As leading political figures go David Cameron is probably not a rotter. He behaved well in high office to subordinates and his rule is not touched by the personal scandal that seems almost commonplace in too many democracies. He was perhaps at his best in the care he gave to his disabled child Ivan, spending long nights in hospital to be near him until his death in 2009.
So why call him an ‘Invertebrate’ Prime Minister? It is a disagreeable term that seems to put an outgoing British leader on the same level as a slimy amphibian. The term is used in another sense though: it clearly implies not base conduct but a kind of spinelessness or irresolution on the part of someone with the power and even the intelligence to alter things for the better.
In the modern political sense, the term was first coined by the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955). In his 1929 book Espana Invertebrada (published in English in 1974 as Invertebrate Spain) he argued that Spain was gravely undermined by flawed people in the political class who transferred their inadequacies to the institutions of State. Intransigence, disorganisation, sectarianism, venality and revulsion for the lower orders were the worst of the defects making Spain ungovernable and in time the victim of a terrible civil war.
Britain is no longer a place of safety, stability and restraint that often seemed to make it an exemplar in a stormy world. But nor is it on the brink of major convulsions or yet critically divided on class or territorial grounds. There is a gulf between the governing elites unusually concentrated, for a country of Britain’s size, in a single urban metropolis, and the governed.
Educated at Oxford, the son of a financier and destined for a career in public relations before entering politics full-time, Cameron was very much part of that establishment. But he was not just a talented and ambitious player in an elite political game. He had some promising instincts and insights about Britain. His ‘Big Society’ idea was perhaps the main one. It was a recognition that society was fractured. Many people had fallen into desperate personal crises, embarked on destructive paths, or faced bleak futures in a country where the voluntary bodies that might have offered hope and recovery for many had shrunk in importance.
But Cameron never articulated the ‘Big Society’ idea or translated it beyond stunts like ‘Hug a Hoodie’. He could find room in the House of Lords for the lingerie entrepreneur Michelle Mone but there was no peerage for Ann Widdecombe, a fellow Tory who had thought much about broken Britain and what some of the remedies might be. ‘Red Toryism’, the mix of social conservatism and economic communitarianism associated with Dr Phillip Blond was dropped soon after 2010. Nick Boles, one of the Prime Minister’s ‘Cameroonians’ cynically talked about it being ‘nonsense we indulged in’.
Reaching out to the excluded was done on an ad hoc basis, involving patronage and virtue-signalling from entitled folk. Emblematic but not unique is the Kids Company, a terribly-run charity which Oliver Letwin, a senior policy adviser, was insisting received a £3 million grant just days before it collapsed in 2015.
Cameron fought a colourless campaign in 2010. Unexpectedly, he failed to obtain a majority against an unappealing Labour Prime Minister associated with reckless policies that had debauched the public finances. A coalition was stitched together with the Liberal Democrats. Distrustful of his grassroots activists and many in the parliamentary party, Cameron did not find the role such an uncongenial one. He swiftly pointed out: ‘I’m Liberal because I believe in freedom and human rights, but Conservative – I’m sceptical of great schemes to remake the world.’
Coalitions are constraining but the arrangement with Nick Clegg’s party confirmed Cameron’s preference for accommodation and expediency. Whatever reforming instincts he had, he did not act on them. He was unable to set priorities and appoint talented and motivated people ready to tackle weakness and failure in government and the wider society. Those who were chosen, such as Steve Hilton, his’ blue sky’ thinker until 2012 or Michael Gove,a reforming education minister until 2014, were often not seriously listened to; along with Owen Paterson, a food and environment minister prepared to defy vested interests at home and in Brussels, Gove was removed in a pre-election bid to disarm critics of the Tory record.
More than at any time in its democratic history, Britain in the words of author and columnist Charles Moore had become ‘a nation ruled by a large, subsidised, semi-permanent political, financial and bureaucratic class that seems impervious to voters’ wishes’. (Daily Telegraph, 18 December 2010) It was the type of disconnect which on the Continent had led to outright political ruptures. An irreverent and noisy press kept this elite on its guard. In one of his most unwise moves, Cameron went along with elite efforts to place the press under state regulation.
Such restrictions were perhaps necessary due to the fact that a supposedly progressive and decidedly left-leaning London establishment from the bureaucratic, legal, academic, business and entertainment industries increasingly felt the need to mask the contradictions between its progressive gestures and its often shabby and self-aggrandizing behaviour.
Former Cameron adviser Steve Hilton described this metropolitan overseer class perhaps better than most in 2015: “When the corporate bosses, the MPs, the journalists… all go to the same dinner parties and social events, all live near one another, all send their children to the same schools (from which they themselves mainly came), an insular ruling class develops…They flit and float between Westminster, Whitehall and the City; regardless of who’s in office, the same people are in power. It is a democracy in name only, operating on behalf of a tiny elite no matter the electoral outcome. I know because I was part of it.”
The head of the Civil Service, Sir Jeremy Heywood was the grand vizier presiding over a ramshackle decision-making process. ‘Remind me, Jeremy, do you work for me or do I work for you?’ Cameron asked him on one occasion. He accumulated more power than a senior bureaucrat has enjoyed for many years but the quality of government was often weak.
It is perhaps a sign of the essential shallowness of the Cameron era that his chief personal pollster ended up as Director of Government Strategy after 2012. Andrew Cooper, a former member of the Social Democratic Party, successfully persuaded Cameron to force through the policy of gay marriage. He argued the merits of such a divisive policy on electoral grounds: while gay marriage would lose votes among older party supporters in safe seats, it was likely to attract votes in marginal constituencies.
A contrast could be made with Cameron’s rival Boris Johnson who in eight years as Mayor of London had a generally outstanding record in appointing highly able people whom he gave major responsibilities to with very few scandals or bustups occurring.
One Tory minister complained to Fraser Nelson of The Spectator: ‘Cameron doesn’t appoint by merit…He hires people who he’d like to invite for Sunday lunch. It’s a chumocracy.’
Cameron’s careless and even chaotic approach to major issues was displayed fatefully in his botched efforts to acquire some freedom of action for Britain from a disfunctional European Union. He promised a referendum on Britain’s membership essentially for party political considerations in 2013. The aim was to prevent Ukip destroying any hopes of Tory victory in the 2015 general election. Cameron obtained a narrow majority mainly due to the shortcomings of his opposition challengers and the skill with which his campaign guru Lynton Crosby convinced fearful voters that a government led by Ed Miliband could well be in the pocket of far left Scottish separatists.
The EU treaties are creatively interpreted by the leading players and Cameron would have been behaving no differently from the major continental members if he had executed a skilful demarche to suggest to voters that Britain was regaining an important degree of sovereignty and therefore it was safe to continue with the European status quo.
The political scientist Jonathan Story (online letter in the Financial Times, 12 July 2016) mapped out one course of action that would have secured a Remain victory on 23 June:
“The easiest way forward which Cameron rejected was to change the terms of the European Communities Act Section 2.1., which accepted the supremacy of EU law, unconditionally. Neither France nor Germany do. Finding the right wording would have meant hiring an available QC, making the tweek, and passing the revision through parliament. No negotiations required. Just a statement that there was no automaticity at all that EU law prevailed in the UK, but rather a presumption that the UK as a sovereign has a right to assess, amend, accept or reject. “
This simple low cost tweak could have been accompanied by a prime ministerial statement that the UK valued the rule of law, and that the EU had an awful long way to go before it measured up to that principle. It would have been possible to quote the German Constitutional Court’s judgement on the Lisbon Treaty, extracts of which would make Nigel Farage’s various speeches in the EU sound rather moderate’.
Instead, in a humiliating dash around 27 capitals Cameron came back virtually empty-handed. His desperate pleading for some exemption from the structures of the centralising entity was rebuffed,a clear example of how little influence Britain wielded in the EU.
Andrew (now Lord) Cooper crafted a strategy based on intimidating voters into thinking that Armageddon was surely nigh if Britain snapped the EU coils. His ‘Project Fear’ had been tried out in the referendum on Scottish Independence with no effort being made by the pro-British campaign to offer a defence of the Union on emotional grounds. It meant the separatists went from being 30 per cent behind at the start of the campaign to only 10 per cent when the votes were counted in 2014.
Britain is now leaving the EU unless the globalising wings of the political elite decide to ignore the result and provoke a constitutional crisis much graver than anything seen in the past over Ireland.
As Prime Minister, Cameron insisted on ploughing huge sums into overseas aid through an inefficient government department DFID with often few tangible results. Making the UK the global exemplar in this respect, will surely burnish Cameron’s credentials for an international role. He has the poise, stamina and ambition to occupy a high-profile job in one of the United Nations bodies promoting world government. On trips abroad he has expressed the politically correct views about Islam or the iniquities of the British Empire, which he has imbibed in his Oxford college and at London dinner parties.
But whatever happens next for Cameron he will go down in history as the figure who unwittingly exposed the depth of the disconnect in Britain between the elite and ordinary citizens for the whole world to see. His approach to power and responsibility was far less dishonourable than that of many contemporaries. But there was an arrogance, a complacency and a spinelessness which marks out big government today, above all in the trans-national field.