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David Cameron and the Origins of Brexit

 

In 2015 comic Frankie Boyle penned a darkly titled article ‘What if David Cameron is an evil genius?’ Only slightly tongue-in-cheek, Boyle – citing plans to erase the Human Rights Act from U.K. law – wondered whether Cameron was, ‘A shrewd and malevolent psychopath who thinks two moves deeper into the game than any of his opponents?’

Having secured an overall Conservative majority in the general election earlier that year, Boyle marvelled at how the Prime Minister had ‘managed to set England against Scotland, Scotland against Labour. He had given his enemies the referendums [Alternative Vote 2011, and Scottish Independence 2015] they asked for, and won’, leaving erstwhile coalition partner Nick Clegg ‘looking like one of those terrified mouse faces that you find in an owl pellet.’

A year on, in 2016, however, aged just forty-nine, David Cameron’s career was effectively over as his boldest gamble failed when the U.K. electorate voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the E.U.. Right-wing Populism had upset a carefully laid plan to rid the Conservative ‘brand’ of visceral Euroscepticism, and maintain a two-track Union to the benefit of trade and commerce. As Cameron admits, the centre-right could not hold.

Actually Boyle’s closing assessment of Cameron as a ‘sort of bored viceroy engaged in the handover of power from government to corporations’ seems closer to the mark. Really David Cameron seems to be neither a genius nor a psychopath, but instead a recognisable product of a privileged upbringing and an archaic political system – with a skewed democracy running under a first-past-the-post voting system maintaining a ruling centre right consensus, and an ‘unwritten’ constitution bringing uncertainties in an era of regular referendums.

The personality that emerges in a recently published autobiography For the Record is of a savvy and hard-working insider, lacking in profound insight or deep learning, and beholden to a mercantile outlook as the son of a stockbroker. In another era he might have had a fine career in the East India Company before taking a seat in Parliament to plot imperial escapades.

This autobiography dangles morsels of gossip from ‘blue on blue’ Conservative feuding – especially with one-time friends, including current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – but incessant retrospective justification, often with cherrypicked data, makes for a generally tedious, and long, read. Regrets are in terms of tactical choices: anyone expecting that a fall from power would bring profound questioning of the nature of conservatism in the twenty-first century will be disappointed.

The closing paragraph, in which he spells out advice he will proffer to future prime ministers conveys an essential banality, oddly reminiscent of the adventure books of Captain W. E. Johns, with Cameron assuming the role of Biggles, and George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer his loyal sidekick Algie:

Whoever they are, I will tell them this. That Britain is the greatest country on earth. Our greatness is derived not from our size, but from our people – their decency, their talent, and that special British spirit. There is no need for new ideology or systems, we have the best one here: democracy. We are lucky that this political system enables politicians to act upon what I think motivates most of them: the national interest and public service. And if you listen hard, beyond the sound and the fury, you will hear that this quiet patriotism and belief in democracy is what unites people too. Remember that as you pick up the baton and lead. I will be willing you on as you do.

Cameron’s apparently simplistic patriotism – born of faith in the enduring greatness of the British ‘spirit’ – coincided with an avowed ‘little ‘e’ and little ‘s’ ‘euroscepticism.’ This prevarication over Britain’s relationship with Europe played a crucial role in producing a career-defining Brexit. The attempt, and essential failure, to renegotiate a deal with the EU prior to the referendum left an unmistakable impression that EU membership was a relationship of convenience to be borne stoically, involving competing nation-states, rather than one of interdependence and mutual benefit.

Schooldays and Oxford

Cameron presents a picture of growing up among a happy, bibulous family including two sisters and one brother, featuring an especially affectionate father-son relationship. This did not, however, prevent him from being packed off to boarding school at the tender age of seven.

There he recalls: ‘At bath time we had to line up naked in front of a row of Victorian metal baths and wait for the headmaster, James Edwards, to blow a whistle before we got in.’ Punishment he says was, ‘old-fashioned. They included frequent beatings with the smooth side of an ebony clothes brush.’

Such childhood experiences have long forged ‘the stiff upper lip’ characteristic of the upper strata of British society, with medieval origins in the fostering of noble sons as page boys to aristocratic peers. Over centuries, hardened by emotional suppression in childhood, many among this ruling class have been inured to the suffering of racial and social ‘inferiors’, assuming a combination of hard work and punishment for wrongdoing to be a panacea for societal ills.

Yet Cameron is clearly no dinosaur of a bygone age in the apparent mould of his fellow Conservative Jacob Rees Mogg, and he includes tender reminiscences of a severely disabled son Ivan, who passed away before he took office in 2009, and an apparently loving relationship with Samantha his wife, to whom the book is dedicated.

Nonetheless, a residual harshness is evident in his attitude towards crime – with an emphasis on deterrence – and poverty, with frequent allusion to the ‘medicine’ of fiscal measures required to restore the U.K.’s economic fortunes after the Crash of 2007-2008. Work would set the poor free, conveniently to the benefit of a wealthy elite.

After prep school came Eton College, like his ‘father, grandfather, mother’s father and his father’, where the teenage Cameron had a brush with authority – having been caught smoking pot – before knuckling down sufficiently to gain entry to Brasenose College, Oxford, and later earn a first class degree in oft-derided – by Boris Johnson not least[i] – PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics); incidentally he dismisses the account of what he did with a pig’s head while a member of the Bullingdon Club as ‘false and ludicrous.’

During his time at Eton Cameron first encountered the economic ideas that have informed his political outlook since the 1990s, when he worked under the right-wing Chancellor Norman Lemont. From the start he says, ‘it was the radical monetarists and free marketeers who seemed to have the new and exciting ideas.’

This indicates approval for what Naomi Klein describes as the ‘Shock Doctrine’[ii] espoused by Milton Friedman – the idea of using a political crisis to bring budgetary austerity in order to generate conditions favourable to rapid economic growth. Any recovery generally enriches an economic elite, with the consolation of high employment for the wider society, however precarious and poorly paid.

‘Compassionate’ Conservatism

Cameron styles himself a ‘Thatcherist rather than a Thatcherite,’ a distinction appearing to be a branding exercise as opposed to any substantial divergence from the outlook of his predecessor, whose uncompromising policies established a predominantly post-industrial and unequal society reliant on a London-based financial services industry, over the course of eleven seismic years in power between 1979 and 1990.

He reveals: ‘I wasn’t always convinced by her approach, and thought some of the rough edges needed to come off. But on the big things – trade union reform, rejecting unilateral nuclear disarmament, our alliance with Ronal Reagan’s America, privatization, Europe – she was absolutely right.’ Essentially, Cameron recognized that ironing out “rough edges” would be necessary to make the Conservative Party electable after Tony Blair had shifted New Labour to the political centre ground.

He even hails the architect of New Labour: ‘Tony Blair was the post-Thatcher leader the British people wanted’ he says, combining, ‘pro-enterprise economics with a more compassionate approach to social policy and public services.’

Cameron recognised that taking the Thatcherite (or Thatcherist) project any further had become electorally impossible, at least in the short term. In fairness to him, levels of inequality, while remaining significantly higher than other advanced northern European economies,[iii] stabilized rather than widened during his tenure, and universal healthcare through the NHS was maintained.

Cameron spells out the changes in emphasis he believed were required to make his party electable: ‘Instead of tax cuts, crime and Europe, we needed to shift our focus onto the issues the Conservative Party had ignored: health, education, and tackling entrenched poverty … women and ethnic minorities.’ As Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, Cameron embraced non-economic causes such as marriage equality, and made sure to be pictured alongside women and members of ethnic minorities. To some of extent the exercise of ironing out “the rough edges” was assisted further by going into coalition with the Lib-Dems under the ineffectual Nick Clegg in 2010.

Over the course of his tenure, in close collaboration with his friend George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Cameron rewarded wealth acquisition by reducing the highest rate of income tax from 50 to 40 per cent and slashing corporation tax went from 28 to 17 per cent. He quotes approvingly J.M. Keynes description of the ‘animal spirits’ motivating enterprise, disregarding the altruism often underpinning innovation.

As with Thatcher’s idea of an ‘Ownership Society’, his government fed aspirations for house ownership through a 2013 ‘Help to Buy’ scheme for council houses, which only seems to have inflated property values while the market was under supplied. An increase in the rate of VAT from 17.5 to 20%, alongside reductions in the welfare budget no doubt impelled many into taking up employment, but much of this was low paid and precarious – with zero hours contracts increasingly the norm. This job insecurity and low pay may account for what is described as the ‘productivity puzzle’ in the U.K. whereby, as of 2018, labour productivity was 18.3% below its pre-downturn trend.[iv]

Damningly, as of 2018 – two years after he had left office – almost a million-and-a-half were reliant on food banks.[v] Yet his (scary) ‘assessment now is that we didn’t cut enough. We could have done more, even more quickly, as smaller countries like Ireland had done successfully.’

On Europe, he and his fellow Modernisers that included Boris Johnson ‘were all convinced that the Conservative Party had become, and should remain, a Eurosceptic party’, but that ‘banging on about Europe’ … was damaging.’ Thus, crucially, he refused to tackle the issue head on, and as Prime Minister postured among his European colleagues, insisting on British exceptionalism to the public gallery.

Environment and the ‘Big Society’

The rebranding of Conservatism also embraced environmentalism, memorably conveyed through a much-derided photograph of Cameron astride a sledge pulled by huskies inside the Arctic circle, which was intended to convey his acceptance of the reality of Climate Change.

During his period in power significant progress was certainly made in terms of wind energy generation in the U.K., although it is unclear whether government policies facilitated this as opposed to technological advances, and the country’s favourable weather conditions. Cameron’s government certainly did not embark on any serious divestment from fossil fuels.

He also displays little concern for biodiversity, bemoaning how the Environmental Agency ‘seemed to worry more these days about newts and butterflies than homes and livelihoods,’ and reveals support for badger culling as a means of combating bovine T.B..

As Prime Minister he acknowledges an overriding consideration to maintain rising GDP, which is given almost aphrodisiacal qualities:

When your GDP is on the up, your power rises with it. Your global stature increases, public confidence grows, your party’s fortunes rise, and your economy’s success sparks the interests of investors. Growth begets growth … But when GDP is stagnating or shrinking (or at least when you are told it is – the provisional figures don’t always turn out to be true), you’re in a permanent state of precariousness.

Absent is any discussion of whether a politics predicated on economic-growth-without-end, involving intermittent recessions, is capable of generating any kind of environmental equilibrium for human beings living on planet Earth.

Another aspect of Cameron’s Compassionate Conservative formula was the so-called ‘Big Society’, which called for a revival of volunteering. It is an idea not without merit – a non-remunerative space of interaction between private enterprise and the state – however easy it may be to satirise as a patrician fantasy world of village fetes and pumpkin-growing-competitions.

An absence of engagement, however – in this book at least – with theories of social capital indicate, like much else about Compassionate Conservatism, that it is a veneer masking an overwhelming dedication to free market economics. This approach diverged from other northern European states, where living standards were generally maintained after the Crash.

Referendum

After becoming leader of the opposition in 2005, Cameron used his first PMQ, in which he was pitted against Tony Blair, to raise the failure of the Labour government to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Although he did not make a career of deriding the European project, his public utterances revealed suspicion throughout. Ultimately, pursuing a “small ‘e’ and small ‘s’ euroscepticism” agenda would make arguments in favour of the European project ring hollow.

Nonetheless, having emerged with a successful result from the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, in part thanks to the intervention of his one-time sparring partner Gordon Brown, and the Alternative Vote in 2011, Cameron chose to take on the major challenge of an ‘in-out’ European referendum. He wished to settle the argument once and for all within the Conservative party, as the emergence of UKIP under the ‘charismatic’ Nigel Farage was threatening its right flank.

In hindsight Cameron recognizes that he ‘had allowed expectations about what could be achieved through a renegotiation to become too high.’ But failure to control close lieutenants within Conservative ranks would be his ultimate undoing.

Both Old Etonians and Oxford graduates, Johnson and Cameron were seen as fellow ‘Modernisers’ within Conservative ranks: ‘I liked Boris and he made me laugh.’ Cameron tells us, ‘But I didn’t always trust him.’ He provides an amusing picture of an occasional tennis partner: ‘Boris’s style on the court is like the rest of his life: aggressive, wildly unorthodox (he often uses an ancient wooden racquet) and extremely competitive.’

This aggression appeared to border on lunacy at times, as when, on one Johnson family visit to the Prime Minister’s country residence at Chequers, in a highly competitive game of football on the front lawn, Boris slide-tackled one of his own children, ‘so vigorously they had to retire hurt.’

As Mayor of London Cameron says, ‘Boris was the one who was full of jealousies and paranoias.’ At one time he informed Cameron that after the end of his second spell as Mayor he would finish with public life altogether: ‘I’m leaving public life after this. People say I want to be an MP. I don’t. I’m not going to do that.’

In the event Johnson resumed his parliamentary career, and when it came to the referendum he initially dithered – by his own admission ‘veering all over the place like a broken shopping trolley’ – before deciding to give the Leave campaign his wholehearted backing.

We gain insights into what appears to be almost a domestic drama as Cameron reveals how prior to this decision Boris’s wife Marina, ‘rather effectively shouted him down, saying ‘Dave’s thought it through. I’m not sure you have. Why don’t you let the prime minister get on with it?’ – or words to that effect.’ Apparently fixated on the issue of the supremacy of EU law, Johnson consoled himself that ‘Brexit would be crushed like the toad beneath the harrow.’

In a rare moment of insight Cameron intuits his opponents’ motivations: ‘Whichever senior Tory politician took the lead on the Brexit side – so loaded with images of patriotism, independence and romance – would become the darling of the party. He didn’t want to risk someone else with a high profile – Michael Gove in particular – to win that crown.’

foam-flecked Faragist

Ironically, Cameron himself persuaded the Sunday Times journalist, and fellow Oxford graduate, Michael Gove to seek a parliamentary seat. Gove went on to serve as a reform-minded Education Secretary during Cameron’s first administration, and turned out to be a star turn at Cabinet meetings: ‘He’d link together two stories of the day, something from popular culture, something from the other side of the world, and then deliver it with Carry On campness.’

What Cameron regards, however, as the poisonous influence of his advisor Dominic Cummings brought disputes with the teaching profession, and in a reshuffle Gove was demoted to Chief Whip, with a diminished income. This rankled with Gove’s wife the journalist Sarah Vine at least, who ominously described a ‘shabby day’s work which Cameron will live to regret.’

Although in Cameron’s estimation Gove, unlike Johnson, was a true Brexit believer, he had counselled against holding a referendum, and indicated he would only play a minimal role in the campaign. So the ‘ferocity and mendacity’ of his (and Johnson’s) tactics arrived as a shock. Dismissal of experts along with false claims about expenditure on the NHS came with anti-immigrant invective: ‘Michael Gove, the liberal-minded, carefully considered Conservative intellectual, had become a foam-flecked Faragist warning that the entire Turkish population was about to come and live in Britain.’

Cameron reveals wounds of betrayal when he says that both Gove and Johnson, ‘behaved appallingly, attacking their own government, turning a blind eye on their side’s unpleasant actions and becoming ambassadors for the expert-trashing, truth-twisting age of populism.’

End of days

The referendum result left Cameron with little choice but to resign, plunging the country into an enduring constitutional crisis. The crocodile-tear-stained-text he received from Johnson is worth recalling: ‘Dave, I am sorry to have been out of touch but couldn’t think what to say and now I am absolutely miserable about your decision. You have been a superb PM and leader and the country owes you eternally.’

One conclusion is that Cameron was a political lightweight who simply merged New Labour’s techniques in political spin with old school monetarist Thatcherite (or ‘Thatcherist’) economic policies. This may have been conducive to economic growth, with the U.K. emerging as an employment powerhouse in the wake of the Crash, attracting hundreds of thousands of workers from more sluggish European economies that generally afforded greater labour protection. But the uncertainties of boom and bust seem to have demanded scapegoats in the shape of immigrants, leaving the country vulnerable to a populist surge.

The poverty of Cameron’s ideas is revealed in a paradoxical attitude towards monarchy:

I have always been a passionate monarchist, but never able to explain precisely why. A person’s future should be determined by their talent and hard work, not by the accident of their birth – my whole political life has been dedicated to that meritocratic ideal.

Also, reliance on the spectacle of the London Olympics to relieve social tensions is oddly reminiscent of Ancient Rome: ‘They seemed to be an antidote to so much that was wrong in our country. To the social breakdown we’d seen in the riots, proof that young people were a positive force.’

And yet, despite his obvious deficiencies, foreign misadventures (including Libya) and shameful disregard for poverty, one cannot help feeling a certain nostalgia for his period in office. Then at least the Rule of Law seemed assured and the “rough edges” of conservatism were considered problematic.

For the Record by David Cameron, William Collins, London, 2019.

[i] Sonia Purnell, ‘Boris Johnson and David Cameron: How a rivalry that began at Eton spilled out on to the main stage of British politics’, February 23rd, 2016, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/boris-johnson-and-david-cameron-how-a-rivalry-that-began-at-eton-spilled-out-on-to-the-main-stage-of-a6891856.html

[ii] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine, Knopf Canada, Toronto, 2007.

[iii] Eurostat, https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/products-eurostat-news/-/EDN-20180426-1

[iv] Untitled, ‘UK productivity continues lost decade’, April 5th, 2019, BBC, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47826195

[v] May Bulman, ‘Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs’, 24th of April, 2018, The Independent, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/food-bank-uk-benefits-trussell-trust-cost-of-living-highest-rate-a8317001.html

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