Cameron’s Legacy: An Eton Mess?

On the 17 June David Cameron made the statement ‘I will continue with my duties as the MP for Witney.’ Only 87 days later, on 12 September, Cameron ended his political career. Many see his departure from politics as tame and ignoble. To say the least, it has been a whirlwind past three months for Cameron, and indeed the United Kingdom, with six years of Prime Ministership abruptly coming to an end. Naturally, at the end of such a reign, the former Prime Minister and Tory MP has come under scrutiny from both the media and the wider public. Already, Cameron’s legacy is being whittled down to a single referendum. Essentially, this one issue has shaped the political, social and economic landscape of Great Britain for generations to come rendering it inevitable that Cameron’s legacy is being defined in such a way. However, rather than indulging this superficial judgement of Cameron based on the events of 23 June we should instead acknowledge his six year reign in its entirety. .

The historic coalition of 2010 between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives already seems an eternity ago, but it is important to remember the circumstances in which it occurred. David Cameron, alongside Nick Clegg, took over a country (and more importantly an economy) that was in disarray. This disorder was also true of the Conservative party that Cameron had inherited in 2005, but the impressive leader took the party by storm and proceeded to decontaminate the antiquated Tory brand. In many ways, Cameron brought this approach to the Coalition government proving to be a dynamic and versatile leader. One of the main strengths of Cameron’s coalition leadership, as The Spectator identifies, was his ability to delegate and support his talented ministerial team. An example of this was when Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove both worked on social reforms and education respectively. However, a constant criticism of Cameron was that he lacked a clear vision for the country and he had little ideology. His slogan was always to lead a ‘One Nation’ party, but many argued this was a wishy-washy excuse to win the political middle ground. However, in the context of a country in a shambles, one could argue that a Prime Minister committed to reconciliation is just what the country needed.

Indeed, economic recovery, rather than flamboyancy, was the cornerstone of Cameron’s tenure. While the economy did come back, it was the slowest economic recovery on record. Therefore, claims have been made that Cameron was too cautious in his approach and perhaps worsened the situation. However, if one looks at the gross domestic product (GDP) of the nation, the increase from the 1st quarter in 2010 (£410m) to the 1st quarter in 2016 (£464m) clearly demonstrates that Cameron’s government achieved economic growth in a steady and sustainable manner. A central part to the former Prime Minister’s economic success was the ‘jobs miracle’. Cameron was not afraid to take risks and defy convention. While Europe embarked on strict regulation of businesses following the financial crash of 2008, Cameron significantly deregulated business, which stimulated employment and created one of Britain’s largest reductions in unemployment under any Prime Minister. In 2010 unemployment was at 8 per cent (a high since 1996) but is now only 4.9 per cent. Despite growth in the economy and employment, Cameron was unable to meet the lofty targets of halving the deficit. This highlights the problem, which has far outreached Cameron’s reign, of politicians over-promising and consequently disappointing the electorate. However, in a constantly evolving global economic climate, is it any wonder that such progress was slowed when one accounts for the adaptation required by Cameron’s government.

Number 10

Image courtesy of Number 10, © 2016, some rights reserved.

However, Cameron did not help himself and he often contributed heavily to these conditions of change and stagnation due to his foreign policy and unsuccessful international interventions. During Cameron’s tenure, the headline foreign policy issues were Syria and Libya. Cameron suffered the humiliation of a defeat to his proposed foreign policy of action in Syria. Furthermore, Cameron was one of the main architects of the NATO bombardment of Libya, which aimed to bring about regime change and ‘liberate’ a country in turmoil. However, this has been far from the case, with the National Transitional Council estimating the death toll at around 30,000 with a further 50,000 injured. Not only was there an enormous human cost, but the intervention has also led to catastrophic consequences internationally. For example, the Libyan intervention and the handling of the Syrian debacle has led to international and regional instability, the most striking evidence for this being the refugee crisis that has plagued and affected so many.

In contrast to Cameron’s record abroad, domestically, Cameron will be judged in a much kinder light. In particular, with regard to his social reforms which have modernised British society greatly. The trophy reform was the legalisation of gay marriage, a landmark policy that has brought the UK into line with the likes of Denmark and Sweden. . Furthermore, the education system has experienced clear improvements but this has also been labelled as ‘love-bombing Harlow’ – the poster school for Cameron’s era – encompassing all of Cameron’s aims of social mobility and ‘improving life chances’. The theme of integration and solidarity all played into his idea of the ‘Big Society’. And yet, critics argue this was nothing more than an empty slogan and policies such as the Bedroom Tax (in conjunction with little action on tax evasion) hammered home the Tory toff image and left those vulnerable within society victimised yet again.

Was Cameron a success or a failure? It depends. The public and the media seem to have branded him the latter in the light of recent events. Perhaps it was rash to call a referendum on one of the most important votes in the country’s history and maybe there were motivations to keep the far right of the party quiet. On the other hand, could it not be seen as a truly democratic act on the part of Cameron to put his job on the line in order for the people to have a say in the future of their country? The people spoke, Cameron listened. However, there is more to him than one referendum. Economic stability and social modernisation were defining parts of his legacy, as well as a disappointing foreign policy that prompted crises both internally and externally. Cameron hardly had the conviction of a figure like Thatcher, but he weathered a storm and managed a successful coalition in less than ideal circumstances. He may have just landed the country in another storm; he may have laid the foundations for a prosperous British future. Time will tell and history will judge, but in that judgement, one must look past a referendum and consider the whole story. Although he may not be remembered as the next Churchill, he must surely be seen as the man who got the job done, unspectacularly but efficiently.