A new deal for British children

Why are our young people so unhappy? Because we have become a society that fears, demonises and sile

"We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day," sang that well-known lover of children, Michael Jackson. Children making a brighter day? Not in this country, it seems. Where are these magical children who come with a promise, not a threat? They certainly haven't featured in the headlines of the past few years, unless they have gone missing. Nor in the endless discussion that tells us both that our children are awful and that to be a child in Britain is to be in a pretty bad place.

"We have the unhappiest children in the world," chirruped David Cameron in his recent speech on social revival. Makes you feel proud, doesn't it? Are we a nation of actual child-haters? Or are we so frightened of our children these days that, like mice which have been disturbed, we may eat them? Certainly, if one ploughs through the "expert overviews" from everyone from the UN to Ofsted, it becomes clear we are failing our children. Yet somehow this monumental failure cannot be admitted politically, or policy radically altered. By nearly all the criteria by which we measure the well-being of our kids, we come very low in the league of industrialised countries. We lag behind in terms of relative poverty: the number of children living in poverty has risen by 100,000 since 2005, despite the government's efforts. We rate low in the quality of children's relationships with their parents and with their peers, in basic child health and safety. Our kids rate highly only for "risk-taking" (sex, drugs and alcohol) and, unsurprisingly, low for subjective well-being. The kids ain't all right and they are saying it themselves.

The Children's Society claimed in 2006 that up to a fifth of our kids have mental health problems, and one in 12 is self-harming. The latest UN report compiled by the children's commissioners of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland adds to this bleak impression. We incarcerate more children than any other country in western Europe, locking up nearly 3,000 under-18s last year. Thirty children have died in custody since 1990 but there has never been a public inquiry into conditions in youth detention centres. We are actually breaching the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in several areas.

Depressed? I am. I need a break, so I wander down my local street, where mothers stop to give their toddlers baby cappuccinos or whatever those things are called. There is yet another newly opened expensive children's clothes shop with designer high-chairs and special baby jewellery. I was here a few days ago - my youngest was drumming in a parade as her school had some Brazilians in to do a carnival workshop.

How does this bubble of cosiness fit with these horrendous statistics? Are some children just doing fine while those close by suffer? Well, yes. But we turn a blind eye. In the fifth-richest country in the world, nearly four million children are growing up in "relative poverty". We mostly don't care: half of the respondents to a recent survey didn't accept the concept of "relative poverty". We don't even agree on what counts as a child. If I say we lock up too many children, many would agree. If I say we lock up too many 16-year-old "hoodies", many wouldn't. If the British are generally rubbish at parenting, we are spectacularly bad with our teenagers. Our moral panic about feral youth is surely a panic about adolescence. Small children may be badly behaved and socially deprived, but we don't actually start to fear them until they start becoming the same size as us. Isn't this how we remain grossly sentimental about some aspects of childhood while being completely negligent of others?

What preoccupies us about other people's children is their antisocial tendencies; what preoccupies us about our own is their school. The national conversation about education has been dumbed down. The question about education is no longer even multiple-choice. The answer is private good, public bad, even though most can't afford that choice. What makes a school good, apart from results? What is learning for? I have mused for the 17 years since I encountered the school system as a parent. These airy-fairy questions have been batted away as my kids have been subjected to regime changes entailing relentless waffle about standards and non-stop testing. I have often felt it's a shame that no one has properly devised a system where you can revise something for an exam before you have actually learned and understood it, as that appears to be what is required.

I no longer feel such a minority with my insane ideas about child-centred education because over testing is belatedly seen not to have worked. It has not produced more functionally literate and numerate children. Quite the opposite. Music and art have been squeezed out. Children who won't or don't fit into this system start bunking off and never really return. A pupil referral unit refers mainly to explicit social exclusion. School can be a rewarding place for already successful children, but for the many who already, by secondary level, feel failures, they are often simply another venue in which to fail fast.

Instead of dealing with this head-on, the national discourse acts as a form of displacement. We worry terribly about Oxbridge entrance and starred A-levels and how degrees aren't what they once were. Serious people fret about the kind of social engineering that may allow more state school candidates to enter the elite institutions. Have we become so idiotic that we refuse to insist that education remain the most important form of social engineering, of the widening of opportunity, available to us? Education matters increasingly because it indicates the future economic function of each child. As the economy now demands two working parents to provide a decent standard of living, this matters. A lot.

As social mobility has ground to a halt, what will differentiate one young person from another is not only formal education, but social and personal skills. According to a 2006 IPPR report, in a survey of those born in 1958 and 1970, person al and social skills "became 33 times more important, between generations, in determining earnings in later life". And how do you get those skills? You pay for them. The middle classes purchase activities that will enhance their children's development. Poorer kids commit the crime of hanging out in unstructured environments. The mantra of the young is that they simply want to "be themselves", but some have had a lot more support than others in learning who they may be. Those who cannot be contained indoors or via extended school activities may have the audacity to go outside, to inhabit public spaces, to call the streets their own. This in itself is now seen as anti social. One of the most mind-blowing statistics I read was that in the British Crime Survey of 2004/2005, 1.5 million people said they had considered moving or leaving the country "mainly because of young people hanging around". With any luck, they can emigrate to countries where children are culled at puberty.

Visible youth

"Visible youth" are seen both as at risk and as a danger to others. They are a potent signifier of our deep moral decline. We are completely schizophrenic on this subject. If kids are inside, they risk obesity and absorbing ever more violent imagery from computer games. They are also in peril from "turbo-consumerism", encouraged to identify themselves only through brands. Should they venture outside the home, if they are small they could be taken by paedophiles, or if they are big their presence may upset any adults who come across them. Children are ever more contained and surveyed. Rowan Williams, ever the man for the unpopular cause, is one of the few public figures to speak up for the rights of teenagers to loiter. The kids themselves say they have nothing to do. And it's true. For those with little money there are few places to go, or organised activities. Solutions such as having parks and playgrounds staffed have not materialised. As the recent UN report says: "The government must urgently address the widely held intolerance of children in public places." But how? By remaking civil society, or by a Cameron-style social revival? All this runs counter to the privatisation of so many aspects of childhood.

The rapid social changes of the past 30 years have hit women and children hardest. Women have adapted by going out to work, and as soon as women can be financially independent, marriage is in trouble. The impact of this on children is undeniable. Two parents may be better than one, but this is not a trend that is going to reverse any time soon and the Tory fantasy of glueing together broken families by means of tax breaks remains just that - a fantasy.

Underpinning much of our concern about youth is the undeniable fact of widening inequality. This is especially pertinent to the way we have criminalised whole sections of our youth as though a punitive attitude is in itself a solution. Inequality does not "excuse" crime, but to deny its effect is preposterous. We can certainly look at countries such as Germany and Finland, whose youth justice systems do better than ours, and ask what they do that we don't. One of the most obvious is that they do not criminalise children at such a young age. At ten, our children are not deemed legally responsible enough to own a pet, but they can still be a criminal. The murder of James Bulger brought these arguments to the fore. Who can forget the women with toddlers in buggies coming to scream that the killers should be killed because, as one red-faced mother with impeccably twisted logic said to a TV crew, "Killing children is wrong"? All the latest research by neuroscientists indicates that at ten, the frontal lobes may not be developed enough to fully manage and control emotions. Our current youth justice system is not working, and produces a huge rate of reoffending.

The years of hardcore and basically right-wing policies enacted by new Labour in the fields of education and crime have not worked. Money has been poured in and child-centred or therapeutic approaches have been pooh-poohed. The tide now has to turn not simply for ideological reasons, but for economic ones. We have more money than ever, but our children are demonstrably not happier. Overtesting our children has not made them cleverer; criminalising them has not made them behave better. Not enough children have been "lifted" out of poverty. Frank Field MP talks of the cul-de-sac of government policy on this issue. If something is not working, why do we keep doing more of it?

As adults, we do not seem mature enough to deal with a changing world. We fear the virtual world our children inhabit because we cannot mediate it. We fear consumerism but we do little to challenge it. Our children cannot grow up properly, as the traditional markers of adulthood, such as marriage and setting up home, occur much later. The gap between childhood and adulthood is not easily defined. Instead, we rush to occupy this space ourselves, colonising the culture of our offspring and refusing to grow old.

The only agency that we offer young people is consumption. That they choose then to overconsume a toxic mixture of skunk, Primark and fantastically cheap booze should not surprise us. Adults have in effect given up their role of socialising the young. We are scared to intervene ourselves but are outraged when public bodies fail. When a child dies, the witch-hunt for the hapless social worker ensues. It is shocking that we have no single agency responsible for early intervention in children's lives, because just about everybody agrees that this is absolutely key.

All the statistics show that the emotional well-being of a ten-year-old will predict their behaviour at 16. All of us have surely seen this in the classroom - kids already lost before they have begun. Still, we spend 11 times more on locking up children than we do on trying to prevent difficult behaviour. Countries that are doing better than us do so because therapeutic and family interventions are not only more effective than punishment, but cheaper.

Our own failing

The public and political response to this failure has been denial, calling for these already deficient systems to become harsher. Lock up more kids, make them do even more exams, hate them for staying indoors, be afraid of them outside and ignore the collateral damage. The state as it functions is not a great parent. It is impotent in the face of declining social mobility as it now cowers before the market instead of trying to regulate it.

Our current fear of youth is basically a fear of our own failing. The "I'm all right, Jack" approach that requires us to become entrepreneurs on behalf of our own offspring has produced a culture that now fears the children of others so much, it turns them into aliens. We have angels, they have devils. And what do these demons say when asked about their aspirations? They want love, respect, to feel safe and protected, but they also want freedom and places to go that are free and local. Are these such ridiculous demands?

The battle of the future is chiefly about the limits of the state. Cameron dodges it by quaintly reinventing society and promising to deliver the voluntary sector. I look forward to the rehabilitation of crack addicts by the Women's Institute. Yet both of the main parties must acknowledge that the state has not been adept at catering to the needs of young people. It appears in their lives as both anachronistic and antagonistic.

In short, children need a New Deal. One that works. They need to be given much more space, both physically and mentally. They need to be seen as full of potential, not evil. Demonising them has proved a self-fulfilling prophecy. Culturally, politically and economically, they need to stop being punished as symbols of our self- indulgent idea of moral decay. The first step is that they be "decriminalised"; the second is that they are allowed to be seen in public; the third may be that they can sometimes be heard. Radical stuff, I know.

Housing by numbers

The kids are not all right

  • 3.9m number of children living in poverty in the UK (30%)
  • 25% of 11- to 16-year-olds have been bullied online, by email or by text message
  • 70 number of exams andtests the average schoolchild takes in England up to age 16
  • 5hrs, 20 mins time the average UK child spends in front of a TV or computer screen every day
  • 1in5 children play outside every day
  • 7in10 children have a TV in their bedroom (6 in 10 have a games console)
  • 10,000 number of TV ads a UK child sees every year
  • 21% of 11 to 15-year-olds in 2006 reported drinking regularly
  • Research by Alyssa McDonald, Alex Iossifidis and Iselin Åsedotter Strønen

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 07 July 2008 issue of the New Statesman, British childhood

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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