Pulled apart but pulling together: nurses clear debris from a bombed-out ward of St Peter's Hospital in Stepney, April 1941
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Welfare wrapped in a patriotic flag: the importance of Toynbee Hall

Beveridge and Attlee shaped their politics at Toynbee Hall, in the East End of London. As this beacon of social reform prepares to mark its 130th anniversary, we recall its role in the making of modern Britain and draw lessons for today.

One night in September 1940, Dr J J Mallon, warden of Toynbee Hall in Stepney, in the East End of London, made his way up to the highest roof in the building as dusk settled on a blacked-out city. Britain was about to pay the price for standing alone against Nazi Germany but nothing prepared Mallon for the sights and sounds he was about to behold. First came the ever louder hum of Luftwaffe aircraft, then their flares to light the turret-like landscape of one of the most densely populated areas in Britain, and finally the awful screech of their bombs, directed at targets from munitions stations to the Port of London Authority. Anti-aircraft guns rattled incessantly as explosive and incendiary missiles “came to earth and blasted buildings and lighted fires along the line of the docks: a line against which one could see in faint silhouette the figures of a thousand firefighters tussling with the flames”.

How did anything in east London survive the evenings on which “our world became one of flame and smoke and sparks”, asked Mallon. Toynbee Hall was “ringed on these awful nights with what seemed to be an all-embracing and quickly climbing and ever-spreading conflagration”. On the 1,903 acres of Stepney the Germans showered 40,000 bombs. Of its 34,000 buildings, from tenement houses to crumbling factories and Victorian-era poorhouses, thousands were flattened and very few escaped unscathed. On 21 October 1940, the first bombs hit Toynbee Hall directly, killing two. In March 1941 a large bomb just missed the premises, destroying the neighbouring school. On 10 May 1941 the warden’s lodge, the library, archives and several bedrooms were all destroyed.

Before the war began, Stepney, the poorest and most ethnically diverse area in Britain, already boasted a strong anti-fascist movement, and a not inconsiderable number of fascists (supporters of Oswald Mosley). It was the home of London’s Jewish community and the hub of the capital’s industrial power. At the end of the war, it was a former mayor of Stepney and a former secretary of Toynbee Hall, Clement Attlee, who became Labour prime minister, responsible for reconstruction of the areas devastated by bombing and the remaking of the whole British political system.

Toynbee Hall was much more than a lookout point in 1940, or a shelter for those bombed out in the Blitz. It had fought other battles, confronting the problems of poverty and socio-economic distress in the area for more than half a century already. For three decades even before the First World War it had fulfilled numerous vital functions in the locale: community meeting place, mediator between workers and employers, legal advisory service, adult and children’s education centre, language school for recent immigrants and “think tank” for the social and economic experts of the future, to name a few.

It was because of this history that Toynbee Hall was able to exact its own small piece of poetic justice on Nazi Germany for the Blitzkrieg bombing of east London. After Attlee, the most famous alumnus of Toynbee Hall was William Beveridge, who was sub-warden there in the early 1900s. His acclaimed Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, published on 1 December 1942, bore the imprint of his time at Toynbee Hall with its declaration of war on the five giant evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Struck by the popularity of the report, the government decided to have it translated into French and German and dropped across Nazi-occupied Europe, including the major German cities, as an explanation of Britain’s war aims to set alongside the RAF’s bombing campaign.

By the strangest twist of fate, a copy of the Beveridge report was later found in Hitler’s bunker. Nazi officials had pored over it and one commented that it was “no botch-up . . . superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points”. Another suggested that it seemed that the British had converted to the state-centred social system of Nazism. Beveridge himself, who was a Liberal, would have baulked at the suggestion that his report amounted to “national socialism”, even of a British variety. But what is certainly true is that both the Beveridge report and Attlee’s revolutionary reforms of 1945-51 are hard to envisage without the existence of Toynbee Hall. Its importance in the making of modern Britain outstrips even its proud history in the East End of London.

On Christmas Eve, Toynbee Hall will be 130 years old. The Oxbridge-style gatehouse and courtyard were hit and destroyed in the Blitz, though the original clock tower and the halls remain on their original site on Commercial Street, near Aldgate East Tube station. Its immediate environs and the economic ecosystem in which it operates have been transformed by the exponential growth of the City of London. So, too, have the local demographics, which were once characterised by high numbers of Irish Catholics and Jewish immigrants from Poland and Russia, as well as an older, longer-established caucus of Huguenot merchants.

Toynbee Hall’s role and sense of its own purpose has evolved since the 1880s. It was founded by a group of like-minded individuals who shared both an Oxford education (many of its earliest proponents were associated with Balliol College) and a growing concern about the poverty created by Britain’s advanced industrialisation. It was intended as a “settlement” where university-educated (primarily Oxbridge) graduates and dons could embed themselves among the urban poor, and learn ethical, social and practical lessons from the experience.

By addressing problems at the local level, by placing itself within the area of Britain with the highest rates of unemployment, crime and infant mortality, the “residents” of Toynbee Hall eventually made an invaluable contribution to the truly “national” questions that defined 20th-century Britain: questions about social cohesion, unemployment, welfare, community, civic and ethical values and the role of the state in society and the economy.

Arnold Toynbee was an Oxford historian who had already spent much of his vacation time from Balliol working in the slums of the East End. He became famous, in later years, as the man who popularised the phrase “industrial revolution”. As well as being a devout Christian, Toynbee was inspired in particular by the Oxford historian T H Green, from whom he took an understanding of the importance of citizenship – the recognition of duties as well as rights – in creating the basis of a good society. Green’s doctrine of “personal service”, combined with Matthew Arnold’s linkage of education and character, shine through Toynbee Hall’s early years.

After Toynbee died in 1883 it was in his honour, and as an extension of his ideals, that Toynbee Hall was named, opening its doors on Christmas Eve the following year. Although its roots were in Balliol College, it sought subscriptions and membership from graduates and dons across the Oxford and Cambridge colleges.

Toynbee Hall’s first warden was Samuel Barnett, a Church of England curate who relied on the close support of his wife, Henrietta. Canon Barnett was careful to avoid the confessionalism and evangelicalism that had infected other “missionary” settlements that had been established in what had become known as “Outcast London”. Not least because of the high number of Irish Catholics and Jewish immigrants, he never ventured beyond a broad Judaeo-Christian ethos in Toynbee Hall’s activities. Yet, from Green through Toynbee and Barnett, the religious inspiration behind the project was inextinguishable.

Inherent in all their activities was a sense not just of the importance of civic values, but of the need for “atonement” for the darker aspects of life that the contemporary social and economic system had created.


The timing of Toynbee’s Hall foundation was significant for other reasons, too. The social and economic status quo in Britain had begun to look unsustainable – and the political system had begun to creak. The Third Reform Act, passed that year, expanded the franchise wider than ever before. London was the fastest-growing city in the world and its politics were given a further jolt in the direction of democracy by the birth of the London County Council in 1889.

In 1884 the Fabian Society was formed and with it fears about the spread of socialism increased. One of the early debates held at Toynbee was about whether the future of the working man was to be better served through the co-operative movement or socialist mobilisation. A new breed of populist Conservatives such as Randolph Churchill was also thinking about issues such as social insurance and housing in a new way. Meanwhile, the rising powers Germany and the United States seemed, on the surface at least, to have more effective answers to the questions of poverty and the glaring disparities of wealth that rapid industrialisation had created.

The founders of Toynbee Hall believed that such concerns were better served by society than the state. If there was socialism in its earliest activities, it was Christian rather than Marxian, and practical rather than theoretical – socialism as “social work”. Equally, the one thing that the early participants in the project were most concerned to avoid was any allegation of “do-goodery”. Poverty was a complex phenomenon. It was neither a simple story of want nor one of the moral improvement of the poor, and “indiscriminate charity” would not solve it.

There was, of course, an irreducibly patrician element to all this, the assumption behind it being that new urban communities lacked the sort of social leadership that pre-industrial societies had. Yet one can also see in its early proceedings a genuine concern about the dangers of being patronising or pious in its activities.

Toynbee Hall was trying to change the debate about social welfare, and the approach to it, but it was not quite sure in what direction it should go. When Canon Barnett tried to explain the scheme in Time magazine in January 1885, his own cautious and conflicted thoughts about the project shone through. Everyone – from the dons to the politicians and the newspapers – was fixated on the question of “social conditions”. Such an obsession “has its dangers, and they who watch the new movement are not without fear lest in hurry or in reaction the possible good may be lost”.

Among the many dangers that were attached to the cause of social reform, two stood out: “isolated action” and “officialism”. London was full of societies promoting thrift, cleanliness, abstinence and good living. Too often such activities fell victim to moralising and unwanted interference in people’s lives. As Barnett put it:


Talk there must be; but it would be well if they, who at meetings and over dinner tables discuss the lives of the poor, felt their words to be pledged to be redeemed by acts. A little more silence about schemes, a little more respect for the sacredness of the home, even when the home is without the protection of front door or servant, would be a symptom of the self-restraint without which there is no progress.


A snapshot of Toynbee Hall’s activities in the early 1900s – contained in its archives and annual reports – conveys a remarkable range of activities. Every Tuesday evening, one of the residential volunteers offered free legal advice to local people. This was particularly valuable to recent immigrants who were unsure of their status and rights. The assistance of Mr Western, the Poor Man’s Lawyer, was widely sought by those with “little knowledge of English life” who were seeking advice on the education of their children, or how to respond to the demands of landlords and factory bosses. There was not always time for cultural sensitivity. As one annual report described, “the years seem only to increase their faith in the guidance of a friend who has often to say ‘No’ and be stern in spite of himself”.

Toynbee Hall also provided office space for local civic institutions such as the Stepney Distress Committee. Industrial disputes between employers and workers’ groups, such as the Tea Packers Union, were mediated on its premises. There was a natural history society and a traveller’s club whereby families from the area were encouraged to put money aside and pool their resources for short excursions out of London. Henrietta Barnett – who first suggested the name Toynbee Hall – was a powerful driving force in her own right, organising a regular book club for local primary school teachers in Stepney.

There were “smoking debates” and public lectures. Some of the subjects covered in the first decade of the 20th century were: Thomas Hardy; Normandy; India and democracy; Honolulu and Hawaii; the effects of alcohol; the politics of south Germany; rubber planting in the Malay Peninsula; Canadian emigration; the German war scare; the moral basis of the empire; poverty and character; railway nationalisation; and the state and marriage. In what some residents idealised as a “working man’s university”, there were classes on Napoleon and his times; the making of modern England; the evolution of British society; German; English literature; the Bible and ancient Judaism; as well as more practical courses on first aid and home nursing.

Alongside this, the “Enquirer’s Club” – a group of university men interested in social questions – met every fortnight. MPs were invited to speak on topics ranging from foreign affairs to pensions. The idea of encouraging a plurality of views, and respect for the opinions of others, was thought to be especially important, given the ethnic and sectarian tensions that sometimes spilled over in east London.

In effect, Toynbee meant many different things to different people. This had its drawbacks, however. Indeed, it remained torn between its extremely valuable local activities and the sense of national purpose that had inspired it in the first place. It was noted that those who made use of the free education on offer were usually not those from the poorer sections of society. The classes were usually attended by skilled workers, those in low-paid clerical work and other aspirational groups that had more means at their disposal than most of Stepney’s inhabitants.

This caused some hand-wringing. Perhaps the most important thing to note about Toynbee Hall’s history is that there was seldom any consensus among its leading lights about its overall purpose. Canon Barnett himself developed his own thinking considerably over the first two decades of Toynbee’s existence. Breaking from the ideas of Matthew Arnold and T H Green, he increasingly came to think of poverty as something created by underlying economic conditions, rather than something that could be alleviated by improving character and spreading education. A doctrine of civic duty could only go so far.

In 1903, Barnett sought to recruit a sub-warden in order to inject fresh thinking into Toynbee Hall. He identified the 24-year-old William Beveridge, a recent graduate of Balliol who was making his name writing about poverty and social provision for the Morning Post.

Beveridge may be Toynbee Hall’s best-known son but he was not a natural fit, as Jose Harris explains in her excellent 1977 biography of him. He found Toynbee’s education committee, run by the graduates, “appallingly learned” in its emphasis on subjects such as classical Greek, which had little interest or relevance to the poor of east London. But campaigns for free schools and the preservation of a non-sectarian ethos in Stepney were examples of two things that Toynbee Hall did well.

Above all, Beveridge came to believe that social and economic challenges should be approached in a “scientific” rather than a “humanitarian” way and that, ultimately, this would produce more scope for the role of government and legislation. As he explained in 1903: “I wish to go there because I view these problems in a scientific way – as hindrances to the future of the state. I utterly distrust the saving power of culture and . . . isolated feelings as a surgeon distrusts ‘Christian Science.’ ”

One can see Beveridge’s hand in the changing tone of the annual reports in the Toynbee Hall archive, which, until his appointment, had read like a parish magazine. The 1906 report complained that many settlements in poor industrial areas had become too focused on “work among the poor”, rather than thinking about the health of society as a whole. If the intercourse of university and working men should have one overriding goal, it was to “form the healthy public opinion in which good laws can be made and obeyed”.

Underlying this renewed focus on “national” rather than local challenges were two trends that set the tone for the “New” Liberal welfare reforms, which began after the 1906 election. The first was a growing recognition that legislation – in other words, the state – would be necessary to deal with the problems of poverty and socio-economic despair. The second was the realisation at the level of the legislators that a Victorian laissez-faire attitude to social problems was insufficient to deal with the problem.

Against the backdrop of rising international rivalry, which would culminate in the First World War, welfare gained renewed urgency because of the perception that the health of the poor – across a range of indices from child nutrition to old-age pensions – was directly connected to the health of the nation. “Society is fused together into a whole, and no class can dissociate itself or its interest from those of another,” read that Toynbee Hall report for 1906.

The world was moving faster and solutions were necessary at state level. If British democracy was “not to make shipwreck and our civilisation be shattered in ruins, we need a keener sense of fellowship with each other, a better mutual understanding between all classes . . . in spite of every difference of religious school or political party”.


It would be wrong to assume that the history of Toynbee Hall is one that is particularly connected to the history of the Labour Party. First, the founders of Toynbee Hall were more Liberal in orientation and generally eschewed theoretical socialism. Even Beveridge, who took the logic further, remained a Liberal at the height of his influence. Indeed, the Labour Party was uncomfortable with many aspects of the Beveridge report of 1942, despite the way it has lionised it subsequently.

The Labour Party was founded primarily on its strength in the north of England and Scotland. Moreover, rank-and-file members of the labour movement had never prioritised social welfare, old-age pensions and school meals before 1945. Far more important to its ethos and raison d’être was the cause of trade union rights and full employment. Such historical and geographical blind spots remain one of the defining flaws of London liberalism (and perhaps one of the original weaknesses of the Toynbee Hall project).

In some respects, too, the activities at Toynbee Hall fit quite well with the Conservative Party’s historical emphasis on social cohesion and locally focused, rather than state-centred, philanthropic activity – a stance often captured by the blanket term “One Nationism” (Disraeli, in fact, bemoaned the existence of “two nations” rather than conjuring up an ideal of “one”).

There is a strong Tory connection to Toynbee. After Beveridge’s plan for social security, the second-biggest-selling public report of the postwar period was that produced by Lord Denning. Published in September 1963, it addressed the Profumo scandal. Following his resignation from office as war secretary, John Profumo volunteered at Toynbee Hall. He began by cleaning the toilets and helping with everyday tasks, before he was persuaded to become its chief fundraiser – a responsibility to which his wife, the actress Valerie Hobson, also devoted herself for many years.

In September 2002, Iain Duncan Smith chose Toynbee Hall as the location for a speech marking his first year as leader of the Conservative Party. He paid tribute to Profumo’s work but also to Beveridge and the “Toynbee Hall philosophy of helping people to lead better lives” (without depending on the state, naturally). In place of Beveridge’s five giant evils of 1942, Duncan Smith inserted five of his own: failing schools, crime, substandard health care, child poverty and insecurity in old age. He did not last as party leader for another year but he has revisited some of these ideas in his capacity as the Tory guru on welfare. While he has come under attack from one of Arnold Toynbee’s descendants, the journalist Polly Toynbee, it is striking how – a decade and a half later – these are issues that are likely to feature prominently in next year’s general election.


It is perhaps too much to hope for our modern aspiring leaders to live among the poor in the manner hoped by Arnold Toynbee and Canon Barnett, though they might squirm less when dropping pennies into a beggar’s cup in front of television cameras. Far better, far more productive, if our politicians abandoned some of their squeamishness when talking about ethics, values, society and civic duty. To talk in this way is to run the risk of seeming patronising and patrician, much as the founders of Toynbee Hall were concerned about appearing to be. But the importance of being able to maintain such a discourse – in the careful way in which Canon Barnett did – is one of the healthiest legacies of Toynbee Hall; our inability to talk in such terms today is another symptom of the relativist cosmopolitan malaise.

In 1984, Asa Briggs and Anne Macartney produced a history of Toynbee Hall based on its first 100 years. In it they noted that the East End, though much changed, provoked “fundamental questions about the facts and perceptions of poverty, the nature of community (and the lack of it), the visual as well as the social environment, and the relative roles of voluntary, local and national statutory policy in seeking not only to alleviate but to transform”.

Toynbee Hall still works in the East End of London, on the front line in the struggle against poverty, helping to reduce inequality and to shape a fairer future for all. It has established itself at the forefront of the delivery of debt advice across London and is pioneering ways to tackle the financial exclusion felt by millions across the UK. Its archives, run by Liz Allen, signal the richness of its past. On the 130th anniversary of Toynbee Hall, however, it would be a mistake to think of it as some quaint or sanctified institution. It has survived not only the Blitz but many years of controversial and often acrimonious debate about state and society, rich and poor, unresolved to this day.

The “discovery of poverty” in Victorian Britain, New Liberalism, the Blitz and the Beveridge report – connected events in the history of Toynbee Hall – remind us of two important things about the story of welfare in Britain. The first is that social reform has been thought about most seriously at times of increasing global competition, when it is linked to the general health of the nation. The second is that welfarism is best thought of not as a debate about how to treat the poor – and what it says about the rest of us – but as one that is connected to the very essence of citizenship. If Britain’s unwritten social contract is to be revisited and revised again in 2015, we could do no better than to return to Toynbee’s history. 

John Bew, a New Statesman contributing writer, is working on a biography of Clement Attlee

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the insurgents

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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