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18 November 2023

The rise and fall of Cameroonian realism

The Cameron years were the blandest phase of British decline. Did we ever leave them?

By Clive Martin

Generally speaking, there is nothing quite so horrifying as the recent past. It’s the parallel universe of ill-considered haircuts, problematic Facebook statuses, false idols and fleeting crazes. A place that is usually better left in the dust, or at least given a decade or two to consider. 

But in British politics, the recent past still has a certain pull. There is always room for a familiar face, a chance to be pulled from the ranks of the sidelined, the semi-retired or the disgraced. The likes of Michael Gove and Priti Patel have survived scandal, only to be parachuted back into senior positions, while William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith carved out second acts in their careers after losing the Tory leadership. Although not an elected official, Peter Mandelson has had more comebacks than Doc Martens, and continues to exert a peculiar influence on his party, no matter how unpopular he remains with the public. Somehow, Alastair Campbell is the most popular podcaster in the UK (with Ed Balls and George Osborne trying to repeat the formula). This thirst for continuity can survive almost anything.

This week, we appear to have reached the apex of this phenomenon of forgiveness, when David Cameron, hoisted away from shooting weekends and sitting in £25,000 sheds, was surprisingly ushered into the foreign secretary gig.

To some in the centre-to-centre-right, it’s a clever move. The Tory Party is being hammered in the polls. To bring back someone who spent six years dealing with world leaders and party crises makes a certain amount of sense. Yet here, collective amnesia settles in. Because although Cameron was PM in relative peace time, this is the man who accelerated violent turmoil in Libya, brutalised the welfare state, and as for Brexit, well, you know the story. In many ways, he is the patient zero of the Great British culture war, and to give him the job of steadying the ship feels short-sighted at best. 

Still, an interesting by-product of Cameron’s return is the spotlight it shines on the era he presided over. Seeing him striding into Downing Street, dropping deft, evasive press interviews allows us to reconsider that weirdly benign time in British history. As someone who spent most of his twenties under his regime, it’s an era I know all too well. It was a time of big business, big societies, navy blue suits, Union Jack Nissan Qashqai’s, hugging hoodies and crippling austerity. A post-financial crash world in which our prime minister genuinely believed that “silicon roundabout” would save the country. 

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It felt like it would go on forever. The Lib Dems had sold out their promises so badly, and Ed Miliband was such a non-entity that, this week, I actually had to google who the Labour Party leader was in 2011. In want of a serious alternative, Cameron seemed like he would be a monotheocratic leader for life – Britain’s Castro or Dario Gradi. He was simply just “there”, an acceptable foil for Obama-mania, the smooth embodiment of middling ambition. 

Much of the nation was surging towards the right, and while many of Cameron’s policies were far more hard-edged than he let on, he always presented himself as a beacon of liberal pragmatism. Cleverly, he palmed much of the wrath around austerity towards the more typically villainous figure of George Osborne. When Cameron spoke about cuts, he did so with the air of a suburban estate agent clamping down on expense accounts, rather than any kind of ideologue. 

Culturally, Britain was reflecting this slickness, and the music of this time seems to personify it best. This was the time of polished major-label neo soul and pro-tools torch ballads. In a time when the poor were getting poorer, and an Etonian cabal were making hay, the biggest artists of the era were Adele, Coldplay, Sam Smith (before they became a body-image-challenging Satanic rabble-rouser) and One Direction (who even invited Cameron in for a truly embarrassing video cameo). In the post-Olympics fever the biggest-selling British album of 2012 was Emeli Sandé’s Our Version of Events. Yet this was also the time of fractured post-dubstep, Yeezus, Islamic State videos and Mark Fisher at his best. The rumblings of discontent were there, but did little to trouble Middle England. There were riots on the streets, but no “Ghost Town” in the charts.

The defining British film of this time was Skyfall, which now appears like Cameron’s technocratic patriotism in washed-out greyscale tones. The locales of Skyfall are not volcanic bunkers or Soviet monument cemeteries, but Shanghai skyscrapers, Aleppo-esque burned-out cities and the National Gallery. Interestingly, director Sam Mendes now regrets some of his aesthetic decisions, telling the Hollywood Reporter last year, “I would think twice about having Bond stand on the rooftops of Whitehall, with the Union Jack flags in the breeze, given the last ten years of serial incompetence from the Conservative government.” He added that “we look back at that time as sort of a bizarre golden era”.

On television, the Simon Cowell stranglehold was still in full effect, Operation Yewtree was in its infancy and the most popular figures of the day were the increasingly dubious stars of Team GB.

Perhaps the most lasting image of this time is not anything particularly statesmanlike or controversial, but Cameron, David Beckham and Prince William joining forces to bid for the 2018 World Cup in 2010; all Austin Reed suits, official lapel pins, faltering hairlines. An idealised vision of a soft, future-facing domestic male. Britain bid for the 2030 World Cup, and it seemed as if everything and nothing had changed.

For so many years, it felt as if this were just how things were and how they would always be. Not so much an “end of history”, but a steady decline into start-up Britain. There was certainly resistance in the works, but in a truly damning indictment of the moment, much of this was left to Russell Brand.

And then, it all came to a crashing halt. Cameron took a gamble on Brexit, resigned the morning of his loss and Britain has been living through what even Adam Boulton called a “national trauma” ever since. In his place would come more food banks, a pandemic and endless fights over gender, climate, vaccines, workers’ rights, immigration, race, foreign policy and the BBC. It is exactly the kind of situation that a capitalist-optimist like Cameron might run a mile from, which makes it even stranger he’s throwing his hat back in the ring. 

Perhaps a half-decent job will restore his legacy and keep him on the Davos circuit for life. Or maybe he really does just want to be Foreign Secretary going forwards. It could possibly be a route back into the premiership, but he and Keir Starmer are now looking very much like six of one and half a dozen of the other, and it’s hard to imagine Rishi Sunak letting a credible threat into his inner circle. How seriously he is taken by Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping et al is something only known to MI6.

In the wake of his appointment, the Financial Times wrote that “Cameron brings experience and baggage”, and while that’s certainly true, he’s travelling pretty light compared with the trolley full of plundered ivory and exotic leather holdalls that Sir Anthony Blair carries on a daily basis.

For now, at least Cameron is providing a light, nostalgic pause in a very troubling moment.

[See also: The Tory party suffers from Long Cameron]

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