Cameron’s mistake: British politics and the Return of History

Posted on April 26, 2012

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An edited version of this article was published for Open Democracy as Cameron’s mistake, Murdoch and the ‘return of history’

The End of History

Fukuyama told us that history was over, and David Cameron believed him. In a sense you can understand how he made the mistake. Cameron is the first modern British prime minister to have entered politics after the fall of the Berlin Wall (technically he got his first job in 1988, but by then the writing was on the wall in question) and whose career was not forged in the period of overtly class-based politics that spanned from the 1970s to the early 1990s. During his political ascendancy democracy was on the march in Eastern Europe, Latin America, South Africa and much of Asia, and free markets were appearing in places where they had not been known for decades, if at all. Those places where suspiciously historical things seemed to be happening – Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the Balkans, Rwanda, Congo – were too few and far apart to challenge the paradigm, and in any case each appeared to be entirely explained by local peculiarities. Democracies, so the story went, gave people what they wanted, or at least enough of what they wanted, and as a rule didn’t go to war with other democracies. Free markets raised all boats, and only the technical issue of how to make them work as effectively as possible was worthy of discussion. History as a ‘battle of ideas’ was over, and there was only one fighter left standing.

It was in this context that Cameron plotted his rise to power. In doing so he closely observed the man who, in Britain, did most to make the End of History a reality: Tony Blair. Blair was a true End of History ideologue. He believed in universal treaties, the removal of economic and political boundaries and the active promotion of democracy in those dark corners of the earth where it had not yet penetrated. As we know, his belief in this doctrine ended up becoming a form of zealotry. Global democratisation had an air of inevitability in Fukuyama’s book, but Blair felt it wasn’t happening fast enough and, in Bolshevik spirit, he concluded that the natural laws of history needed a helping hand. This was his undoing and Cameron, who in any case had imbibed an old-fashioned Conservative caution for big ideas and geopolitical engineering, learned the lesson. On every other substantive issue (bar European integration, which they differed over for similar reasons) Cameron became, for all intents and purposes, a Blairite.

At the heart of Cameron’s strategy for power lay two eminently Blairite observations. Firstly, post-historical politics was about consensus, which could only be built upon rising house prices. However, beyond economic growth, positioning on every other major political issue needed to be flexible in order to swing with the ebbing moods of post-historical voters. Thatcher’s single-minded crusade to shrink the state could no longer work, because it was rigid, unresponsive and anachronistically ideological. If voters wanted welfare-to-work then great, but if they felt a sentimental attachment to the NHS, Cameron could ‘love’ it too. He knew they wanted him to be tough on crime, but if they also cared about the causes of crime he would quite happily ‘hug a hoodie’. If voters were concerned about climate change, so was he, but if they grew skeptical or lost interest it he knew it could quite easily drop off the agenda. Except on those issues that smacked of End of History zealotry – like Iraq, Europe and immigration – Cameron made sure that across the board he looked more like New Labour than New Labour.

Cameron’s second observation was that, because in post-historical politics image matters above all else, those responsible for transmitting it were the key to power. Like Blair, Cameron understood his task in quite narrow and straightforward terms. It was the Murdoch red tops above all that would shape the way in which this telegenic, but posh and inexperienced newcomer would be seen by the nation, and he needed their approval. An adroit networker, he had no qualms about, or difficulty in, getting into the room with them, but he knew Murdoch only picked winners, and that convincing him that he was one would take time. Gordon Brown’s many flaws as a communicator certainly worked in his favour, but Cameron will have seen gaining the endorsement of the Sun ahead of the 2010 election as one of his finest achievements. News International was the kingmaker in British politics and now it was backing him.

The Return of History

Unfortunately for the would-be king, both of his assumptions have been proved wrong. To start with, history wasn’t over at all, but at best temporarily suspended. As was known by some astute observers, if anyone had cared to ask, the long upward trend in house prices on which economic prosperity rested was not the result of rising real wealth, but an enormous debt-fuelled bubble. It seemed to solve the old political problem of deciding who pays for what, but only by not requiring anyone to pay for anything up front. Beneath this collective fantasy, the battle of ideas lay dormant, ready to burst out. As we have been reminded, this battle does not go away, because it is intrinsic to our complex and economically unstable capitalist societies: over what constitutes prosperity and social justice and how the state, the market and other human constructions interact in its pursuit.

Confronted by the sudden, unexpected Return of History in the form of financial meltdown, Cameron acted with impressive decisiveness, abandoning the first of his two assumptions. In a flash the NHS-loving, hoodie-hugging, post-historical politician was gone and before us stood a man with a historical mission. The speed with which he seemed to revert to type led many to suspect that the whole thing had been an act. He had built a Trojan horse to enter Whitehall in order to complete Margaret Thatcher’s unfinished project. This simplistic view underestimates both Cameron’s pragmatism and the extent to which the world changed in September 2008.

If the crash hadn’t occurred, Brown’s failure to call a snap election in 2007, his subsequent problems with his party and the electorate, and the rhythm of the political cycle, probably would have taken Cameron into Downing Street with an outright majority. He would have seen out an unmemorable premiership, more Eurosceptic, more anti-immigrant and more cautious on foreign policy than New Labour, and more or less and indistinguishable on everything else. As it turned out, the Return of History also meant a return of ideological party politics. The labour heartlands rallied and the Conservatives failed to make sufficient inroads in marginal constituencies. The result was stalemate. Cameron’s obvious dismay at having to enter government in coalition betrayed a belief that he had denied his hard earned right to rule.

Since the Return of History wrecked his original plans Cameron has played a blinder. He won the political debate over deficit reduction, the defining issue of his government, and has successfully pushed through an austerity programme with, to date at least, little effective opposition. His false narrative, that state profligacy was responsible for the crash, has been repeated enough times to take hold of the national debate and ensure that Labour remain on the defensive. In government, he has deftly outmanoeuvred the Lib Dems, entirely neutralising them as a source of opposition and potentially, beyond this parliament, as a political force at all. The increasingly dodgy looking economics of austerity may yet be his undoing – after all, historical (unlike post-historical) politics are about more than just perception. Nonetheless he has shown that he can, in political terms at least, perform on issues of real substance.

By contrast to this, Cameron has proved hopelessly, disastrously incapable of abandoning his second assumption. While it seems a parochial affair compared to the tectonic event of the financial crisis, the News of the World phone hacking scandal of 2011 will have an equally lasting impact on British politics. However, Cameron seems to have been the last to work this out and has repeatedly failed to distance himself from News International (NI). He fast-tracked Andy Coulson’s appointment as Conservative spin doctor, despite receiving warnings that he had probably overseen phone-hacking when editor of the News of the World, then failed to dismiss him as evidence mounted, and still refuses to apologise. He cavorted with former Sun editor Rebekah Brooks on weekend getaways and socialised with James Murdoch, even discussing NI’s controversial takeover of BSkyB with him at a Christmas party. Even more damning is the evidence that an adviser within the office of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was in constant communication with NI throughout the quasi-judicial process of ruling on the takeover. Hunt and Cameron have denied knowledge of these communications. Time will tell whether this defence holds up.

In all of this, the question that springs to mind is, why? Cameron abandoned his first assumption with consummate ease, but appears to cling steadfastly to the second. How could he sense the change in politics brought about by the economic crisis, but so consistently fail to grasp the significance of News International’s crisis? One possible explanation is that he genuinely does not believe the Murdochs are finished, and that through obfuscation, lies, bribery and blackmail they will be able to slip away from the legal proceedings in tact. If he believes this he may also believe that he is better off accompanying them through a long string of scandals than abandoning them and risk becoming their enemy.

The second possibility is more speculative, but if Cameron is as pragmatic and intelligent as he appears to be, it is arguably more convincing. This scenario is that he may have done the unthinkable and made a faustian pact with NI, exchanging promises to do the company’s bidding by cutting BBC funding, scrapping Ofcom and facilitating the BSkyB takeover in exchange for the all important political endorsement. In such a case Cameron may no longer believe that NI hold the keys to No. 10, but is tied to them in a pact of mutually assured destruction. If it could be proved that such promises were made, it could not only bring down the government, but end Cameron’s career.

Some may believe that Cameron has been unfortunate to rise to power just as history returned and the rules of the game changed. His political predecessor Blair spent a decade in a state of post-historical stability, and was laid low only by his own fanaticism. I would respond that it is history’s prerogative to treat its non-believers as it sees fit, if necessary consigning them to the dustbin.

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Posted in: Elites, History, Politics, UK