour of the upper-class men whose actions brought Europe and the world to war in 1914, in contrast to the flexibility and subtlety of the greater statesmen of an earlier generation, such as Bismarck, whose awareness of the precariousness of the German empire’s position in the international order was as great as Kaiser Wilhelm II’s disregard for it.

Such codes of male behaviour appear almost incomprehensible a century later. Politicians of the nuclear age are all too aware of the fragility of the world order. Masculine posturing nowadays earns only ridicule. The horrors of Nazi racism and genocide also put paid to the doctrine of social Darwinism, which had become widely accepted among European elites by the beginning of the 20th century but did not survive the war of 1939-45.


Remember them: wooden crosses recall victims of the 21st-century war in Iraq near Westminster Abbey, London, 2006. Image: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty.

Yet at the same time, the leaders of almost every European nation in 1914 were racked by anxiety about the future. Germany feared the growing might of Russia; Austria-Hungary was made nervous by the rise of Slav nationalism within its borders; Russia was afraid of further humiliation of the kind it had been forced to endure with its defeat in the war against Japan in 1904-1905. Internally, too, European states were in trouble, with strikes, suffragette campaigns and the threat of civil war in Ireland destabilising Britain; assassinations and labour unrest undermining tsarist autocracy in Russia; and the victory of the Marxist Social Democrats in Germany’s 1912 elections causing a crisis of confidence among the ruling elite.

One might point to the parallel of the present crisis in the eurozone, in which all the participant states hope to avoid a collapse but all are also pursuing their own interests and so differ on how it is to be averted; but the social unrest it has sparked has been confined largely to Greece, and the main states have been able to work together to limit the damage, with the result that collapse, so far, has been avoided.

Still, economic factors played a role in 1914 just as they do today. In France and especially in Britain, national debates opened up about the seemingly unstoppable success of the German economy. And indeed, German industry had already overtaken that of Britain by the eve of the war. It had increased Germany’s share of world industrial production fourfold since 1860, while Britain’s share had sunk by a third. Germany was producing twice as much steel as Britain, and dominated the chemical and electrical industries worldwide through firms such as Siemens, BASF, AEG and many others. In science the theories of Max Planck and Albert Einstein were revolutionising physics, while Robert Koch and his pupils were taking the lead in discovering the causes of one disease after another through their pioneering work in bacteriology. The motor car was a German invention, as was the diesel engine. There are parallels between such anxieties and the worry, sometimes extending to paranoia, in the US today about the rise of China. Yet so far American concerns have not translated into political action. The interventions of the US have been directed not against China’s role in other parts of the world but against medium or small regional powers such as Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Before 1914, however, there were many in Germany at least who thought that Ger­man economic and technological growth should, or would, translate into political power on the world scene. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the dominant notion of global power in Europe rested on the possession of overseas colonies. A newly united Germany had largely missed out on the spoils of empire in the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s. The British government was not opposed to recognising Germany’s claim to colonies; in fact, at one point there was a deal in the offing whereby London agreed to the Germans’ acquisition of the ramshackle and poorly defended overseas empire held by the Portuguese.

All this points to a huge difference between the world of 1914 and the one of today. A century ago, Britain, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Russia possessed vast colonies with millions of subjects. With its growing power and influence, the United States was also starting to join the club. The First World War was a struggle between empires and one of its products was a repartition of the globe, with Germany’s colonies seized and distributed among the victors.

Colonialism lost all legitimacy after 1945. The early 21st century is witnessing the growth of former colonies such as Brazil, or Nigeria, or India, into major players in the global economic game. In contrast to the decades of the cold war, when international relations were a bipolar system that pitted the Soviet Union against the western powers in direct opposition to each other, we now have a multipolar system. The world has become more like that of the late 19th century, although Britain, despite its vast overseas empire, was nowhere near as dominant as the United States has been since the collapse of communism. Then, too, international relations were constituted as a multipolar system; the difference was that almost all the major competitors were from within Europe itself.

The breakdown of this system was one of the main factors leading to the outbreak of war in 1914. Up to 1904-05, Britain had regarded France and Russia as its main rivals for global influence, but as dangerous Anglo-French colonial differences in Africa were settled, and Russia turned away from Asia following its defeat by Japan, the rise of Germany took centre stage and Europe divided itself, along the lines of the later cold war, into two armed and increasingly antagonistic camps. In an atmosphere that fostered largely positive attitudes to war this was an ominous development, and one without parallel in the early 21st century, for all the posturings over Syria or Iran of Russia and China on the one hand and the Nato powers, on the other.

There is another parallel between the two ages. Just as we are in the midst of an era of rapid globalisation today, so in 1914 processes of globalisation were well under way, thanks to the telephone, the steamship, and potentially the aeroplane. Mutual investment by French and German companies created new economic entities that crossed the Rhine. Cultural exchange, tourism, economic interpenetration, all were reaching global dimensions by 1914.

For all the Marxists’ convoluted attempts to prove that the driving forces behind the First World War were economic, the logic of capitalism told against war rather than for it. Yet neither economic rationality nor cultural familiarity proved an obstacle to conflict. The reason for this is not, however, ideological. Nothing could be less plausible than the current attempts of Conservative politicians and writers such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson to portray the outbreak of the First World War as a clash between Britain’s liberal democracy and Germany’s authoritarian militarism.

In 1914 40 per cent of adult males in Britain did not have the right to vote; the troops who signed up were not volunteering to defend rights that nearly half of them lacked. All adult males in Germany could vote. The largest political party in Germany, the Marxist SPD, initially opposed the war, voted for war credits only because the government successfully presented the issue as one of defence against tsarist despotism, and was committed to a peace without annexations. By the second half of the war the kaiser had been forced to con­cede democratic reforms in Prussia. Kaiser Wilhelm – erratic, indecisive, unstable – was not Hitler. Imperial Germany was not a dictatorship.

One thing that those who want us to celebrate the First World War as a fight for British values have in common with the Blackadder television series is that all of them focus exclusively on the Western Front. But we need to raise our heads above the trenches and take in the wider dimensions of the war. That one of Britain’s two main allies was the despotic Russia of Tsar Nicholas II should banish any thoughts of the war having been fought in defence of “western liberalism” until Russia’s exit from the war in 1917-18. British propaganda of course portrayed the conflict in moral and ideological terms, rightly pointing to German atrocities in Belgium in the opening weeks, though it quickly came to exaggerate them in the process. However, there were many atrocities in the Balkans and on the Eastern Front, too, and it would be wrong if the commemorations about to begin neglected the wider European and global dimensions of the conflict in a simplistic parroting of the British propaganda of the time.

Perhaps the most striking difference between the world in 1914 and that of 2014 lies, in a way that would have surprised our ancestors of a century ago, in the greater power of religion today to disrupt the inter­national order. Whatever the First World War was about, it was a determinedly secular conflict. Only in the Ottoman empire, and the Balkans, perhaps, did religion play a role, yet even the Armenian genocide was justified by the Turks mainly in ethnic and security terms. The leading combatants in the First World War were pursuing decidedly secular interests.

Absurdly, Nigel Biggar, a professor of theology in Oxford, has leapt into the fray in Standpoint magazine to claim, with all the self-importance of his tribe, that morality – in other words, God – was on the British side in 1914. The argument is irresistibly reminiscent of J C Squire’s epigram of the day: “God heard the embattled nations sing and shout/‘Gott strafe England’ and ‘God save the King!’/God this, God that, and God the other thing –/‘Good God!’ said God, ‘I’ve got my work cut out!’”

Terrorism today may be fuelled mainly by religion, and religious conflicts certainly underpin political tensions in the Middle East, yet despite the belief of some on the Republican right in the US that a war over Israel will lead to Armageddon and the Second Coming, there is no evidence that religion plays a significant role in international relations between the major world powers today. For all the parallels with the nationalist passions that swept Europe in 1914, there is even less evidence that they drove Britain, Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary or France to war. Statesmen later claimed that popular pressure propelled them into the conflict, but this was an ex post facto self-justification that should be treated with the scepticism every such claim of this kind deserves.

Meanwhile, in 1914 and after, nationalist passions in the main combatant powers were overwhelmingly the product of the war’s outbreak, not the cause. The war inaugurated three decades of nationalist hatreds in Europe, driven by the need to justify the conflict. They were made worse by what now appears the calamitous policy of national self-determination propagated by President Woodrow Wilson in his “Fourteen Points”. Economic rivalries broke out between the new states created after the war, making it impossible to clear up the financially ruinous consequences of the conflict, first triggering a disastrous inflation and then contributing to the catastrophe of the Slump. Democracies collapsed under the pressure of nationalist passions all over Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. The idea of an ethnically homogeneous nation state then caused untold suffering and millions of deaths between 1918 and 1948, as minorities were oppressed, expelled and murdered all over central and eastern Europe.

As we commemorate the First World War, we surely need to focus above all on the lessons to be learned from these tragic experiences. During the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, President John F Kennedy showed that he had paid attention: his reading of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August convinced him that muddle, indecisiveness and poor communication between the leaders of the Great Powers in 1914 had caused the slide into war, and that a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union could be avoided only if he made his position unambiguously clear to Nikita Khrushchev, as indeed he did.

In the early 21st century, however, when the threat of a nuclear conflict between the world’s leading powers has receded, the lesson we need to learn from the catastrophe of 1914 is a different one. Although France, Germany and other participants in the First World War will be telling us to stop a repetition of the disaster by building European unity and understanding, the focus of politicians should really be on the Middle East, the Balkans of the early 21st century, which still threaten to explode into a wider, more dangerous conflagration.

Richard J Evans is Regius Professor of History and President of Wolfson College, University of Cambridge

PETER NICHOLLS/REUTERS
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David Cameron's fatal insouciance

Will future historians remember the former prime minister for anything more than his great Brexit bungle?

On 13 July 2016, after a premiership lasting six years and 63 days, David Cameron left Downing Street for the last time. On the tarmac outside the black door, with his wife and children at his side, he gave a characteristically cool and polished parting statement. Then he got in his car for the last journey to Buckingham Palace – the picture, as ever, of insouciant ease. As I was watching the television pictures of Cameron’s car gliding away, I remembered what he is supposed to have said some years earlier, when asked why he wanted to be prime minister. True or not, his answer perfectly captured the public image of the man: “Because I think I’d be rather good at it.”

A few moments later, a friend sent me a text message. It was just six words long: “He’s down there with Chamberlain now.”

At first I thought that was a bit harsh. People will probably always disagree about Cameron’s economic record, just as they do about Margaret Thatcher’s. But at the very least it was nowhere near as bad as some of his critics had predicted, and by some standards – jobs created, for instance – it was much better than many observers had expected. His government’s welfare and education policies have their critics, but it seems highly unlikely that people will still be talking about them in a few decades’ time. Similarly, although Britain’s intervention in Libya is unlikely to win high marks from historians, it never approached the disaster of Iraq in the public imagination.

Cameron will probably score highly for his introduction of gay marriage, and although there are many people who dislike him, polls suggested that most voters regarded him as a competent, cheerful and plausible occupant of the highest office in the land. To put it another way, from the day he entered 10 Downing Street until the moment he left, he always looked prime ministerial. It is true that he left office as a loser, humiliated by the EU referendum, and yet, on the day he departed, the polls had him comfortably ahead of his Labour opposite number. He was, in short, popular.
On the other hand, a lot of people liked Neville Chamberlain, too. Like Chamberlain, Cameron seems destined to be remembered for only one thing. When students answer exam questions about Chamberlain, it’s a safe bet that they aren’t writing about the Holidays with Pay Act 1938. And when students write about Cameron in the year 2066, they won’t be answering questions about intervention in Libya, or gay marriage. They will be writing about Brexit and the lost referendum.

It is, of course, conceivable, though surely very unlikely, that Brexit will be plain sailing. But it is very possible that it will be bitter, protracted and enormously expensive. Indeed, it is perfectly conceivable that by the tenth anniversary of the referendum, the United Kingdom could be reduced to an English and Welsh rump, struggling to come to terms with a punitive European trade deal and casting resentful glances at a newly independent Scotland. Of course the Brexiteers – Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Daniel Hannan et al – would get most of the blame in the short run. But in the long run, would any of them really be remembered? Much more likely is that historians’ fingers would point at one man: Cameron, the leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party, the prime minister who gambled with his future and lost the Union. The book by “Cato” that destroyed Chamberlain’s reputation in July 1940 was entitled Guilty Men. How long would it be, I wonder, before somebody brought out a book about Cameron, entitled Guilty Man?

Naturally, all this may prove far too pessimistic. My own suspicion is that Brexit will turn out to be a typically European – or, if you prefer, a typically British – fudge. And if the past few weeks’ polls are anything to go by, Scottish independence remains far from certain. So, in a less apocalyptic scenario, how would posterity remember David Cameron? As a historic failure and “appalling bungler”, as one Guardian writer called him? Or as a “great prime minister”, as Theresa May claimed on the steps of No 10?

Neither. The answer, I think, is that it would not remember him at all.

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The late Roy Jenkins, who – as Herbert Asquith’s biographer, Harold Wilson’s chancellor and Jim Callaghan’s rival – was passionately interested in such things, used to write of a “market” in prime ministerial futures. “Buy Attlee!” he might say. “Sell Macmillan!” But much of this strikes me as nonsense. For one thing, political reputations fluctuate much less than we think. Many people’s views of, say, Wilson, Thatcher and Blair have remained unchanged since the day they left office. Over time, reputations do not change so much as fade. Academics remember prime ministers; so do political anoraks and some politicians; but most people soon forget they ever existed. There are 53 past prime ministers of the United Kingdom, but who now remembers most of them? Outside the university common room, who cares about the Marquess of Rockingham, the Earl of Derby, Lord John Russell, or Arthur Balfour? For that matter, who cares about Asquith or Wilson? If you stopped people in the streets of Sunderland, how many of them would have heard of Stanley Baldwin or Harold Macmillan? And even if they had, how much would they ­really know about them?

In any case, what does it mean to be a success or a failure as prime minister? How on Earth can you measure Cameron’s achievements, or lack of them? We all have our favourites and our prejudices, but how do you turn that into something more dispassionate? To give a striking example, Margaret Thatcher never won more than 43.9 per cent of the vote, was roundly hated by much of the rest of the country and was burned in effigy when she died, long after her time in office had passed into history. Having come to power promising to revive the economy and get Britain working again, she contrived to send unemployment well over three million, presided over the collapse of much of British manufacturing and left office with the economy poised to plunge into yet another recession. So, in that sense, she looks a failure.

Yet at the same time she won three consecutive general elections, regained the Falklands from Argentina, pushed through bold reforms to Britain’s institutions and fundamentally recast the terms of political debate for a generation to come. In that sense, clearly she was a success. How do you reconcile those two positions? How can you possibly avoid yielding to personal prejudice? How, in fact, can you reach any vaguely objective verdict at all?

It is striking that, although we readily discuss politicians in terms of success and failure, we rarely think about what that means. In some walks of life, the standard for success seems obvious. Take the other “impossible job” that the tabloids love to compare with serving as prime minister: managing the England football team. You can measure a football manager’s success by trophies won, qualifications gained, even points accrued per game, just as you can judge a chief executive’s performance in terms of sales, profits and share values.

There is no equivalent for prime ministerial leadership. Election victories? That would make Clement Attlee a failure: he fought five elections and won only two. It would make Winston Churchill a failure, too: he fought three elections and won only one. Economic growth? Often that has very little to do with the man or woman at the top. Opinion polls? There’s more to success than popularity, surely. Wars? Really?

The ambiguity of the question has never stopped people trying. There is even a Wikipedia page devoted to “Historical rankings of Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom”, which incorporates two surveys of academics carried out by the University of Leeds, a BBC Radio 4 poll of Westminster commentators, a feature by BBC History Magazine and an online poll organised by Newsnight. By and large, there is a clear pattern. Among 20th-century leaders, there are four clear “successes” – Lloyd George, Churchill, Attlee and Thatcher – with the likes of Macmillan, Wilson and Heath scrapping for mid-table places. At the bottom, too, the same names come up again and again: Balfour, Chamberlain, Eden, Douglas-Home and Major. But some of these polls are quite old, dating back to the Blair years. My guess is that if they were conducted today, Major might rise a little, especially after the success of Team GB at the Olympics, and Gordon Brown might find himself becalmed somewhere towards the bottom.

***

So what makes the failures, well, failures? In two cases, the answer is simply electoral defeat. Both ­Arthur Balfour and John Major were doomed to failure from the moment they took office, precisely because they had been picked from within the governing party to replace strong, assertive and electorally successful leaders in Lord Salisbury and Margaret Thatcher, respectively. It’s true that Major unexpectedly won the 1992 election, but in both cases there was an atmosphere of fin de régime from the very beginning. Douglas-Home probably fits into this category, too, coming as he did at the fag end of 13 years of Conservative rule. Contrary to political mythology, he was in fact a perfectly competent prime minister, and came much closer to winning the 1964 election than many people had expected. But he wasn’t around for long and never really captured the public mood. It seems harsh merely to dismiss him as a failure, but politics is a harsh business.

That leaves two: Chamberlain and Eden. Undisputed failures, who presided over the greatest foreign policy calamities in our modern history. Nothing to say, then? Not so. Take Chamberlain first. More than any other individual in our modern history, he has become a byword for weakness, naivety and self-deluding folly.

Yet much of this picture is wrong. Chamberlain was not a weak or indecisive man. If anything, he was too strong: too stubborn, too self-confident. Today we remember him as a faintly ridiculous, backward-looking man, with his umbrella and wing collar. But many of his contemporaries saw him as a supremely modern administrator, a reforming minister of health and an authoritative chancellor who towered above his Conservative contemporaries. It was this impression of cool capability that secured Chamberlain the crown when Baldwin stepped down in 1937. Unfortunately, it was precisely his titanic self-belief, his unbreakable faith in his own competence, that also led him to overestimate his influence over Adolf Hitler. In other words, the very quality that people most admired – his stubborn confidence in his own ability – was precisely what doomed him.

In Chamberlain’s case, there is no doubt that he had lost much of his popular prestige by May 1940, when he stepped down as prime minister. Even though most of his own Conservative MPs still backed him – as most of Cameron’s MPs still backed him after the vote in favour of Brexit – the evidence of Mass Observation and other surveys suggests that he had lost support in the country at large, and his reputation soon dwindled to its present calamitous level.

The case of the other notable failure, Anthony Eden, is different. When he left office after the Suez crisis in January 1957, it was not because the public had deserted him, but because his health had collapsed. Surprising as it may seem, Eden was more popular after Suez than he had been before it. In other words, if the British people had had their way, Eden would probably have continued as prime minister. They did not see him as a failure at all.

Like Chamberlain, Eden is now generally regarded as a dud. Again, this may be a bit unfair. As his biographers have pointed out, he was a sick and exhausted man when he took office – the result of two disastrously botched operations on his gall bladder – and relied on a cocktail of painkillers and stimulants. Yet, to the voters who handed him a handsome general election victory in 1955, Eden seemed to have all the qualities to become an enormously successful prime minister: good looks, brains, charm and experience, like a slicker, cleverer and more seasoned version of Cameron. In particular, he was thought to have proved his courage in the late 1930s, when he had resigned as foreign secretary in protest at the appeasement of Benito Mussolini before becoming one of Churchill’s chief lieutenants.

Yet it was precisely Eden’s great asset – his reputation as a man who had opposed appeasement and stood up to the dictators – that became his weakness. In effect, he became trapped by his own legend. When the Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in July 1956, Eden seemed unable to view it as anything other than a replay of the fascist land-grabs of the 1930s. Nasser was Mussolini; the canal was Abyssinia; ­failure to resist would be appeasement all over again. This was nonsense, really: Nasser was nothing like Mussolini. But Eden could not escape the shadow of his own political youth.

This phenomenon – a prime minister’s greatest strength gradually turning into his or her greatest weakness – is remarkably common. Harold Wilson’s nimble cleverness, Jim Callaghan’s cheerful unflappability, Margaret Thatcher’s restless urgency, John Major’s Pooterish normality, Tony Blair’s smooth charm, Gordon Brown’s rugged seriousness: all these things began as refreshing virtues but became big handicaps. So, in that sense, what happened to Chamberlain and Eden was merely an exaggerated version of what happens to every prime minister. Indeed, perhaps it is only pushing it a bit to suggest, echoing Enoch Powell, that all prime ministers, their human flaws inevitably amplified by the stresses of office, eventually end up as failures. In fact, it may not be too strong to suggest that in an age of 24-hour media scrutiny, surging populism and a general obsession with accountability, the very nature of the job invites failure.

***

In Cameron’s case, it would be easy to construct a narrative based on similar lines. Remember, after all, how he won the Tory leadership in the first place. He went into the 2005 party conference behind David Davis, the front-runner, but overhauled him after a smooth, fluent and funny speech, delivered without notes. That image of blithe nonchalance served him well at first, making for a stark contrast with the saturnine intensity and stumbling stiffness of his immediate predecessors, Michael Howard and Iain Duncan Smith. Yet in the end it was Cameron’s self-confidence that really did for him.

Future historians will probably be arguing for years to come whether he really needed to promise an In/Out referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, as his defenders claim, to protect his flank against Ukip. What is not in doubt is that Cameron believed he could win it. It became a cliché to call him an “essay crisis” prime minister – a gibe that must have seemed meaningless to millions of people who never experienced the weekly rhythms of the Oxford tutorial system. And yet he never really managed to banish the impression of insouciance. The image of chillaxing Dave, the PM so cockily laidback that he left everything until the last minute, may be a caricature, but my guess is that it will stick.

As it happens, I think Cameron deserves more credit than his critics are prepared to give him. I think it would be easy to present him as a latter-day Baldwin – which I mean largely as a compliment. Like Baldwin, he was a rich provincial Tory who posed as an ordinary family man. Like Baldwin, he offered economic austerity during a period of extraordinary international financial turmoil. Like Baldwin, he governed in coalition while relentlessly squeezing the Liberal vote. Like Baldwin, he presented himself as the incarnation of solid, patriotic common sense; like Baldwin, he was cleverer than his critics thought; like Baldwin, he was often guilty of mind-boggling complacency. The difference is that when Baldwin gambled and lost – as when he called a rash general election in 1923 – he managed to save his career from the ruins. When Cameron gambled and lost, it was all over.

Although I voted Remain, I do not share many commentators’ view of Brexit as an apocalyptic disaster. In any case, given that a narrow majority of the electorate got the result it wanted, at least 17 million people presumably view Cameron’s gamble as a great success – for Britain, if not for him. Unfortunately for Cameron, however, most British academics are left-leaning Remainers, and it is they who will write the history books. What ought also to worry Cameron’s defenders – or his shareholders, to use Roy Jenkins’s metaphor – is that both Chamberlain and Eden ended up being defined by their handling of Britain’s foreign policy. There is a curious paradox here, ­because foreign affairs almost never matters at the ballot box. In 1959, barely three years after Suez, the Conservatives cruised to an easy re-election victory; in 2005, just two years after invading Iraq, when the extent of the disaster was already apparent, Blair won a similarly comfortable third term in office. Perhaps foreign affairs matters more to historians than it does to most voters. In any case, the lesson seems to be that, if you want to secure your historical reputation, you can get away with mishandling the economy and lengthening the dole queues, but you simply cannot afford to damage Britain’s international standing.

So, if Brexit does turn into a total disaster, Cameron can expect little quarter. Indeed, while historians have some sympathy for Chamberlain, who was, after all, motivated by a laudable desire to avoid war, and even for Eden, who was a sick and troubled man, they are unlikely to feel similar sympathy for an overconfident prime minister at the height of his powers, who seems to have brought his fate upon himself.

How much of this, I wonder, went through David Cameron’s mind in the small hours of that fateful morning of 24 June, as the results came through and his place in history began to take shape before his horrified eyes? He reportedly likes to read popular history for pleasure; he must occasionally have wondered how he would be remembered. But perhaps it meant less to him than we think. Most people give little thought to how they will be remembered after their death, except by their closest friends and family members. There is something insecure, something desperately needy, about people who dwell on their place in history.

Whatever you think about Cameron, he never struck me as somebody suffering from excessive insecurity. Indeed, his normality was one of the most likeable things about him.

He must have been deeply hurt by his failure. But my guess is that, even as his car rolled away from 10 Downing Street for the last time, his mind was already moving on to other things. Most prime ministers leave office bitter, obsessive and brooding. But, like Stanley Baldwin, Cameron strolled away from the job as calmly as he had strolled into it. It was that fatal insouciance that brought him down. 

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian, broadcaster and columnist for the Daily Mail. His book The Great British Dream Factory will be published in paperback by Penguin on 1 September

Dominic Sandbrook is a historian and author. His books include Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles and White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties. He writes the What If... column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser