Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. Taliban-style militias are spreading rapidly out f

"You must understand," says Maulana Sami ul-Haq, "that Pakistan and Islam are synonymous." The principal of Darul Uloom Haqqania, a seminary in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), is a tall and jovial man. He grabs my hand as he takes me round the seminary. Maulana ul-Haq laughs when I ask his views on jihad. "It is the duty of all Muslims to support those groups fighting against oppression," he says.

The Haqqania is one of the largest madrasas in Pakistan. It produces about 3,000 graduates, most from exceptionally poor backgrounds, every year. The walls of the student dormitory are decorated with tanks and Kalashnikovs. A group of students, all with black beards, white turbans and grey dresses, surrounds me. They are curious and extremely polite. We chat under the watchful eye of two officers from Pakistan's intelligence services. What would they do after they graduate, I ask. "Serve Islam," they reply in unison. "We will dedicate our lives to jihad."

Pakistan is reverberating with the call of jihad. For more than two months, the capital, Islamabad, has been held hostage by a group of burqa-clad women, armed with sticks and shouting: "Al-jihad, al-jihad." These female students belong to two madrasas attached to the Lal Masjid, a large mosque near one of the city's main supermarkets. I found the atmosphere around the masjid tense, with heavily armed police surrounding the building. Though the students were allowed to go in and out freely, no one else could enter the mosque. The women are demanding the imposition of sharia law and the instant abolition of all "dens of vice". Away from the masjid, Islamabad looked like a city under siege.

A new generation of militants is emerging in Pakistan. Although they are generally referred to as "Taliban", they are a recent phenomenon. The original Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan briefly during the 1990s, were Afghan fighters, a product of the Soviet invasion of their country. They were created and moulded by the Pakistani army, with the active support of the United States and Saudi money, and the deliberate use of madrasas to prop up religious leaders. Many Taliban leaders were educated at Haqqania by Maulana Sami ul-Haq. The new generation of militants are all Pakistani; they emerged after the US invasion of Afghanistan and represent a revolt against the government's support for the US. Mostly unemployed, not all of them are madrasa-educated. They are led by young mullahs who, unlike the original Taliban, are technology- and media-savvy, and are also influenced by various indigenous tribal nationalisms, honouring the tribal codes that govern social life in Pakistan's rural areas. "They are Taliban in the sense that they share the same ideology as the Taliban in Afghanistan," says Rahimullah Yusufzai, Peshawar-based columnist on the News. "But they are totally Pakistani, with a better understanding of how the world works." Their jihad is aimed not just at "infidels occupying Afghanistan", but also the "infidels" who are ruling and running Pakistan and maintaining the secular values of Pakistani society. "They aim at nothing less than to cleanse Pakistan and turn it into a pure Islamic state," says Rashed Rahman, executive editor of the Lahore-based Post newspaper.

The Pakistani Taliban now dominate the northern province of Waziristan, adjacent to Afghan istan. "They are de facto rulers of the province," says Yusufzai. Waziristan is a tribal area that has historically been ruled by the tribes themselves. Pakistan has followed the policy of British Raj in the region. The British allowed tribal leaders, known as maliks, semi-autonomous powers in exchange for loyalty to the crown. Pakistan gives them the same power but demands loyalty to the federal government. They have been sidelined by the Taliban, however. Pro-government maliks who resisted the onslaught of the Taliban have been brutally killed and had their bodies hung from poles as a lesson to others. The Taliban have declared Waziristan an "Islamic emirate" and are trying to establish a parallel administration, complete with sharia courts and tax system.

Taliban-type militias have also taken control of parts of the adjacent NWFP. In Peshawar, one of the most open and accessible areas of the province, one can feel the tension on the streets. There are hardly any women out in public. The city, which has suffered numerous suicide attacks, is crowded with intelligence officers. Within an hour of my arrival in Peshawar, I was approached by a secret service official who warned that I was being watched. It is practically impossible for outsiders to enter other NWFP towns such as Tank, Darra Adam Khel and Dera Ismail Khan. In Dera Ismail Khan, outsiders - that is, Pakistanis from other parts of the country - need police escorts to travel around. You are allowed in only if you can prove you have business or relatives there. Girls' schools have been closed, video and music shops bombed, and barbers forbidden from shaving beards. The religious parties have passed a public morality law that gives them powers to prosecute anyone who does not follow their strict moral code. Legislation to ban dance and music is being planned. Even administration of polio vaccination campaigns has been halted amid claims that it is a US plot to sterilise future generations.

Why is the ostensibly secular government of President Pervez Musharraf not taking any action against the Taliban militants and the parties that support them? Part of the answer lies in the militants and religious parties having served the military regime well. After coming to power in 1999, Musharraf used them to neutralise the mainstream political parties - Benazir Bhutto's People's Party and the Muslim League, led by Nawaz Sharif. "The military and mullahs have been traditional allies," says the Islamabad-based security analyst Dr Ayesha Siddiqa. "The alliance of religious parties that rules NWFP came into power through his support." Musharraf also used the religious militants to destabilise Indian-held Kashmir by proxy. He encouraged extremists preaching jihad to infiltrate India for acts of sabotage.

The same is true of the Taliban. The Afghan Taliban have been a useful ally against unfriendly governments in Kabul. Even though Musharraf has been forced to go against them under pressure from the Americans, his strategy has been to try to contain them, rather than defeat them. He tried to regulate the madrasas in NWFP and elsewhere in Pakistan that provide recruits for the Taliban, seized their funds and banned them from admitting foreign students. But that's about as far as he wanted to go. Constant US pressure has forced him to send in the army, with grave consequences. Every time the Pakistani army enters Waziristan, it takes heavy casualties. Since 2003, when Pakistani troops first entered the tribal regions, more than 700 soldiers have been killed. Not surprisingly, Musharraf signed a hasty peace agreement on 5 September 2006 allowing the Afghan Taliban to get on with their business. "The military regards the Taliban as an asset," says Siddiqa. "So why destroy an asset? Particularly when the asset could be useful in the future."

That future may not be too far off. Pakistan's foreign policy towards Afghanistan is based on the assumption that the Nato forces there will withdraw sooner rather than later, leaving Hamid Karzai's regime to fend for itself. The Karzai government is strongly anti-Pakistani. But the Pakistani army needs friendly rulers in Kabul who would be willing to run the oil and gas pipelines that will serve the newly established port at Gwadar through Afghanistan's provinces (see page 32). So Pakistan needs the Afghan Taliban to exist as a force strong enough to establish the next government in Afghanistan.

Moreover, a pro-Islamabad Taliban-type government in Afghanistan would help establish peace in the northern tribal regions of Pakistan. Although Karzai himself is a Pashtun, most of the people in power in Kabul are Tajiks, a minority tribe. A sizeable majority of Afghans belong to the Pashtun ethnic group, which ruled Afghanistan for centuries. The position of Pakistan's military is that this imbalance "against the political history and tribal culture of Afghan istan", as one army officer told me, is not going to last. Most of the Pakistani Taliban - that is, the vast majority of people in Waziristan - are also Pashtun. And they will not rest until their brothers across the border hold the reins of power. As such, peace in this part of Pakistan depends on who rules Afghanistan.

Musharraf's strategy is to contain the Taliban of Afghan and Pakistani varieties alike, while weeding out al-Qaeda jihadis, or "foreign elements", as they are known in Pakistani military circles. The foreigners are a legacy of the Soviet-Afghan war. When the war ended, many of the central Asians who came to fight the Soviets were not welcomed back in their countries. For want of an alternative, they settled in Pakistan. Most of these foreign jihadis are Uzbek. Musharraf has simply bribed the local tribes to attack and eradicate the Uzbek jihadis. The battle between Pashtun tribesmen and al-Qaeda in Wana, southern Waziristan, in which more than 200 al-Qaeda fighters and some 50 tribal fighters were killed a fortnight ago was a product of this policy.

Musharraf's problem is that the Taliban cannot be contained. The Pakistani Taliban have now acquired enough confidence to break out of Wazi ristan and NWFP into other parts of the country. "What's happening at the Lal Masjid in Islamabad is a trial run for the rest of the country," says Rahman. "If the Taliban succeed in Islamabad, they will turn Pakistan into Talibistan."

Lawyers in uproar

While Musharraf continues to placate the Taliban, the rest of Pakistan is standing up against Talibanisation. Huge demonstrations have been held in Lahore, Karachi and other cities throughout Pakistan. To begin with, the protests were held to support Chief Justice Iftikhar Moham med Chaudhry, who was sacked by Musharraf in March. Chaudhry, who has become a national hero, tried to prevent the army from selling the national steel mill for a song. The affair was the latest in a long list of scandals involving the military. The openly unconstitutional act caused uproar, leading to countrywide protests by lawyers. But the lawyers have now acquired a broader agenda. They have become a national resistance movement, supported by all sections of society, against military rule and the Taliban.

Musharraf's response to the demonstrations and the Taliban challenge is to try to entrench himself even more deeply. While the country buckles under the pressure of suicide bombings, kidnappings and acts of sabotage, his main concern is his own survival. Constitutionally, he must hold elections some time this year - something he has promised to do, but the whole exercise will be designed to ensure that he continues as president for another five years.

His plan to get "re-elected" has two strands. The simple option is to get the current hand-picked parliament to endorse him for a second term and try to manipulate this vote, which the present sham constitution dictates, to ensure a healthy two-thirds majority. The heads of intelligence, the security services and the police have already been primed to ensure "positive results".

Bhutto to the rescue?

The other option is a bit messy. It involves making a deal with the former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, head of the Pakistan People's Party. Bhutto, who has been ousted from power by the military twice, is desperate to get back into power. She has a great deal in common with the general. She runs the People's Party as her personal property, and her social and economic policies - rooted as they are in feudalism and opportunism - are not far removed from those of the army. Her foreign policy would be the same as that of Musharraf; indeed, she is even more pro-American than the general.

So Bhutto and Musharraf, who have been negotiating with each other for almost three years, are an ideal couple. "The problem," says Rahman, "is that Musharraf does not want to give up his military uniform. It is the source of his strength. And the idea of Musharraf remaining military chief is anathema to Bhutto."

But the state of the nation, on the verge of political and religious collapse, may force Musharraf's hand. A deal between the general and the self-proclaimed "Daughter of the East" in which Musharraf retains most of his power as civilian president and Bhutto serves as prime minister may be acceptable to both. Rumours abound in Islamabad that a deal is imminent.

Bhutto's return from the cold would do little to stop Pakistan's slide into anarchy, however. The Taliban sense victory and will not be easily satisfied with anything less than a Pakistan under sharia law, or wide-ranging bloodshed. As Asma Jahangir, chairwoman of Pakistan's Human Rights Commission, makes clear, the country cannot survive its "deep-seated rot" unless the "unrepresentative organs of the state - the military, the mullahs and the all-consuming intelligence agencies - are brought under control". It is hard to disagree with her assessment. But it is even harder to see how these "unrepresen tative organs" can be stopped from dragging Pakistan further towards the abyss - with dire consequences for the rest of the world.

Pakistan: a short history

1947 Muslim state of Pakistan created by partition of India at the end of British rule

1948 First war with India over disputed territory of Kashmir

1965 Second war with India over Kashmir

1971 East Pakistan attempts to secede, triggering civil war. Third war between Pakistan and India. East Pakistan breaks away to become Bangladesh

1980 US pledges military assistance following Soviet intervention in Afghanistan

1988 Benazir Bhutto elected prime minister

1996 Bhutto dismissed, for the second time, on charges of corruption

1998 Country conducts nuclear tests

1999 General Pervez Musharraf seizes power in military coup

2001 Musharraf backs US in war on terror and supports invasion of Afghanistan

2002 Musharraf given another five years in office in criticised referendum

2003 Pakistan declares latest Kashmir ceasefire. India does likewise

2004 Musharraf stays head of army, having promised in 2003 to relinquish role

2005 Earthquake in Pakistan-administered Kashmir kills tens of thousands of people

2007 Musharraf suspends Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chaudhry, triggering nationwide protests

Read more from our Pakistan special issue here

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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