Farewell then David Cameron, we hardly knew ye.
You see – I was never really sure he was real anyway. He never felt quite real to me. Wasn’t he just something that was taped together at a focus group back in 2005? A dodgy American PR guru called Frank Luntz rigged some feedback and decided that “David Cameron” was the best product for the Tories to put in their front window.
Nor has he ever seemed more real to me over time. I’ve always been struck by the calm acquiescence with which many dominant media commentators repeat the notion that Cameron is a moderate “One Nation” Conservative – because Cameron says he is.
What did Cameron ever have in common with the likes of Harold Macmillan or Rab Butler? What was “One Nationish” about his administrations? Cameron oversaw a
Britain that was more unequal than just about any other developed nation – a “born poor-stay poor” society which reinforced the hegemony of inherited wealth and vilified people for exiting the wrong sort of birth canal. Benefit-sanctioning, bedroom taxes, spiraling university fees – a crazy housing market – all of these things tore the very concept of “one nation” apart. Cameron’s governments repeated the demonstrably untrue maxim that welfare was the enemy of opportunity while concentrating all opportunities in the hands of those who already had it.
To be leader of the Conservative and Unionist Party you don’t have to actually believe in anything. That, historically, has always been the strength of the party. To be “conservative” is a completely relative term. In the 1950s, a conservative could be someone who slowed down and consolidated the achievements of post war socialism. “Unionist” however, does mean something. Keeping the various peoples of
Britain and Northern Ireland thinking that they are part of the same nation is an absolute definitional requirement if you want to call yourself a Tory. Or so you’d think.
And Cameron has failed this definitional test as none have before him. I mean, if you think
Britain should still be preserved in some way shape or form – which a diminishing number of people do. But if you do, then he’s failed.
Cameron’s failure as a unionist is not some separate failure from his social failure. From the outset of his premiership, his governments have promoted kickdownism and poverty shaming. His governments have done their effective darndest to ensure that people are more worried about people who might clutch at their heels from a few rungs down the ladder than the people who are already kicking them in the head from higher up it. In order for the divisive and inequitable
Britain to limp from year to year – it was necessary to destroy the affective bonds between humans, to ensure that all sense of disenfranchisement and disappointment was directed as the powerless rather than the empowered.
The triumph of the SNP in Scotland is based in no small part upon a national rejection of this narrative of division and victimisation – what I call “austeriarchy” rather than “austerity”. Cameron failed to hold
Britain together because austeriarchy corrodes the very building blocks, the very grammar of those commonalities that make a resilient nationalism viable. Instead, all his government could offer was a frightened nationalism based on stupidity and fear. Trying to hold Britain together using fear alone makes Cameron and/or Cameron’s governments – the worst Unionist(s) ever.
And then there was the EU referendum. Pledged before the 2015 referendum as a way of outflanking UKIP, Cameron assumed that he would sneak back in within a ConDem coalition that would enable him to renege on his pledge to hold it. But it turned out that the poison of opportunistic xenophobia had finally reached a tipping point. Successive governments, repeatedly referring to Europe as “them” rather than “us” had found it too convenient for too long to blame “foreigners”for pretty much everything. Cameron may have campaigned to Remain, but his administrations reinforced a toxic culture of “othering” that pushed Leave over the edge.
And yet this dreadful dreadful Prime Minister leaves office without even an adequate sense of regret. Cameron talked himself up as a “One Nation” conservative not because he’s a hypocrite in any traditional sense, but because he’s never seen any reason why words and facts need to be joined up. Cameron is a thoroughly twenty-first century politician who really doesn’t have enough depth to be cynical. To be cynical, you have to be shallow, and to be shallow is to acknowledge the possibility of depth.
Cameron is a sort of mobius strip of one dimensional rhetoric. He leaves office with no regrets because he has no sense of any gaping yawning chasm between what is and what should be.
So I won’t miss David Cameron. Or rather, I’ve been missing him ever since I first heard of him.