David Cameron. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
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Cameron was supposed to be a caddish charmer – but he turned out to be a steady pragmatist

Cameron knows better than to imitate Tony Blair. After all, politicians should be steady, not needy.

How we have been deceived by David Cameron! Hoodwinked, gulled, misled. He’s yet another politician who is guilty of misselling himself.

Three years ago a New Statesman article about Cameron quoted lines from Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited: “Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands.” Charm and good manners, the piece argued, had carried him to the top of British politics.

The initial deception was indeed based on such qualities: we thought that Cameron was charming. Yet his reluctance to schmooze has proved striking and his virtues distinctly unflashy: steadiness, pragmatism and sanity. The assumption that he would rely on charm was a double dummy pass. First, there was the smooth-skinned privilege; second, Cameron’s initial career was in PR. But he has proved noticeably bad at spin. Forget the English obsession with class for a moment and consider his underlying temperament. Cameron is far from a caddish charmer who exudes sunshine and eagerly chases shallow glad-handing. I am not expecting NS readers to warm to a defence of a Tory prime minister. Please bear with me. The underlying point is unconnected with policies and parties.

Cameron’s personality and priorities, though apparent in public life, are much more obvious in person. He is brisk, businesslike and contained. With some politicians, that stems from the pursuit of Machiavellian self-interest: they only bother with people who are useful to them. With Cameron, it is different. He does not radiate the neediness of someone who is desperate to be liked. What some people consider coldness is a manifestation of psychological ballast and emotional security.

I have no doubt that Cameron can be exceptionally charming sometimes. However, this is not his default position as it was for Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

It is an adolescent trait for an electorate to crave leaders who operate in a state of constantly needing to be loved. I can see that elections are about votes and that some voters will be wooed by leaders who beg and emote. But will no one point out that neediness is often accompanied by unreliable judgement, in politics as in normal life? I want a prime minister to be good at the job, that’s all. It is the politicians who blunder into the wrong wars who worry me.

We should revisit two intertwined theories, now hardening into conventional wisdom: the notion that Cameron is hamstrung by his inability to convey passion and the assumption that this is bound up with an absence of purpose in government.

The accusation that Cameron doesn’t “care” enough is easily answered. If a politician is to be effective, he cannot afford to care too much, any more than he can afford to care too little. Cameron learned from the collapse of the hangdog Gordon Brown, who had allowed himself to be swamped by the pressures and responsibilities of the job.

In this respect, politics is like sport. Champion athletes usually manage to maintain a series of fine balances – between motivation and indifference, between wilfulness and lightness, between planning and openness. Many sports fans, naturally enough, do not understand this. That is why, when I was a player, I would avoid talking too much to supporters on match days. They tended to believe that players would always perform better if they just tried harder. Every sportsman knows that this isn’t true and it is dangerous to spend too long around bad ideas. Trying too hard, caring too much: they end in paralysis.

Political insiders surely understand this. Nonetheless, they portray Cameron’s aloof sense of perspective as a weakness. In a perceptive recent article in the Times, Janice Turner argued that Cameron’s problem was that he is “just not that into us”. But Turner lets herself off the hook, as a political commentator, a little too lightly. Isn’t it the job of experts to point out that the art of “grubbing humbly for support” may be a necessity but is hardly statecraft?

I’ll go further. Cameron’s reluctance to beg is bound up with his strongest qualities as Prime Minister: his sanity, his stability, the unlikelihood of his being inhabited by strange causes or delusions of Manichaean oversimplicity. That this distinguishes him fundamentally from Tony Blair scarcely need be added. It is amusing to think that Cameron once seemed to be a Conservative Blair. David Davis’s most effective line in the Tory leadership election of 2005 was: “This is the worst moment for the Conservative Party to imitate Tony Blair.” It was; but Cameron hasn’t really done so.

The media claim to yearn for long-term­ism, sanity and perspective. In reality, they eagerly give their stamp of approval to populism and the feel-good factor. The vastly overemployed phrase “cutting through”, ever present in political analysis, is euphemistic jargon for a game-show-style clapo­meter. It is a dangerous endorsement of playing to the gallery. For politicians, over the long term, populism often becomes counterproductive. The Financial Times recently analysed the relative popularity of postwar party leaders. With one or two exceptions (non-runners, in effect), it was the most popular leaders who ended up being the most disliked and distrusted after leaving office. The wave that surges highest crashes hardest. Cameron has maintained a largely steady but unspectacular personal approval rating.

I have always had a much higher opinion of Ed Miliband than his critics among the right-wing press and the Blairite rump of his party. But if Cameron is voted out for not being sufficiently needy, we will look back on it as a petulant mistake – and, much more importantly, a bad omen for serious politicians of all persuasions.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.