Taking the accolades from Wimbledon’s Centre Court crowd, victorious Andy Murray’s acknowledgement of our Brexit-deposed Prime Minister unwittingly set David Cameron up for public embarrassment. The resounding boos and jeers were one thing, but the terse and muted applause seemed somehow even more damning. Cameron took it all in his stride, however. Of course he did, with that slightly nervy smile, and looking like, in Caitlin Moran’s immortal observation (made long before the unfortunate dead pig oral sex allegations) like “a slightly camp gammon robot.”
After all, David Cameron is perhaps the greatest practitioner of what has come to be understood as ‘post-truth’ politics. He perfected that muted Orwellian populism of saying what people wanted to reassuringly hear, while diametrically opposing this with his actions. Thus the NHS was safe in his hands, just as he was charging Jeremy Hunt with demolishing it. The BBC, ossifying into a neoliberal Pravda under his tenure, was his ‘genuine commitment to public service broadcasting’. Scotland could ‘have all the powers it wanted’ in the run up to the independence election, before waverers taken in by ‘the Vow’ realized that the actual reality was new road signs. He declared that ‘no stone would be left unturned’ in the prosecution of establishment paedophile sex offenders, who were then, of course, protected under the Official Secrets Act.
David Cameron is perhaps the greatest practitioner of what has come to be understood as ‘post-truth’ politics. He perfected that muted Orwellian populism of saying what people wanted to reassuringly hear, while diametrically opposing this with his actions. Thus the NHS was safe in his hands, just as he was charging Jeremy Hunt with demolishing it. The BBC, ossifying into a neoliberal Pravda under his tenure, was his ‘genuine commitment to public service broadcasting’.
To be a good liar, (and Cameron was one of the best) it’s said that some part of you has to truly believe in the falsehood. The truculent, deeply insulted look of injured innocence and sheer hurt bloody outrage whenever he was rumbled was nothing short of a work of art. The confidence, as always, was fuelled the underlying assumption that what is good for the elites of our society is ultimately beneficial to the country as a whole. In that Cameron/Tory mindset, there is doubtless a far-off zenith where ‘we’ can afford a decent health service and adequate housing. Until then, ‘we’ have to make sacrifices.
However, the more sobering aspect of this assessment goes beyond him or his party, and permits all our culpability. Cameron, even more so than Blair, is the great post-truth leader, because post-truth is exactly what we as a public seek. We live in an unprecedented time in human history where technological advance is destroying, rather than enabling, economic growth. Rather than accept that we are coming to the end of the life cycle of capitalism, and moving into an era where we cannot provide paid work and generate profits, we want somebody to tell us that it’s all going to be okay. That they have a plan, even if that plan is neoliberalism, which means privatisation, financialisation, massive economic inequality, starvation wages, and negation of both democracy and our personal rights. We want to hear this, because the alternative –the unknown- is scarier.
And Cameron was the best man to feed such delusions, with his magnificent delivery of this doublethink. His claim that the Tories represented ‘working families’ while he tried to steal the tax credits of the poorest of them, was still more convincing that Gove’s championing of the ‘dispossessed’ or even May’s recent nonsense about those ‘excluded from society.’ The Tories like the disposed and excluded so much that they have spent their entire existence, and particularly the last thirty years, increasing their numbers and cementing their status. Yet, we’re stuck with those reassuring lies, which we intuitively know are nonsense, but still seem to need to hear in order to get out off bed.
His claim that the Tories represented ‘working families’ while he tried to steal the tax credits of the poorest of them, was still more convincing that Gove’s championing of the ‘dispossessed’ or even May’s recent nonsense about those ‘excluded from society.’ The Tories like the disposed and excluded so much that they have spent their entire existence, and particularly the last thirty years, increasing their numbers and cementing their status.
Cameron told those whoppers better than anybody, with a stiff spine and watery-eyed, almost agonised conviction. Labour, unable to make the transition from cloth cap to baseball cap, and hopelessly stuck in the hands of low-grade, poncey toffs, could only witter in impotence. They abstained or sided with him, as he kept up the Blairite/Thatcherite unremitting but perfectly reasonable immiserating of the poor and the corralling of the middle-classes into the debt economy of neoliberalism. Poor Gordon Brown didn’t falter so badly because wasn’t a slick liar; he did so because he was even worse: a mug, who didn’t understand the mindset of those who were. This Son of the Manse couldn’t entertain the possibility of that level of duplicity in such apparently reasonable and educated people. Time after time he was dismembered by those painfully sincere public schoolboys. Before Cameron and the Vow, there were the bankers who turned him over on the economy, and of course, Blair, smirking across the table at the Granita in Upper Street. Cameron was Blair’s apprentice, much more than Thatcher’s. This is not to say that he didn’t show his humanity, as when his handicapped son died, or when he recently sang his way out off office. But by then he’d gotten so good at the PR performance that nobody really knew the difference, and those sentimental outbursts trickled seamlessly into the reservoir of artifice.
But man cannot rule by PR skills alone, and Cameron had substantial flaws; namely that he was a limited politician and an absolutely terrible Prime Minister. He functioned best as a banker’s office boy, operating a system of government where one is briefed at lunches by lobbyists from the elite. Having received their instructions, the next stage is to deliberate with cabinet ministers and senior civil servants on the best way to present this to parliament and sell it to the country, through a supine media. Nobody did this kind of politics better. However, when it came to responding to crisis, he made terrible calls. It was always going to be constitutional; Britain’s creaking old institutions based on establishment privilege and citizen responsibilities had long been unfit for the challenge of operating a modern democracy in a global society. At Scotland’s Independence referendum he expected, as did most of us, a 70-30 No vote, and the argument to be put to bed. But then came the humiliating dash north and the panicked orchestrating of every hollow bribe and threat in order to save a vote that seemed to be slipping away from him. The EU referendum was about uniting his own split party, but project fear offers diminishing returns, and this time he lacked having a Gordon Brown figure around to play patsy, and it all spectacularly rebounded. It resulted in Cameron dividing the UK by almost every conceivable political cleavage; nation, region, class and age. It will probably be regarded, when the dust settles, as an unprecedented masterclass in political incompetence.
He functioned best as a banker’s office boy, operating a system of government where one is briefed at lunches by lobbyists from the elite. Having received their instructions, the next stage is to deliberate with cabinet ministers and senior civil servants on the best way to present this to parliament and sell it to the country, through a supine media. Nobody did this kind of politics better.
Economically, Cameron leaves the country in a limp and inert mess. Back in 2010 he promised to eradicate the UK deficit in a single parliamentary term. By 2013 he had spectacularly increased debt by more than every Labour government put together, and shattered the Tory myth of economic competence. Fortunately for him, Labour, being a basketcase of a party, were utterly unable to capitalise on this. Following the May 2015 general election, Cameron’s chancellor, George Osbourne, introduced three fiscal rules; a welfare cap, the national debt reducing as a proportion of the GDP, and a budget surplus by 2020. The first two of them had faltered by March, while the surplus fantasy limped on until July. Now it looks like the EU exit means that the UK will need a financial stimulus, which could result in a GDP deficit increase from 3% to 5%. Having listened to all the bullshit about the terrible consequences of the UK not cutting its debt, and suffered the now needless austerity and stagnation, with growth heading relentlessly towards 0%, Britons-with-IQ’s can’t do anything other than designate David Cameron’s period of office as an abject, miserable failure.
So you suspect that he’ll be massively relieved to be out of this game. If he comes across as a hollow man, there’s also little to suggest that he isn’t a decent and amiable one. This contention is issued with the caveat that the blithe, non-empathetic nature of his privileged class and the psychotic compartmentalisation of our times make him unlikely to ponder the consequences of his actions on those less fortunate than himself. Unlike Blair who will discourse with God on his decisions until the men in the white coats (or prosecutors from The Hague) arrive, one suspects that Cameron’s retirement will be an easy slide into Cotswolds discussions, full of trademark poignant, pregnant sincerity, about the drainage in the lower field.
But that might not be for some time. With his unparalleled lying skills he is certain to be offered lucrative PR gigs. If I was CEO of an oil company, I know who I’d want as my spokesperson when we had our next ecological disaster. You know the spiel: “We’re as deeply concerned as anyone. (It was never enough to be just concerned, ashamed, disgusted or embarrassed. You had to be deeply so.) We’re doing everything we can. We’re all this together.” David Cameron’s affable, personable blandness was probably his strongest weapon, even more so than his faux sincerity. As there was little personally dislikable about him, it’s hard not to wish him well, but it’s also almost impossible to be completely sincere about that. Sadly, for us all and the times we live in, that is perhaps the man’s mark on our culture, the ultimate tribute to him. He was a liar, but he was a bloody good one.