CHRIS HELLIER / ALAMY
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States of disorder

As the global economy transcends borders and Isis raises its flag, could the very nature of "states" be changing?

Contemplating the black flag of Islamic State that flies over Fallujah in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, my mind irresistibly returned to an essay in the New York Review of Books in 2008 that archly observed, “It seems more a matter of rhetoric than reality to claim that the epochal struggle of the 21st century concerns whether ‘consent’ or ‘terror’ will form the basis for legitimate governance. Does anyone truly believe that citizens throughout the world are undecided over whether they would prefer to be governed by consent or terror?”

How far we have come since those words were written. The international order that so confidently expanded the G8 to the G20, that continued the enlargement of the European Union to 28 member states, that brought about the first democratic elections in Iraq and Afghanistan despite harrowing terrorist intimidation, that increased the membership of Nato to include not only former members of the Warsaw Pact but even the Baltic states that had been part of the Soviet Union, and that created the Association of South-East Asian Nations and brought China into the World Trade Organisation is now shuddering and fragmenting.

What has transpired in this short period? The foundations of a global financial system on which international trade and development depend almost collapsed in the biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression, shattering confidence in the stability of that system, and although the leading economies have largely recovered the positions that they held in 2008, there is no assurance that an unpredictable and more total collapse will not confront states whose monetary policies have little room for adjustment.

The US administration’s pivot away from engagement in the Near East and south Asia has brought forth the creation of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and its metastases elsewhere, as well as the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. For the first time since Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, a member state of the United Nations has been invaded and its territory annexed in contravention of the most basic principles of the UN Charter. The Budapest Memorandum by which the territorial integrity of Ukraine was guaranteed by the US, the UK and Russia has been violated with the same insouciance that characterised the treaty violations of the 1930s. After the P5+1 group of world powers (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US; plus Germany) reached a nuclear agreement with Iran, Iran chose to violate UN Security Council resolutions forbidding the testing of long-range ballistic missiles.

The Arab spring, which seemed to validate the rising tide of democratic governance, has washed away regimes and left in its wake societies that are more riven, more violent and less governable than before, mocking the efforts of western states that sought to place themselves at the forefront of this tide, only to have it ebb and withdraw beneath their shifting feet. A great civil war has begun between the two historic forms of Islam championed by Saudi Arabia and her allies and Iran and its clients, with the consequence that as many as 250,000 people have died in Syria and 4.5 million persons have become refugees.

Europe has experienced as a consequence the largest movement of refugees since 1945. The financial stability of the EU that was so tested by the Great Recession now must compete with the physical stability of the union’s borders as the cause that may undo the most promising constitutional reform of the postwar period. Even Britain, which should be leading the EU away from the unimaginative fantasies of a superstate and towards greater devolution and inclusiveness, is instead contemplating leaving the union altogether, with incalculable consequences for the future of Europe.

Governance in the US has reached such a depth of self-confidence and stature that only 11 per cent of Americans profess any trust in the US Congress, a percentage that is lower than that of the number of people in the country who believe that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by their government. An otherwise mild-mannered and sober US president has felt compelled to resort to executive orders rather than statutory action from Congress and has, in effect, nullified the enforcement of much federal immigration law. And the leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Donald Trump, is a bombastic bully who would be, if elected, the only person ever to have achieved the presidency without having served a single hour in public service.

***

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In 1990, I had just entered the US government to serve as the state department’s counsellor on international law. It was a heady time: the sudden withering away of the Soviet state, the peaceful unification of Germany and the three-part brace of East-West agreements – the Moscow and Copenhagen Declarations and the Charter of Paris – all promised that the liberal democracy and free markets to which those agreements committed their signatories had triumphed. It was generally expected that this triumph would, in Henry Kissinger’s words, “automatically create a just, peaceful and inclusive world”. It was a time, as Czesław Miłosz put it, “when everything was fine . . . and the Earth was ready . . . to consume and rejoice without creeds and utopias”. The cruel dialectic among states and ideologies that had churned out history had ceased; promoting prosperity, democracy and human rights would eclipse concerns about violence and conflict.

Writing in these pages in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, the philosopher John Gray criticised the assumption that liberal, democratic values were self-reinforcing and would automatically win the allegiance of peoples everywhere. Gray’s essay concerned the nature of the state and, most pointedly, its principal duty to protect its citizens, a duty that seemed to many in 2008 little more than a police function. Yet no constitutional order can withstand a failure to protect its citizens: either the public will turn on its state and demand a constitutional change, or outside forces will exploit the state’s weakness and subordinate that state to their will. It is surprising, however, how little attention there was to such matters in 2008 and still less in 1990, when the environment of the 20th-century state irreversibly and profoundly changed.

The assumption that Gray attacked depended in part on the unquestioned structure of the international order of states. In Europe, the sense that the EU would steadily bend the constitutional order of its constituent countries was but a fractal of the larger 20th-century assumption that Westphalian sovereignty, which had spread throughout the world following decolonisation and the absorption of China into the international system, had created the foundations for a 21st-century peace and ever-increasing prosperity. Now, Henry Kissinger has concluded, “The state itself is under threat.”

And all this time, what was I doing? In Miłosz’s words,

Surrounded by the books
Of prophets and theologians
Of philosophers, poets,
[I] searched for an answer,
Scowling, grimacing,
Waking up at night, muttering at dawn.
What oppressed me so much
Was a bit shameful,
Talking of it aloud
Would show neither tact nor prudence.
It might even seem an outrage.

For I had come to believe that most of our assumptions about the state, its past and its future were deforming our understanding and I was increasingly apprehensive. What were some of those assumptions?

● That the state system – the international order – determined the constitutional order of the states of which it was composed and that, since Westphalia, this has been more or less fixed as the nation state.

● That the security of the state depended on the security of the larger system and if the latter were infused with the ideals of the triumphant liberal democracies, the security of the democracies and of the system as a whole was assured.

● That the threat to the state lay primarily in the unrealised domain of its ideals and thus the requirements of citizenship chiefly consisted in asserting rights against the state, the consequence of which would be an increasingly benevolent domestic environment.

● That the remaining, unresolved international conflicts were largely regional in nature and posed no fundamental challenge to the international order.

● That the great challenges before that global order – climate change, inequality and poverty – largely enhanced the momentum towards international cohesion, without which these challenges could not be met.

To see why these generally unquestioned assumptions are mistaken, and to appreciate the consequences of these mistakes, we must examine the fundamental cosmology of the state, the history of the European, classical idea that re-emerged during the Renaissance as a neoclassical ideal. The origin narrative with which we have lived for so long continues to cloud our appreciation of the nature of the state and the dynamics that govern its unfolding evolution.

The creation myth of the modern state goes something like this: after a brutal period of sectarian conflict that culminated in the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, the exhausted participants, meeting in two separate conferences, produced the Peace of Westphalia. The centrepiece of these treaties was the provision cuius regio, eius religio (“He who rules, his religion shall prevail”). The consequence of this attempt to cut the Gordian knot of sectarianism that had bound the once unified Roman Catholic Church to a series of sporadic, non-contiguous but enduring and punishing conflicts was the territorialisation of sovereignty. Whereas the sovereignty of the medieval ruler had been personified in a prince, sovereignty was now to reside in a defined area determined by the prince’s control and, as a result of this authority, the sectarian coloration of its people. Protestants and Catholics were allowed to migrate to states with sympathetic rulers.

The myth asserts that a balance of power was brought into the relations among European states with a multiplicity of states, no one of which could dominate the others, and each in pursuit of its own political and cultural values. Thus, the myth concludes, was born the nation state.

***

Like many an ancient pedigree, this one has served to legitimate the nation state with a spurious lineage. In reality, the crucial diplomatic innovation – cuius regio, eius religio – is first found in the Peace of Augsburg, a century before Westphalia. The significance of this is that while the Peace of Augsburg did territorialise states and, taken with another agreement four years later – the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, which ended the decades-long conflict between the Hapsburgs and the Valois – provided Europe with a novel constitutional order that superseded feudalism, that order was certainly not the nation state. The subjects of the princes who ruled the first modern states were not categorised by nationality but by religion.

Beginning a pattern that has continued to the present day, a series of conflicts were brought to a close by a grand peace conference – in effect, a constitutional convention for the society of states – that legitimated a particular constitutional order by giving it recognition in a peace treaty. So it was at Augsburg, at Westphalia, at Utrecht, at Vienna and at Versailles. Each time, an epochal war was ended by an international constitutional convention. Each time, a new constitutional order challenged the prevailing order ratified in the previous conference. And each time, the more strategically dynamic new order prevailed in conflict and thus prevailed in law.

This rendering of the evolution of the modern state is crucial because if we unthinkingly assume that the only constitutional order we have known since feudalism is the nation state, we will be dead to the idea that our present constitutional order is being replaced and that the wars into which we are now entering will have a constitutional impact, challenging and reframing the international order.

We do indeed live in industrial nation states but that is a constitutional order that arose in the US and Germany in the latter half of the 19th century, one that superseded the imperial state nations that had dominated Europe and the world from the end of
the 18th century. The concept of a legitimating balance of power was enshrined in the text of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 that brought the well-tempered order of territorial states to pre-eminence (and not at Westphalia).

The importance of this is that it takes a system composed of territorial states – run by aristocracies, fielding highly professionalised armies, engaged in careful and limited cabinet wars – to maintain a balance of power. The state system that superseded territorial states, which was recognised at the Congress of Vienna, introduced a new operating apparatus, the Concert of Europe; this, in turn, depended on the collaboration of imperial state nations (the first states, by the way, to unite nationalism
and the state).

These taxonomies are of far more than simple historical interest. They show that certain kinds of arrangements by which an international order is maintained depend on the nature of the constitutional order of the states that the international system comprises. It is as idle to ask that our contemporary system of states operate on the principles of earlier constitutional orders as it is, for example, to propose that we bring back “trial by battle”, the resolution of a political conflict by a single battle to replace the complicated and destructive strategies with which modern states wage war.

Moreover, appreciating this periodicity in the evolution of states allows us to identify the fundamental dynamic of state change, which lies in the relationship between legitimacy and power – that is, between law and strategy. Sometimes, the impetus for change comes from the constitutional side of this equation. This was the case when the French Revolution made impossible the war-fighting of the territorial state that it destroyed and thus ushered in the strategic innovations of mass conscription and the Napoleonic campaign.

The impetus can come from the other direction, as when the introduction of French artillery destroyed the viability of the rich, weak, walled cities of Italy. It was the French invasion that inspired Machiavelli’s passionate call for a neoclassical state to withstand the powerful monarchs who had taken the Italian plain. The phenomenon is not a linear one: rather, there is a constant two-way relationship between innovations in the constitutional make-up of societies and in the strategies by which war is fought.

Thus the watermark of any particular constitutional order is its claim to legitimacy and its ability to sustain its power militarily. The nation state’s claim to legitimacy resided in its promise to improve the material well-being of its citizens. David Lloyd George and Franklin D Roosevelt said this, but so did Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler, for they were all leaders of the same fundamental sort of state.

The constitutional order of the industrial nation state brought us the mass voting franchise that included not only propertyless males but females as well, old-age pensions and unemployment compensation, free mass education, the public funding of science, state-owned enterprises such as airlines, railways, telecommunications and other national industries, and also total warfare – that is, warfare against civilian national peoples. Because we have lived for a century in nation states, we even use the words “nation” and “state” interchangeably but this is a solecism. Many nations – the Kurds, the Palestinians, the Cherokee – do not have states. And the current constitutional order of the industrial nation state is not as favourable to nationalism as the emerging constitutional order that is challenging it.

At present, the constitutional order of the industrial nation state faces a number of threats to its claim for legitimacy. These include a global system of communications that will increasingly prevent any nation state from managing its own culture, penetrating every society and enabling social networking that bypasses national cultural institutions; a global system of trade and especially finance that prevents any state from controlling its national economy and that is bringing a heightened vulnerability to the financial security and stability of every state, increasing the power of markets to assess and even determine the viability of each society; a global system of international human rights that pre-empts the laws of each national society and has been the basis for armed attacks on states that posed no particular threat to any other state but had viciously and unlawfully attacked their own peoples; transnational crises, such as Aids and Sars, climate change and the development of global, non-national terrorist networks from whose threats no state can hide, nor can it arrest by its own efforts; and finally the commodification of weapons of mass destruction whose essential components are sold on a clandestine market or simply downloaded off the internet, such as the information by which benign viruses can be made into deadly human pathogens.

None of these dangers is unknown. What is missing is not information but a recognition that these are threats not just to a particular state but to the state itself and thus to the contemporary international order that is built out of those states. Ironically, each of these five threats is a result of the strategic innovations by which the liberal democracies won the Long War of the 20th century, a conflict that began in 1914 and lasted until 1990.

Like earlier epochal wars – the wars of the Hapsburgs and the Valois, the Thirty Years War, the wars of Louis XIV, the Napoleonic Wars – the Long War of the 20th century was composed of various conflicts that to the participants seemed to be separate struggles. The First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the wars in Korea and Vietnam and the Cold War can be seen in retrospect, whatever their individual causes, to have implicated the legitimacy of the industrial nation state. Would the legitimate form of the constitutional order that replaced the imperial state nations of the 19th century be fascist, or communist, or parliamentary? We have answered that question. But in so doing, the strategic innovations by which the answer was given – the development of nuclear weapons, the creation of a relatively stable system of relatively free trade, the invention of electronic communications and information systems, the establishment of an international law of human rights and the outlawing of conquest, and the pursuit of wealth without heed of the environmental and cultural consequences of that technologically supercharged pursuit – now have brought new questions that call into doubt the legitimating basis of the state. What industrial nation state today can say that it is capable of delivering to its citizens the security, prosperity and the decent physical and cultural environment that they demand?

I have written elsewhere and at some length about my conception of how the constitutional order is already changing and I have deplored the lack of imagination or even interest in the emerging market state that is deforming our politics and paralysing our military and diplomatic strategies.

Except for a few thinkers, however – Rowan Williams, the former archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Cooper, the distinguished British diplomat, and recently Henry Kissinger – there has been little reflective interest in these conjectures, though to be fair they have been widely commented on and often flatteringly. So I will not tax the readers of the New Statesman with a rehash of my theories about the emerging constitutional order of the market state. Instead, let me turn to how one country, the US, and its quite brilliant young president have tried to cope with these challenges in the absence of a new conceptualisation.

***

First, Barack Obama built his successful campaign in the Democratic primaries against Hillary Clinton in 2008 on what he would not have done – the armed intervention that removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. Countless times, as a candidate and as president, Obama said that he would have focused on eliminating al-Qaeda instead of getting bogged down in Iraq. More than 4,400 American soldiers would not have been killed and many thousands would not have been wounded; several hundred thousand Iraqis would not have suffered from the incompetent occupation and its aftermath. Iran’s regional influence would be substantially smaller and Islamic State would never have seized territory in Mesopotamia. Not insignificantly, the US taxpayer would have saved trillions of dollars.

It is, however, a common mistake in the analysis of public policy – so common that it even has a name: “Parmenides fallacy” – to compare the present state of affairs with the status quo ante as a way of evaluating the success or failure of a policy. The fallacy lies in the fact that time doesn’t stand still and while we may not know what would have happened in the absence of a particular policy, we can be certain that things would not have stayed the same.

If Saddam Hussein were still in power, it is most unlikely that the world community would have been able to maintain sanctions against his regime for 12 years beyond the point when cracks had already appeared in the viability of the policy and the enthusiasm of the sanctioning states. According to Iraqi scientists, Saddam Hussein would have pursued his quest for nuclear weapons even more ardently. It is inconceivable that Iran would not have followed suit, or would have been willing to enter into the negotiations that produced the recent agreement to freeze and roll back its nuclear weapons programme. Had there been no invasion of Iraq, it is highly unlikely that the Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi would have abandoned his quest for nuclear weapons and it is scarcely improbable that the continuing attacks on Israel would have been far more lethal.

Perhaps it was the paralysis that the absence of attractive options in the Near East created – caught as we were between removing the Syrian dictator only to deliver much of that country to Islamic State, and eradicating this state of terror only to strengthen our principal antagonist in the region, the theocratic state of Iran – that caused the president to attempt to position the US as the triangulator of the burgeoning conflict between Sunni and Shia states. In an interview in 2014, he described his vision of a new geopolitical balance of power in the region. “It would be profoundly in the interest of citizens throughout the region if . . . you could see an equilibrium developing between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran . . . If you can start unwinding some of [the distrust among the states of the region], that creates a new equilibrium. And so I think each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained.”

What Obama did not foresee was the emergence of Islamic State, which, among other factors, will make his hope of working “with functioning states” such as Iran and Saudi Arabia immensely more difficult. He must regret saying: “I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a Bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian . . . How we think about terrorism has to be defined and specific enough that it doesn’t lead us to think that any horrible actions that take place around the world that are motivated in part by an extremist Islamic ideology are a direct threat to us or something that we have to wade into.”

In reality, a functioning state of terror such as Islamic State is far more threatening than a proto-state such as al-Qaeda, because it can marshal greater resources and deploy them with secure internal lines of communication. One fears that the president got it utterly wrong when he said, “Failed states, conflict, refugees, displacement – all that stuff has an impact on our long-term security. But how we approach those problems and the resources that we direct toward those problems is not going to be exactly the same as how we think about a transnational network of operatives who want to blow up the World Trade Center. We have to be able to distinguish between these problems analytically, so that we’re not  . . . using a battalion when what we should be doing is partnering with the local government to train their police force more effectively, improve their intelligence capacities.”

These were popular sentiments in 2014 and widely held in the US and the UK. But they ignored the centrality of the state and how a hostile state can disrupt the politics and even the legitimacy of other states. It failed to appreciate that the wars on terror were not simply a congeries of conflicts with various terrorists.

After the San Bernardino killings in December 2015, Obama acknowledged in a televised address to the nation that the US was at war, a concession he must have made with some reluctance. As a constitutional matter – a matter of law – he could hardly have continued to rely on the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) as the legal basis for action against Islamic State, much less sought a new AUMF, and held otherwise but many in his administration have been quite averse to conceding not just that terrorists can wage war but that warfare is morphing into terror and we are poorly prepared to fight that kind of war.

Like its mortal enemy the Islamic Republic of Iran, Islamic State represents a challenge to the legitimacy of the current state system. Whether these revolutionary states will be able to threaten that system depends on whether or not they will be sufficiently dynamic strategically to undermine the legitimacy of the liberal democracies that dominate the international order. That, in turn, depends on whether these challengers can link their ideals to the form of the emerging market state and whether the leading members of the existing international order can adapt constitutionally in ways that allow them to protect their citizens.

President Obama ended his address by saying, “Let’s not forget that freedom is more powerful than fear.” What he probably should have added is that freedom, to be more powerful than terror, must be successfully protected.

Philip Bobbitt is the author of “The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace and the Course of History” and “Terror and Consent: the Wars for the 21st Century” (both published by Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash

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