Is Cameron doomed to the same fate as Gordon Brown?
Why do seemingly infallible politicians tend to come unstuck?
There seems to be something about senior people in (British) Politics who get wrapped up in self-belief and a mantra of infallibility. For years we were told repeatedly that Gordon Brown was the “Iron Chancellor” and one of the best Finance Ministers we ever had. Except closer scrutiny reveals that his raid on Pension Funds by taxing their income from dividends helped precipitate a calamitous collapse of the UK pensions sector. Millions of people have paid the price in loss of income into retirement – in some cases loss of jobs as well. Numerous corporate bankruptcies cite the cost of pension fund deficits as being core to their problems. Arguably the long-term impacts on the UK economy overall show that in fact Brown was one of the worst Chancellors of the Exchequer post-war. During a period when we should have been replenishing the coffers they remained empty. Cue the events of 2008 and disaster struck.
Now we see another iteration of this cycle. Only this time it was a Prime Minister who thought he could maintain his position of power by offering a Referendum he was sure he would win. As other commentators have noted the mechanism was flawed. The complexity of the argument was way beyond the comprehension of the average UK voter. A deliberative approach would have been far better. As Matthew Taylor (Chief Executive of the RSA, broadcaster and former Political Strategy Adviser to Tony Blair inside No.10) recently noted – the idea of giving a problem to citizens and allowing them to come up with a reasoned solution is anathema to the political masters. Yet the Icelandic people recently did just that when rewriting their Constitution post the banking collapse and although the outcome wasn’t implemented as designed the people were much better informed about their governance.
This time around Cameron appears not only to have thought he would win fairly easily but, when it became obvious that he wasn’t guaranteed to succeed, stuck with his existing formula of running a campaign highlighting the risks. It may have worked against the SNP in the Scottish Referendum in 2014 when he had the press on his side but it was not supported by the media on this occasion. The outcome is arguably the biggest negative impact on the UK in hundreds of years. (Possibly the worst we’ve experienced since 1776. ) Not only is there serious risk that a large slice of London’s financial services will move to another EU centre but also the political implosion of UK society is likely to result in at least the secession of Scotland from the Union. What may happen in Ulster is anyone’s guess.
So overall foreseeable outcomes (and anyone doing a proper risk analysis of this would have worked those through) were never properly factored in to the initial approach. A classic case of not thinking through the consequences of actions from the top down.
Brown and Cameron may be decent individuals and family men. They both had a good education. So why is it that they simply never got it when it comes to understanding how to operate the levers of power? History is likely to view both of them with a critical eye.
In the present circumstances maybe the analogy would be with the leaders of the Weimar Republic. They (as opposed to the war-time leaders) were blamed for the economic and social failings in Germany during the Depression. This time around blame has been laid at the foot of the immigrants and EU bureaucrats rather than the (US) bankers who caused the crisis of 2008. Sticking with the demise of the Weimar Republic for a moment we know that the result was the rise of National Socialism and all that entailed. Now I’m not suggesting that in the 21st Century things are definitely going that way but nevertheless it’s getting uncomfortably like it. The result was the destruction of a large part of Europe and it has taken more than 70 years to rebuild if one takes into account the impact on the eastern bloc.
Sucking up to a political faction (in this instance the Euro-sceptic wing of the Conservative Party) is not a strategy for the success of the UK. They could have been defused legitimately with some deliberative democracy. The risks to the UK would have been mitigated. It’s interesting to note that any large Public Sector project is required by Treasury Rules to have in place a formal Risk Management plan with costed mitigations and detailed analysis. What made Cameron think this approach is fine for building HS2 but not for possibly wrecking the Union?
In my book he is likely to go down in history as one of the worst Prime Ministers ever along with Lord North (who led us into the American War of Independence). A triumph of self-belief over common sense. Cameron has overseen three referenda since 2011. AV Voting, Scottish independence and EU membership. In the first and third instances intelligence suggests that he got the arguments dreadfully wrong and has failed to move the UK forward as a representative democracy. As for the second – a rerun is likely with a markedly different outcome as the population will have had the veil lifted on the truth.
And what of the outcome for the rest of us? It is likely this has accelerated the decline of the UK in the rest of the world. Scottish independence is likely to result in Trident not being replaced and hence a seat as Permanent Member of the UN Security Council might be questioned. We won’t disappear but are more likely to be viewed alongside Canada and Australia in terms of economic and political importance. Effectively we will be steadily losing our seat at the top table and the shift of economic power towards Asia-Pacific is irreversible for the next few generations.
We were on a huge interconnected multi-player game and have taken back control – only to realise we have cut the connections and are limited to playing anyone who is in the same building. And whilst Cameron and Brown may suffer the same fate when it comes to historical commentary the population of the UK and across Europe is left with a legacy of cost, uncertainty, civil unrest, legal wrangling and bitterness. If losing the American War of Independence was followed by Civil War – what might be the consequences of losing the battle for a better EU with the UK at its heart?
So what do the fates consider?
Worst Chancellor of the Exchequer since 1945 ?
Worst British Prime Minister since 1782 ?
Worst event to befall Britain since 1776 ?
As for Cameron’s successor be it Boris or someone else the runes aren’t good. They are likely to be viewed as populists with little if any statesmanship. Future historians will have a field day – pity someone didn’t think about this up front.