No one could read David Cameron’s memoir in a single sitting. Once put down, the reader resumes only with reluctance and a sinking heart. I suspect that reviewers alone will – or could – read it through, and perhaps not even all of them. I found it difficult to stand more than 50 pages at a time, and whenever I restarted I recalled Thomas Babington Macaulay’s words in his review of a two-volume biography of Lord Cecil Burghley: “Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation.”
For a man to have been at the peak of political power for six years and to have written a 700-page memoir without a single arresting thought or amusing anecdote, without giving any insight into the important people he has met, and without displaying any interest in, let alone knowledge of, history, philosophy or higher culture, is an achievement of a kind. If banality can startle, Mr. Cameron’s banality startles — because of the position he once occupied. The average barroom bore is Doctor Johnson by comparison. It is only in its vacuity that David Cameron’s memoir achieves significance. It thereby tells us something about both modern politics and the state of education in Britain: for in the latter respect, Mr. Cameron is the product of the elite of the elite. This in itself is reason for the profoundest pessimism.
Only at one point in the book does he come across as a man rather than as a shadow or ghost of a man. His first son was born severely handicapped, of a rare genetic disorder, and died at age six. Here Mr. Cameron writes with feeling, and there is a genuinely touching photograph of him cradling his son in his arms with evident and unaffected tenderness. Such a man, one feels, cannot be truly bad, however much his ascent to the top of the greasy pole must have entailed the exercise of considerable ruthlessness.
He writes in clichés, thinks in clichés, and leaves no cliché unused. The achievement of which he is most proud is the legalization of homosexual marriage in Britain, but the justification that he gives for this measure is worthy of greetings-card poetry: love is love, he says.
Surely it takes the most minimal reflection to see that this cannot be the justification of marriage for homosexuals, even if you believe that permitting such marriage is right: for if love is love, and love justifies all, then incest, polygamy and polyandry (among, no doubt, many other possible arrangements) should be legalized. But at no point in the book does Mr. Cameron’s level of thought rise above the intellectual level of love is love. The most that can be said is that very occasionally his banality rises to the level of vulgarity, which he employs principally for effect: to demonstrate that, though of privileged background, he is no snob.
In a sense, Mr. Cameron is a Kantian: he believes that we can never get beyond appearance to things in themselves. Behind presentation there is no substance: just more presentation, so that public relations is the queen of the sciences and opinion polls must be consulted as Roman soothsayers consulted chicken entrails.
One anecdote in the book is particularly revealing of the state of British culture and politics, unintentionally so of course. Mr. Cameron tells us that, during an election, he was working up to his favorite part of the speech that he was giving in support of a Member of Parliament in a marginal seat with a very mixed population:
We are a shining example of a country where multiple identities work. A country where you can be Welsh and Hindu and British. Northern Irish and Jewish and British. Where you can wear a kilt and a turban. Where you can wear a hijab covered in poppies [the decoration worn near Armistice Day to show that you have given to a charity in support of injured soldiers]. Where you can support Man United [a football team], the Windies [the West Indian cricket team] and Team GB [the British Olympic athletes] all at the same time.
Then Mr. Cameron tells us that he departed from his prepared speech and ad-libbed: ‘Of course, I’d rather that you supported West Ham [another football team].’
Then Mr. Cameron realised that he had made a mistake, for he had previously let it be publicly-known that he supported Aston Villa [yet another football team]. He writes, ‘So often we misspeak… But this was me, an Aston Villa-supporting prime minister, implying that I supported the wrong team.’
This is all very significant for a number of reasons. By misspeak, an ugly word that should be expunged altogether from the English language, he means, of course, lie. Mr. Cameron could not have cared less (quite rightly) whether anyone supported West Ham or any other team. But the confusion between West Ham and Aston Villa is very easily explained. Both teams wear the same highly unusual colors: sky-blue and claret. Mr. Cameron knew enough about British football to know that, but probably not much more, hence the confusion.
What, in any case, would it mean for an Eton- and Oxford-educated man to ‘support’ Aston Villa, a team based in a slum in Birmingham, a city with which he has no connection? Here he is disciple of a man he admired, the former Prime Minister, Anthony Blair, who lied in similar fashion over his ‘support’ for a football team in order to make out that he was an ordinary bloke and not a man with a ferocious appetite for importance, wealth, and celebrity. All is presentation, nothing is reality.
Mr. Cameron castigates supporters of Brexit as populist, but he is himself a firm believer in the circus-division of a bread-and-circuses regime, for example counting Britain’s high tally of medals in the London Olympics as a great national success and cause for pride, rather than as evidence of a shameful and frivolous concentration on a trivial diversion during a period of national decline. He does not even realise that British football, once a cheap and wholesome amusement of the true proletariat, has become something quite different. I have noticed, for example, that the cheapest available ticket to the next match between Manchester United and Liverpool (a city with some of the most squalid poverty in Western Europe) costs nearly $600. For Mr. Cameron to pose as a man of the people by feigning an interest in football is worse than Marie Antoinette posing as a peasant by donning the dress of a shepherdess. At least shepherdesses were peasants.
Mr. Cameron poses not only as a man of the people, but also as a conservative, admitting in his memoir, however, that he means by this the pursuit of progressive ends (that is to say, the fashionable nostra of the day) by conservative means: once again, the form without the content. And insofar as he can be said to have any philosophy at all, it is profoundly marked by statism. He says that he is proud of the fact that his government created huge numbers of jobs, when what he means is that his government removed some obstructions for others to create huge numbers of jobs: meritorious, no doubt, but not quite the same as actually creating jobs, a word that implies a much more active role. Getting out of the way of someone is not the same as transporting him to his destination.
Another indication of Mr. Cameron’s bureaucratic statist mindset is his use of the verb deliver. He seems to think that governments deliver good societies as Domino’s delivers pizza; and the number of things he says that his government either delivered, or tried or aspired to deliver, is astonishing.
His writing style is that of bureaucrats when they try to be uplifting. I am very familiar with this style from working in the National Health Service, where it is employed by senior management, especially when they are about to do something unpleasant, such as close down a department. Mr. Cameron thinks of passion in an election campaign as an ingredient to be added like herbs to an omelette, and at one point says that he ‘downloaded his feelings’ on to a tape recorder.
It is only in the last tenth of the book that the author deals with the event that will forever be associated with his name, the 2016 referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union. Almost everything that he has to say about the EU is derogatory or as damning as his pallid vocabulary and insipid writing will permit (he would render Armageddon dull); but he was nevertheless in favor of Britain remaining within the Union in order to reform it – though, in fact, the current in the EU was obviously flowing in precisely the opposite direction to the one that he says he desired. As for the decision to hold a referendum in the first place, he tries to make it a collective one, a kind of inevitability, and hardly his at all.
In the end, I felt slightly sorry for David Cameron. There is no plumbing his shallows. As politicians go, he was obviously at the decent end of the spectrum, he was no monster; but when vaulting ambition (as his must surely have been) is allied to utter mediocrity, the result is… 700 pages that are a torture to read.