For the Record, by David Cameron (Book Review) | Benjamin Sanders
‘We shared a liberal outlook’, David Cameron writes of his coalition partner, Nick Clegg, on page 7 of his autobiography. This isn’t exactly the best start you would hope for when reading the memoirs of a Prime Minister who lead the Conservative Party – yet it is hardly surprising. What is surprising, though, is how liberals like him managed to dominate the party, and how effortlessly they out-competed all other members and activists. Aside from Cameron, there was also George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, and Andrew Feldman, who in turn were supported by a very loyal behind-the-scenes group of advisors and speech writers.
The whole book, in many ways, sees Cameron try and justify why his liberal approach was correct in almost every topic and sphere that he entered, despite obvious truths (ironically many of which he mentions) that prove the complete opposite. For example, he makes the claim that Ian Duncan Smith and Michael Howard’s leadership was too hard right, and that he had to move the party leftwards to make them electable. Yet later in the book, he flips his stance, and insists that Brexit and immigration were the major concerns of not only his party’s base, but also of many swing voters as well. Indeed, arguably the only reason he won a majority in 2015 was promising an EU referendum, which makes his double-think all the more astonishing.
Something which I did find noticeably intriguing were the parallels between his Downing Street life with his wife Samantha, and that of the current occupant Boris Johnson and his wife Carrie. There are several instances in the text where he states he had come to a conclusion on a matter of a policy, like gay marriage, only to then change his mind once he had spoken to his wife, because apparently she could see the ‘bigger picture’. Or, in a more blunt explanation that I will offer, he came to a practical conclusion, whilst she came to a conclusion based on liberal feelings.
There were of course successes in his administration (both in and out of the coalition). There was the creation of the National Security Council and Office for Budget Responsibility, the introduction of the 101 non-emergency number, the abolishment or merging of 290 quangos, the merging of 1,700 public sector websites into the ‘.Gov’ service, and of course the creation of a million more businesses during the bounce back from the Great Recession. His creation of the National Citizens’ Service, which has seen half a million young people take part in volunteering, is also worthy of note. Yet like all of the achievements above, it has become a casualty of the Conservative Party’s failure to mention their own successes. How many party members or voters ever talk about these things? If Labour had implemented them you would never hear the end of it.
Perhaps these days, especially after everything that has happened both politically and internationally since 2016, it is hard to fully remember the economic context of 2010, and how it dominated the election campaign. The coalition government did successfully clamp down on benefit fraud, and the result was workless households falling by 750,000, with around 50% of Incapacity Benefit claims proving to be wrong. Of course, that doesn’t make up for the shambolic roll out of Universal Credit, or the embarrassing ‘Pasty Tax’ saga, but it did make a difference in the medium term.
On foreign policy, the liberal mindset once again returns, with naïve assertions about Turkey and its President Erdogan: ‘proof that Muslim democracies…..can work’. He is also adamant about attempting to bring China into the ‘rules based international order’, something which the Chinese largely don’t need to worry about, considering recent reports indicating the WHO helped them cover up the origins of Covid. Then there’s Libya, in which Britain and France successfully removed Colonel Gaddafi, only for the country to descend into armed anarchy and chaos. Cameron makes no mention of the fact that arms provided to the Libyan opposition largely caused the Mali conflict, or the fact that arms provided to the Syrian opposition fuelled the rise of ISIS – two factors which have had long term repercussions for their respective regions.
Returning to the domestic scene, there are interesting anecdotes in the book, like for example Cameron’s determination to block Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness from taking part in the London 2012 opening ceremony, the bizarre incompetency and routines of meetings at the European Commission, as well as behind-the-scenes manoeuvres in Whitehall during the coalition. There is also a lot of interesting information about his early life and interests, his family life (which include both tragic and happy memories), as well as the gruelling task of being Leader of the Opposition for so long. As political memoirs go, it is very well written – which is a good job, considering its length and scale. It lacks the narcissism which many autobiographies sadly include, and in my opinion Cameron gives a good, detailed account of his life and career, which anybody with an interest in British politics should read. Whatever you think of his politics and legacy, he comes across as a nice, well-meaning person who made the most of his privileged upbringing.
Then, of course, there is Brexit.
Now when it comes to falling on your own sword, David Cameron fell on a mighty big one. From the jubilation of securing the first Tory majority in 23 years in May 2015, to his dramatic resignation in June 2016, very few modern politicians have been through such a drastic change of fortune. The book makes clear that Cameron well understood the threat that UKIP posed to the flank of his party, and that as early as January 2012, he had decided on a course of action that involved a referendum.
What’s interesting, though, is that Cameron’s miscalculations, which ultimately led to his downfall, were sown a lot further back in time than people realise. Ironically, his determination to liberalise the Tory backbenches, by widening the selection process for candidates, actually increased the number of Brexiteers. Despite liberal leanings on other issues, a large swathe of the 2010 and 2015 intake actually favoured leaving the EU, and Cameron admits that he was completely unaware and shocked by this, and only learnt the truth of their allegiance after the referendum campaign had begun. Indeed, reading this part of the book, you can sense the genuine panic he felt at the time, and it is perhaps the most revealing part of the text.
There was a sense among those on the political right that many Remainers, or indeed even many libertarians on the Brexit side, did not understand the arguments for Brexit which resonated with much of its supporters. It is notable that throughout the entire autobiography, Cameron does not mention the nation state or identity argument even once, despite its obvious significance. He does reflect on EU migration though, which again demonstrates that his failure to tackle it cost him dearly.
Looking back, it is hard to judge how Cameron will be viewed as a Prime Minister in the decades to come. On the one hand, he could have been remembered as the PM who presided over a victory for the Unionists in the Scottish Independence referendum – a massive achievement that cannot be underestimated. However, I suspect he will always be remembered for the decision to hold an EU referendum, a vote which he ultimately lost, and a result which sent Britain into four- and–half-years of political turmoil.
‘I wanted conservative means to achieve progressive ends’, the heir to Blair states without irony on page 92. Well, what is clear from both the book and real life is that most of his party’s voter base didn’t; and in the end, thanks to a referendum, they got their revenge.