Alex Salmond. Photo: Getty
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Alex Salmond: Why should Scotland let itself be ruled by the Tories?

People in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives, says the SNP leader.

When the inconclusive result of the last UK general election became clear, there was considerable anger among some commentators – particularly from the right – that Gordon Brown was seeking to form a new administration. For our part, although we were not prepared to enter a formal coalition, I made it clear that I was open to exploring the possible involvement of the SNP in an attempt to construct an alternative scenario to what we believed would be the disaster of a Conservative-led government.

But the sense, from many both within and outside the Labour Party, was that although there had been no obvious winner, Mr Brown and Labour had been the clear losers – in England, at any rate. Although Labour had won 258 seats, many people believed that it would have been wrong to seek to form a government on that basis.

Imagine then how laughable and absurd it would have been if a party had won just a single seat in England but had not only sought to lead a government but succeeded in doing so. Such a democratic outrage is so far-fetched that it would not cross anyone’s mind as a reasonable outcome for even a second.

I assume readers in England would, rightly, refuse even to contemplate such a ludicrous possibility. And yet in Scotland today we are subject to a Westminster coalition government led by the Tories, who do indeed have the grand total of one MP north of the border. This affront to democracy gets to the heart of the independence debate. It cannot be right for a party that is overwhelmingly rejected in election after election (in the four most recent UK elections the Tories have returned zero, one, one and one MP from Scotland) to form a government pursuing policies that very few people support. In fact, for half the time since the end of the Second World War, Scotland has been governed from Westminster by parties with no majority here.

So when the Prime Minister agreed with his No campaign ally Ian Davidson, a Labour MP, that he shouldn’t come to Scotland to campaign against independence because he was “a Tory toff from the Home Counties, even one with a fine haircut”, both of them spectacularly missed the point.

I suspect both Mr Davidson and Mr Cameron know fine well that the Prime Minister’s choice of barber, background and nationality are utterly irrelevant. What is important is that people in Scotland – often the most vulnerable – are suffering from the impact of a government they didn’t elect and which cares little or nothing for their lives.

Scottish MPs have voted decisively against the bedroom tax, the welfare benefits uprating bill, means-testing for child benefit, cuts in capital spending, Royal Mail privatisation and many more coalition policies but all of them are being imposed on Scotland anyway.

Within the constraints of the Scottish Parliament, on many of these issues, there is nothing we can do. On others the Scottish government is working hard to soften the blow and to seek ways of mitigating the impact. But it makes a mockery of devolution for the Scottish Parliament to be told to divert money from other services to mitigate the impact of policies that had virtually no support in Scotland in the first place.

Because of the way public services are funded in the “devolved nations”, even policies under the control of the Scottish Parliament are under pressure from the marketising fixation at Westminster.

In 2011 I appeared on the BBC’s Question Time in Liverpool where I sympathised with people in England because of the destruction of their National Health Service that appeared to be taking place. I remarked that in Scotland we had gone down a very different route and had decided to keep the NHS in public hands. Now the shadow health secretary at Westminster is warning that the NHS is under attack and that the Tories are taking the first steps towards an American-style system. It was, of course, Labour that enthusiastically embraced the idea of competition and markets in the NHS and ripped off taxpayers by hugely expanding the ruinous Private Finance Initiative.

Labour supporters must now be watching in horror, as the journey started by their leaders could soon be completed by the Tories, with the result that universal public health provision free at the point of use could become a thing of the past in England.

It saddens me greatly to see what is being done to this great institution, but it is no longer just a case of expressing sympathy. Within the Westminster funding system, the privatisation of the NHS in England could be deeply damaging for the funding of public services in Scotland.

That is because, under the (frequently misunderstood) Barnett formula, if privatisation leads to cuts in public funding for the NHS in England this will lead to cuts to funding in Scotland. So decisions taken in Westminster by governments we didn’t elect have damaging long-term consequences for people in Scotland.

In this respect, it is important to recognise the myth that an independent Scotland will make it impossible for Labour to form a government in the rest of the UK. In fact, in only two of the 18 general elections since 1945 (October 1964 and February 1974) would the largest party at Westminster have been different if Scotland had been independent, and even then, those two governments lasted for less than 26 months in total. So Scotland’s votes within the Union have little or no influence on the make-up of the Westminster government.

But Scotland’s values as an independent country could have a much more profound impact. We could be a progressive beacon for those across these islands who yearn for a fairer society. Even before the Tories entered office in 2010, Danny Dorling, then a professor at the University of Sheffield, calculated that the UK was the fourth most unequal country in the developed world.

In Scotland we do not have such extremes of wealth but the gap between rich and poor is still far too wide. The anti-poverty campaigner Bob Holman, one who was famously sought out by Iain Duncan-Smith, recently announced that he was supporting independence. He wrote: “I was born in England, though I have lived in Glasgow for 30 years. I am a member of the Labour Party, which is against Scottish independence, but I will be voting Yes in September. My decision is not because I have strong nationalistic feelings, but because I believe in democracy and equality.”

And he went on: “An SNP government in an independent Scotland would be committed to abolishing the punishment that is right-wing welfare.”

On this he was right. But I don’t believe such a commitment is confined to the SNP. I don’t believe any government in an independent Scotland would engage in the dismantling of the welfare state we see under way in Westminster today. I would never pretend that governments of an independent Scotland – of whatever colour – will never make mistakes. I don’t believe we have higher values than anyone else. As in all democracies, there will be differences of opinion and a lively policy debate.

But since 1999, the Scottish Parliament has shown above all that taking decisions in Scotland works for the people who live here. When free personal care for the elderly was brought in, the policy was supported by every party in the parliament.

Since 2007 the SNP has resisted the marketisation of the NHS, abolished university tuition fees and removed the means test from prescriptions. We have championed the universal ideal and recently we have worked with Labour to find a way to help the disabled and other people suffering from the cruel and inhumane bedroom tax.

In an independent Scotland with control of social security, I firmly believe there would be no place for the divisive language of “scrounger v striver” which is designed to undermine the welfare state.

Last year, I was honoured to be asked to give the Jimmy Reid Memorial Lecture. In that lecture, I recalled Jimmy’s celebrated Glasgow University rectorial address in 1972, in which he spoke of alienation as “the cry of men who feel themselves the victims of blind economic forces beyond their control. It is the frustration of ordinary people excluded from the processes of decision-making. The feeling of despair and hopelessness that pervades people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies.”

When I recited those words I could not have imagined even then the scale of the rise in food bank use and the despair of those forced to turn to them because of the coalition government’s destructive attitude towards social security.

When David Cameron came into office, his big idea was the so-called big society. But what we see today is a shrinking society – one in which the third sector and private companies are being asked to become the public sector’s replacement, not its partner.

So Scotland could indeed be a champion of a progressive society – demonstrating a different and, I believe, a better way.

This does not mean an unreformed state. We have focused on prevention and early intervention. We have made some major reforms, such as the reduction in the number of police forces, and we have cut public bodies from 199 to 113. But we believe in a collaborative model of public services – not one based on competition.

The UK, then, is an unbalanced and unequal society in many ways. It concentrates an extraordinary amount of economic activity in London and the south-east of England. Shortly after he came to office the Prime Minister warned of the consequences. “This really matters,” he said. “An economy with such a narrow foundation for growth is fundamentally unstable and wasteful – because we are not making use of the talent out there in all parts of our United Kingdom.”

However, since then the imbalances have got worse. A recent report said 80 per cent of private-sector job creation was taking place in London. Before Christmas, Vince Cable spoke of London as “a giant suction machine”, draining life from the rest of the country. In Scotland, we have seen an improvement in economic performance since devolution. In fact, even without any revenue from North Sea oil, GDP per head is almost the same as for the UK. With oil and gas revenues our economy, per head, is substantially larger.

Far from being the oil-dependent economy depicted by those opposed to independence, Scotland has diverse strengths and our public finances are healthier than the UK’s.

We have more top universities, per head, than any other country and a food and drink industry aiming to turn over more than £16bn a year. We are major players in the life sciences, financial services, creative industries and other growth sectors. Despite the UK’s neglect of manufacturing, we still have significant manufacturers of international standing and we have enormous potential in renewable technology.

So, the issue for people in Scotland is not if we can afford to be an independent country – after all, we are one of the wealthiest nations on the planet. The issue is how best we can build economic security and create opportunities in the future. The choice is whether to continue as an economic region of the unbalanced, unequal Westminster model, or take on the powers of a national economy in an independent Scotland.

 

As with all countries, we will have challenges to overcome. The proximity of a world city such as London can be a great advantage but we need the powers to give Scottish business a competitive tax edge to counter the suction effect identified by Mr Cable. Expanding the working population is an important goal. But we are suffering from an immigration policy driven by a Westminster establishment in fear of the UK Independence Party.

Both the rhetoric and the policy are deeply damaging. The decision to abolish the post-study work visa is already having an effect. In the Scottish government’s white paper on independence – Scotland’s Future – we set out how an immigration policy can be designed for Scotland’s needs within the Common Travel Area.

In Scotland’s Future we also set out phased transformational plans for childcare, which will open up much greater opportunities for women in particular and boost the workforce. This, in turn, will boost tax revenues. Crucially, with independence, that tax revenue will stay in Scotland, rather than being sent to the London Treasury, which will allow us to reinvest to fund the policy. If the SNP was to form the first government of an independent Scotland, it will be this expansion of childcare that will be our priority, so we will not go ahead with the married couple’s allowance planned for next year.

We also propose a collaborative social partnership model to boost productivity. Our Fair Work Commission will have a remit to increase the minimum wage at least in line with inflation, and we will bring together employers and employees in a convention on employment and labour relations to look at a range of issues such as a living wage. By taking these and other measures, Scotland will become a more resilient economy. Other, comparable European countries have achieved higher growth rates and more equal societies, so we know what is possible.

And for the rest of the UK, a strong Scotland will act as a counterweight to rebalance the activity so concentrated at present in the south-east of England. These, of course, are SNP proposals. But the first government of an independent Scotland will be the government that wins the first election in an independent Scotland in May 2016.

Before that government takes office, a Yes vote this September will trigger the start of negotiations with the UK government to ensure the transition to independence. Both the Scottish and the UK governments have signed the 2012 Edinburgh Agreement, which commits us to respecting the outcome of the referendum and to working together constructively in the best interests of the people of Scotland and the rest of the UK.

On the issue of currency, the Scottish government has accepted the advice of the Fiscal Commission Working Group that a sterling-zone currency union is in the best interests of an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK. The pound is not the property of George Osborne or Ed Balls, nor even Danny Alexander. It is as much Scotland’s pound as the rest of the UK’s.

When Mr Osborne flew in to Scotland to pronounce that he would not accept such an arrangement and would refuse even to discuss the matter with us, the Chancellor chose to misrepresent the fiscal commission’s proposals. He chose also to misrep­resent the size of the Scottish financial sector and the impact of oil-price fluctuations, and offered misleading comparisons with the eurozone.

The Treasury further argued that the UK is the continuing state in international law, and so Scotland is not entitled to a share of the Bank of England, among other things. As a campaign tactic, it seems as if the UK government is insisting on the sole right
to determine what the assets are and which are the liabilities.

Despite the UK Treasury’s position, the Scottish government is continuing to be constructive. Even though the Treasury has accepted that it has the legal obligation to pay back the UK debt in the event of a Yes vote, we are willing to finance a fair share. This is dependent, of course, on receiving a fair share of the assets. It is the UK government that curiously seems to be insisting, through its line of argument, that the rest of the UK must shoulder the whole debt burden.

As Christine Bell, professor of constitutional law at Edinburgh, has pointed out, “Legally under international law the position is clear: if the remainder of the UK keeps the name and status of the UK under international law, it keeps its liabilities for the debt. The UK took out the debt, and legally it owes the money. Scotland cannot therefore ‘default’.”

This is just one reason why I believe that, despite the destructive rhetoric of the No campaign, common sense will prevail and a fair share of assets and liabilities will indeed be agreed. Besides Mr Osborne’s announcement, the No campaign has seized on comments by the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, about Scotland’s EU membership, including a preposterous comparison between Scotland and Kosovo. We have always accepted that it is for the member states to decide the route for Scotland to continue its membership of the EU as an independent country. We have also always accepted that negotiations will have to take place.

But there is nothing in any European treaty that allows for the removal of five million EU citizens against their will because they have taken part in a legal, democratic vote about how they should be governed. Mr Barroso’s comments were followed by a range of experts setting out why he was wrong.

Sir David Edward, a former British judge at the European Court of Justice who describes himself as a moderate unionist, has said there is an obligation to negotiate Scotland’s membership between the event of a Yes vote and Scotland becoming independent.

Yet even more than the legal position, we need to be clear about the EU’s very purpose. It is founded on the principles of democracy, freedom and solidarity. It is in the business of enlargement. To remove Scotland would involve turning its back on these founding values and it is entirely unclear why any EU state would contemplate such a step.

Our vision of an independent Scotland is one of a country engaging fully with the EU and the broader international community, co-operating closely with our friends and neighbours in the UK.

The close cultural and social ties across these islands will continue and, I believe, will be strengthened. We can learn from each other in a partnership of equals based on mutual respect. I passionately believe that an independent Scotland will be a more democratic, fairer and more prosperous country and that is why I believe the momentum is so strongly with the Yes campaign and why on 18 September the people of Scotland will vote Yes. 

Alex Salmond is the leader of the Scottish National Party and the First Minister of Scotland

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.

***

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