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''We're still fighting the Civil War here"

Virginia, a former slave state and Republican stronghold, could help secure the presidency for Barac

It is lunchtime in Petersburg and Alice McAlexander and David Nibert are on the prowl. The two Obama campaign staffers have come to the campus of Virginia State University, a historically black college that is still overwhelmingly African-American. Armed with clipboards, they fan out across the scrub lawns between the red-brick halls. “Are you registered to vote in Virginia?” shouts Nibert, clad in flip-flops and a red Obama T-shirt. The VSU students, in mottled hoodies and low-slung denim, look on curiously, but by the end of an hour-long blitz the two operatives have helped a clutch of teenagers negotiate the mauve text of the Virginia voter registration application form. “I’m excited about voting,” says one of their conquests, Davina Pitts, an 18-year-old psychology student.

The Commonwealth of Virginia, lodged above the Carolinas on America's Atlantic coast, has not voted for a Demo cratic presidential candidate since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964. (Historically, the "Solid South" of the United States was a blue stronghold, but when the Democrats announced their support for the civil rights movement in the 1960s the former Confederate states switched allegiance.) As recently as the 2004 presidential election, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning that the state was forfeit to the Republicans.

But things have changed in recent years. Virginia has elected successive Democratic governors since 2002, and in 2007 the party won a majority in the state senate. Says Dr Dirk Philipsen, a political scientist at VSU: "Virginia is now absolutely in play." With 13 electoral college votes, a higher number than all but 11 other states, it is more than just a potentially rich prize for the Democrats. The Old Dominion may be the place where the presidential election is won and lost.

In 2004, John Kerry wound down his Virginia campaign in August, reckoning the state was forfeit to the Republicans

Demographic change in the suburbs of Washington, DC is one factor in Virginia's shifting political make-up. There, the sprawl has brought an influx of liberal-minded voters to Virginian boom towns such as Woodbridge in Prince William County. However, the change in the hue of the state from Republican red to a pregnant purple is also a result of the increasing political engagement of its large African-American population. As Harry Lewis, the black owner of a real-estate appraisal firm in the state capital, Richmond, says: "Obama is a very intelligent young man. He's got all the qualifications to be president. He's a black man, and he ought to be supported."

African Americans, who comprise 19.9 per cent of Virginia's total population of 7.6 million, generally vote Democrat. However, Obama's candidacy has created a new wave of enthusiasm among black Virginians that extends well beyond traditional party allegiances and youthful idealism.

In Chesterfield County, Sandra Noble, a 59-year-old grandmother and the former principal of Harrowgate Elementary School, is one of many professional African Americans who are looking forward to the election. "I've been listening and watching since the beginning of the campaign," she says. "I think Obama is the one to make the change. Something is changing, and our youth is changing. The higher levels need to take control to meet the needs of what is happening today."

If McCain wins, Noble says, "I would feel highly disappointed. I would feel people had not been putting in their whole spirit. I would feel it would be due to the fact that those who could have voted did not."

Elsewhere, Taniki Boyd, a black single mother from Richmond, is also gearing up for 4 November. "I'm looking forward to it," says the 28-year-old administrative assistant at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I just hope it'll be a fair race." Boyd, whose daughter Maria is three years old, is backing the Democrats because she hopes their proposals for social reform could improve her standard of living. "I am a single mother and sometimes I find it hard," she explains. "Do I come to work or do I stay with the child? And as for health care - it's getting outrageous. Sometimes I have to choose between food and medicine."

But converting African-American enthusiasm for Obama and his message into returns at the ballot box is a substantial challenge for the Democratic campaign. In a picture that is repeated across America, black involvement in politics in Virginia lags behind that of whites. In the US, citizens must register before they can vote, and in 2004 only 64.4 per cent of blacks had done so nationwide compared to 67.7 per cent of whites. Voter turnout is lower, too, with 56.3 per cent of African Americans casting a ballot on polling day, compared to 60.3 per cent of whites. As Dr Pamela Reed, a diversity consultant, says: "A lot of African Americans think why even bother, their vote doesn't count."

Moreover, in a society like Virginia's, which is still heavily racially segregated, there remains a deep undercurrent of resistance to involvement of black Americans in the political process. The civil rights legislation of the 1960s theoretically swept away the legislative bars, such as literacy tests, that Southern states introduced to circumvent the 15th Amendment of 1870, which forbade the government from preventing a citizen from voting on grounds of race. However, under a system where federal elections are administered by states, and run by individual counties themselves, vaguely worded regulations are still bent to discourage African Americans from voting. As Kent Willis of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia says, the election architecture is a "crazy quilt. No two registrars do their job the same."

When I visited King Salim Khalfani, the barrel-chested executive director of the Virginia state conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), he explained that the authorities try to discourage black voters through the way polling stations in poor, minority neighbourhoods are run.

“You have to be part of the decision-making process,” said Hasan Zarif. “I’m not just voting because I’m voting, but because my vote counts”

"There's always a line, and the workers are elderly," he observed, speaking in a room at his Richmond headquarters lined with state law reports. "Sometimes we have to wait. They put hurdles in our places; for instance, they have police officers and police cars in black polling places. That's a deterrent. The perception is they're the enemy."

For Khalfani, the intimidation of African-American voters is an unwanted hangover from Virginia's past. "It's this sense of history," he argued. "Race is the most dominant factor in the society. Virginia is the first state. They made people into property in the Virginia constitution. This is where it all began, where Thomas Jefferson, hailed as a father of the nation, bedded down with underage African girls. This was a breeding state, and their main crop was African people. They stole us from Africa and put us on the plantations. We built this for free." As I prepared to leave, the NAACP executive's rhetoric began to soar. "There's a lot of blood in these red bricks," he said. "We're still second-class citizens in this society. We are still fighting the Civil War here."

And yet, despite all the obstacles, if a campaign is able to mobilise historically disengaged African Americans, the payback could be enormous. This is particularly true in Virginia, where there are 360,000 unregistered black voters, substantially more than the 260,000-vote, 8 per cent margin by which the Republicans won in 2004.

Early on, the Obama campaigners realised that black voter registration could give them a substantial advantage on 4 November. But it was the campaign's record fundraising that allowed them to undertake expensive voter registration activities to try to alter the political map in states previously thought to be unobtainable, such as Virginia. "The guy's got money," says Dr Daniel J Palazzolo, a political scientist at the University of Richmond. "He can take a shot at Virginia." In May, Obama's campaign launched Vote for Change, a 50-state registration drive in pursuit of new voters, with lavish internet hype and large-scale events across the United States. However, this process remains an infantry war, particularly in poor minority communities, with junior staffers and volunteers as its foot soldiers.

This was immediately apparent when I visited the Virginia headquarters of the Obama campaign in the Fan district of Richmond. In a backstreet, a red-brick warehouse had been converted into a hive of political activity. Volunteers’ feet pattered on the stripped wooden floors, chasing down the statewide 6 October deadline for voter registration in front of a huge monochrome portrait of the Great Leader. Elsewhere I saw Alice McAlexander, the campaign organiser I had met earlier, dressed in denim shorts and with a telephone glued to her ear. She sat before a trestle table laden with cans of Diet Coke and laptops emblazoned with Obama ’08 stickers. “Registering an unprecedented number of new voters is critical to our success here in Virginia,” Ashley Etienne, a campaign spokeswoman, told me. “In this state we have had an unprecedented outreach to African-American voters.”

Hearing my British accent, Tam Muir, a Scotsman from Edinburgh who had used his holiday to come to Richmond to volunteer for the Obama campaign, introduced himself. "I've been following Barack Obama from '04," he said. "I felt the time was right." The idealism was palpable, but the atmosphere at the headquarters, beneath sugar paper posters and hand-painted murals, was more playroom than war room. At the blunt end of the campaign it seemed like a student-run junket, with a few harried grown-ups toting BlackBerries in the midst of a sea of flip-flops.

However, it cannot be denied that voter registration has achieved results in Virginia. According to the most recent figures from the state board of elections, there has been a net increase of 283,695 registered voters since the beginning of this year. In Richmond City alone, where the population is 57.2 per cent black, the increase of 11,673 since 1 January represents more than 10.4 per cent of the total number of registered voters. "It's been overwhelming," said Garry E Ellis, the state voter registration co-ordinator, as he showed me around the board of elections office in Richmond's gridded downtown area. And, pointing out mailboxes that were overflowing with forms, he said: "Our processing centre is handling thousands of applications."

The increases in African-American voter registration in Virginia are even more startling given that they have been achieved in spite of the state's draconian felon disenfranchisement law. The Virginia system, which in the US is matched in severity only by Kentucky's, declares that anyone with a felony conviction is banned from voting for life without a special grant of clemency from the governor. This creates a huge pool of disenfranchised citizens, the vast majority of whom have served their prison time and are living freely. For example, at the time of the 2004 election there were 35,172 prisoners in Virginia compared to 297,901 ex-felons.

The bulk of Virginia's prison population is black, and today 20 per cent of African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men, the figure may be well over a third. Although I was aware of these statistics, the human cost of the felon disenfranchisement policy did not strike me until I spoke to Hasan K Zarif, a 57-year-old African American who was convicted as a young man in 1974.

One-fifth of all African Americans in the state are banned from voting due to felony convictions. For black men the figure may be well over a third

"It was concerning an incident that happened while I had been drinking and going through tough times," he explained. "I had lost a brother and grandfather. I was going through some mental problems, I was not aware of what was going on and I shot someone. At the time I was convicted, in the 1970s, African Americans did not receive fair trials. You had a state-appointed attorney who just went through the motions. They were mostly farces. All of your information is going to be supporting the Commonwealth case."

Zarif ended up serving 17 years in Virginia State Penitentiary, and as a felon he was stripped of his right to vote.

"When they convicted me I felt my life was completely over," he continued. "I had never voted before. As I was in prison I realised I had lost being a citizen, being a contributing member of society, being able to elect officials. I realised I had lost a great deal. I decided if I was ever released I would do whatever I could to regain my right to vote. I became a model prisoner, went to school, got a college education."

However, under Virginia law the restoration of his rights was a tortuous process. "I had to finish the 17 years in prison," he recalled. "Then I had to get off the parole. After 12 years I was discharged. That enabled me to start the clock ticking. Then I had to wait an additional five years. After 34 years I was able to get the documents together. I put together a mountain of information. I presented as much information as I could present to them. The requirement was three letters. I had 20."

Finally, on 6 August 2007, he had his rights restored by the governor, Tim Kaine. "It felt like the greatest gift you can give," said Zarif who, on the cusp of his sixth decade, will be voting for the first time in a presidential election. "You have to be a part of the decision-making process," he said. "I am not just voting because I'm voting, but because my vote counts."

The evening after the lunchtime voter registration drive I had another opportunity to see the role of race in Virginian politics at first hand when I returned to VSU for one of its regular “Hot Topic” evenings. To publicise the event, Dirk Philipsen, the white professor I had interviewed earlier, had superimposed his face on to J M Flagg’s 1917 recruitment poster of a finger-pointing Uncle Sam. Beneath the figure the legend read, “I want you NOT to vote.”

As I watched, Philipsen addressed a packed crowd in the university's Foster Hall. "The road to the White House runs through Virginia," he said, reminding the students of their importance in the election. "Everything that is good happens because people do things. History shows that you can make a difference with your friends and families if you know what you are talking about."

Philipsen, in jeans and a navy blazer, then asked the overwhelmingly black crowd who did not want them to vote. There was a pause as drumbeats and cymbal smashes from the band practice outside crashed in on the night air. Then someone shouted, "The man. The white man."

In the final analysis, it is still unknowable whether the Democrats will be able to turn Virginia blue. Large-scale voter registration, not only by the Obama campaign, but also by other groups such as the Community Voting Project and My Vote Will Count, is changing the state's demographic make-up, and drastically increasing the involvement of African Americans. Yet there is always an element of uncertainty as to whether newly registered voters will turn out at the polls. In 2004 many thousands of those signed up in voter registration drives, including P Diddy's widely ridiculed Vote or Die! campaign, stayed at home on polling day. As Daniel Palazzolo says, "If Obama is to win in Virginia, the African-American vote has to come out for him."

If it does turn out on polling day, the result will be historic. For then Virginia, the former slave state that calls itself the Mother of Presidents, and has sent eight of her sons to the White House, could well end up holding out a guiding hand to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to a black man from Hawaii.

Simon Akam is a Fulbright Alistair Cooke scholar at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism

This article first appeared in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas

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