An endearing story has it that when the aged Stanley Baldwin was asked at a meeting which ideas had influenced him, he replied – much to everyone’s surprise – that his view of politics had been shaped by the Victorian jurist Henry Maine. Baldwin, who had been prime minister three times and had dominated British politics during the interwar years, was not known for having a strong interest in political philosophy. Yet he took from Maine, he said, a belief that guided him through his political life. From a system founded on hierarchy and command, governance was moving towards one based on agreement and consent; society was advancing from status to contract. At this point, Baldwin paused, seemingly deep in thought: “Or was it the other way round?”
A much subtler figure than he liked to appear, Baldwin was most likely pulling his audience’s leg. It is not easy to imagine David Cameron displaying any such self-deprecating wit. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon begin and end Cameron at 10 (William Collins), their recent account of the Prime Minister’s first five years in power, by asking whether he “has claim to be considered the 21st-century Baldwin”. But the differences between the two are more instructive than any similarities there may be.
Like Baldwin, who knew how to use the power of radio to craft an image of himself as a rather ordinary person who just happened to be prime minister, Cameron has lodged himself in voters’ minds as someone who, despite his privileged background, understands their everyday concerns. Yet there can be few who view him as having Baldwin’s reliably sound judgement. A prime minister who almost triggered the break-up of the United Kingdom with his slapdash management of the Scottish independence referendum and became the first head of a British government since 1782 to be defeated in the Commons on a matter of war (when he lost the vote to take military action in Syria in 2013) does not leave an impression of being a steady hand on the tiller.
While Baldwin’s bluff exterior concealed a sceptical intelligence, there is no reason to suppose that Cameron is anything other than he appears to be – impressively quick on the uptake but, in essence, unthinking. This may be why he has been such a successful practitioner of the Blairite politics of perception management. If there were anything hidden beneath Cameron’s changing appearances, the successive faces he has projected into the world could have looked inauthentic.
These shifts are in character. From urging greater understanding of young offenders in 2006 – a stance mocked as urging people to “hug a hoodie” – he shifted to bewailing “broken Britain” in the run-up to the 2010 general election. Having presented an image of himself as a green crusader, he appointed a climate-change sceptic, Owen Paterson, as environment secretary in 2012. Around the same time, according to Call Me Dave (Biteback), Michael Ashcroft’s and Isabel Oakeshott’s much-discussed unauthorised biography, Cameron protested, during an internal debate about whether British farmers should do more conservation work in return for EU subsidies: “Why should we be the only saint in the brothel?” Soon after the election in May this year, he began dismantling renewable energy subsidies.
Such turns are the stuff of politics. But Cameron carries them off with exceptional ease and the reason for this is not that he is unusually skilful in duplicity. Instead, the figure that emerges from these two, quite different, but in some ways equally revealing books is of someone who does not need to dissemble because there is nothing beneath the surface. More than Tony Blair, whose ability to read the public mood was accompanied by a streak of messianic zeal that eventually destroyed him, Cameron is an archetypal embodiment of the hypermodern leader – prophetically anticipated by the Austrian novelist Robert Musil in The Man Without Qualities (1930-43) – who succeeds by going nowhere. Cameron is a devoted moderniser who sees himself as a force for progress. Yet he has no particular destination or direction in mind and moves on easily from accidents that have derailed others. The stench of Iraq will surround Blair for the rest of his days. In contrast, Cameron has left behind his ruinous adventure in Libya with barely a stain on him.
It is often asked what vision of society Cameron promotes, yet it is only when you stop looking for any inner core of beliefs that you begin to get the measure of the man. Ashcroft and Oakeshott report a friend who knew him for more than a decade as observing, “He has rarely expressed any strong views in his life.” It is a trait that has served the Prime Minister well. Unburdened by conventional notions of Tory government, he was able to move quickly to seize the opportunity of power through coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
The same freedom from fixed beliefs probably accounts for his most surprising initiative – pushing through same-sex marriage. A civilising measure that may come to be seen as his most lasting achievement, it was opposed at all levels of his party. It is to Cameron’s credit that he overrode this resistance. Yet even in this case Cameron’s stance was not based on any definite conviction. Having once voted in favour of a Conservative motion to retain a version of Section 28, Cameron shifted his views in the year before he become leader: in 2004, he voted in favour of civil partnerships. Ashcroft and Oakeshott recall how, later, in the run-up to the 2010 election, the Conservative leader “took the bold step of apologising for Section 28, telling a Gay Pride event that his party ‘got it wrong’”. It is hard to resist the thought that for him the matter was primarily one of brand management. However much he has tacked and trimmed, Cameron has remained faithful to the view of politics as a branch of advertising which he learned from Blair.
Written throughout in an off-putting present tense, Cameron at 10 is a half-term report, exhaustively and minutely detailed, which will be indispensable to future historians. But most readers will soon tire of its relentless blandness. Significant episodes are often lost in the dull narrative that surrounds them and when the authors venture to make a judgement it is thoroughly anodyne: Cameron, they conclude, is “a figure of real historical interest and substance”. Matthew d’Ancona’s In It Together (2013) is a far more compelling narrative of the coalition years, told with style and verve by a genuine insider.
Widely interpreted as payback for Cameron’s failure to reward Lord Ashcroft with a senior position in government, Call Me Dave has been criticised for the lurid tales it contains of Cameron’s time at Oxford. It is a pity that the authors felt it necessary to dwell on such tittle-tattle. There are more important issues arising from his career than from the undergraduate parties he attended, and Ashcroft’s and Oakeshott’s unforgiving account of his manoeuvrings has a cutting edge that is lacking in Seldon and Snowdon’s recitation of events.
The defining feature of Cameron’s career is a chronic disconnect between words, deeds and consequences. He is at his best when all that is needed from him is little more than a public declaration. He became party leader largely on the strength of a single speech that he delivered from memory at the October 2005 Conservative party conference. In what may be his finest hour, his apology in 2010 for the events of Bloody Sunday, he was brilliantly effective because no further action was required from him.
Cameron’s work as director of corporate affairs for the media company Carlton Communications, his only professional experience outside Westminster and a position he acquired by way of an intervention on the part of Annabel Astor, the mother of his future wife, Samantha, seems to have had a formative impact. In the world of PR, actions are episodic and discontinuous and their consequences ignored unless they have some immediate effect. All that matters is having a serviceable story, which is constructed to serve the purposes of the day, then discarded and forgotten.
Cameron’s defence and foreign policies are a case in point. He has strutted about belligerently, launching regime change in Libya that has left that country a jihadist-infested hellhole, and he still talks of removing Bashar al-Assad from Syria, though the result would be blood-soaked anarchy on a much larger scale. He seems not to have absorbed the reality that the question is out of Britain’s hands now that Russia has intervened and the United States is, in effect, withdrawing from Syria.
Britain’s military capacities have in any case been severely curtailed by the scale of the defence cuts he has implemented. Seldon and Snowdon write limply of Cameron’s foreign policy record: “Some say he lacks the strategic grasp of [Nick] Clegg or [George] Osborne and lacks a vision of Britain’s place in the world of a Thatcher or Blair. He is criticised for making hasty rather than considered judgements.” More revealingly, Ashcroft and Oakeshott cite the assessment of the former chief of the defence staff David Richards, who in the course of the Libya campaign told the Prime Minister that “being in the combined defence force at Eton was not a qualification for running the tactical detail of a complex coalition war effort”.
A certain carelessness runs throughout his approach to policymaking. Having declared the National Health Service his top priority in 2006, Cameron presided over Andrew Lansley’s botched reforms and then seemingly lost interest. Searching for a slogan that could give some sort of rationale to his policies, he fastened on “the big society” but his failure to give the idea any practical content led ultimately to the departure of his policy guru Steve Hilton, who may have taken Cameron’s demand for new thinking too seriously. Today, much of the work of government has been contracted out to Osborne, whose steely intelligence is turning a process of drift into something more like a coherent project.
What is emerging isn’t exactly Thatcherite, or neoliberal. Instead, it is a variety of mercantilism, with government not retreating from the marketplace but actively reshaping it so that it better serves the interests of trade and wealth accumulation. The current push to expand Britain’s economic links with China shows Osborne and Cameron using the power of government to guide the market in a way that would horrify any disciple of Milton Friedman. Strangely, this neo-mercantilism goes with a remarkably sunny attitude towards globalisation. It is hard to envision Margaret Thatcher being happy with the role of Chinese money and expertise in Britain’s strategically sensitive nuclear industry. Britain’s openness to world markets has direct social and economic costs – including the imminent loss of the country’s steel industry – and geopolitical risks are being disregarded casually. There is no sign of Palmerston’s realistic perception that today’s friends are also Britain’s rivals, and that they may some day become its enemies.
The Britain Cameron will leave behind when he departs for a life of chillaxing and shooting won’t be one modelled on a version of Victorian values. It will be neo-Georgian: a country that is, in effect, governed by a coterie of wealthy families that collude and compete for power and influence.
Cameron made a shrewd bid for the centre ground in a powerful speech at the Manchester party conference this month. But it is hard to reconcile this liberal rhetoric with policies that deepen social divisions, such as the withdrawal of tax credits for the working poor, that further limit social mobility by axing student maintenance grants and remove vital supports for the most vulnerable people in society, which will be the result of scrapping the Disability Living Allowance (a measure framed during the last Thatcher administration and implemented by John Major). Rather than widening opportunity, these are policies that will make personal independence harder for many people to achieve. The end result will be a society in which opportunity is concentrated in a single, self-perpetuating oligarchy.
A glimpse of what this “chumocracy” would produce appeared in Cameron’s honours list in August – a brazen exercise in cronyism that included a peerage for Douglas Hogg, the MP who claimed over £2,000 in expenses for clearing his moat. If the bandwagon rolls on, an 18th-century politics of patronage will become entrenched in 21st-century Britain. But there is a high hurdle to be overcome before this can be set securely in place. The obstacle does not lie in the political system, given that (aside from some restive Tories) the government has no effective opposition. In a performance reminiscent of Peter Sellers’s Chauncey Gardiner in the film Being There, the Labour leader has emerged from the walled garden of the hard left to wander around the country, dispensing gnomic observations about peace and kindness. It’s a surreal kind of theatre rather than a new type of politics. There is no risk to Cameron here.
It is the promised referendum on Europe – Osborne advised against it, according to Seldon and Snowdon, though the Chancellor denies this – that could destroy Cameron’s dream of making a graceful exit from government. In a fit of absent-mindedness that he may now regret, he let it be known that he would not be standing for a third term. However, he may not last long enough to have the choice. The future for him and for Osborne depends on their ability to return from Brussels with something that can be sold to increasingly mistrustful voters as a fundamental change to Britain’s place in Europe. If the bluff fails, all bets are off. Cameron could hardly survive as leader, and Osborne would be deeply damaged. It is not surprising that Boris Johnson seems to be edging towards supporting Brexit.
Ashcroft and Oakeshott devote many pages of their book to Cameron’s shifting attitudes to Europe, concluding with a reference to his “fundamental Euroscepticism”. The evidence they assemble points in a different direction. For Cameron, Europe has never been much more than a question of party management. The referendum was a wheeze, designed to put off the matter until another day, but now that the day has arrived, he finds himself trapped in a course of events over which he has little control.
The Conservative Party is no longer divided on Europe in the way it used to be. It is solidly Eurosceptic, and whatever Cameron and Osborne bring back from Brussels will be viewed with suspicion. At the same time, public opinion has hardened. As the EU stumbles, saddled with an unworkable currency and paralysed by the migrant crisis, its image as a safe option is giving way to the actuality of a failed experiment. It can no longer be taken for granted that pragmatism favours a continuation of the status quo. Despite all his bluster about renegotiation, this is what the Prime Minister will be offering.
It remains to be seen whether it will be enough. Seen from a longer perspective, David Cameron may turn out to represent the end of an age. If he manages to squeak through the referendum and resigns before the next election as he has promised, he will outlast Stanley Baldwin in the number of years he spends in Downing Street. Yet the politics of image management works only until reality breaks in. The last of the Blairites, Cameron may not be far from reaching that point with his gamble on Europe.
John Gray is a contributing writer for the New Statesman
This article appears in the 21 Oct 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The 18th-century Prime Minister