Underrated: David Cameron
Our Prime Minister’s Anglican attitudes are as valuable to the Conservative party as they are to the nation
On the whole, modern man has no solutions. So said Alexander Herzen in a letter to his son written in Twickenham on January 1, 1855. A century and a half later, many Tory MPs blame David Cameron for having no solutions. Their grumbling is amplified by the feral beasts of the press, who find it easy to show that the Prime Minister has fallen below the high standards set by editors. To these authorities, no problem is insoluble as long as their advice is followed. It has become fashionable to dismiss Cameron as a failure, who is leading his party to inevitable defeat, and to speculate about a leadership challenge.
In such a climate, Cameron’s good qualities are bound to be disregarded. They do not fit with the prevailing story. To praise him is to question the perspicacity of his critics.
But here are some of the virtues which have to be ignored if the narrative of failure is to be sustained. The Prime Minister is a good employer. He tries to give people jobs for which they have some aptitude, in fields of which they may even have prior knowledge, and to leave them there for long enough to achieve something. Such an approach is an affront to the British system of government, and I do not suppose Cameron will be able to maintain it indefinitely. But his practice of refraining from frequent reshuffles is brave and right.
Cameron is loyal to his friends. To his critics on the backbenches, this is one of his most deplorable characteristics. If only he sacked his friends, he would be able to give jobs to his enemies. They yearn for him to sack George Osborne, though if that were to occur, I doubt it would satisfy their blood lust for more than five minutes.
The public thinks more highly of Cameron than of Ed Miliband in part because the Prime Minister manages, for example during his appearances at the dispatch box, to give the reassuring impression that he knows what he is talking about. Cameron is no doubt skilful at concealing ignorance. But he is also good at mastering a brief. When one considers the amount of material a Prime Minister needs to absorb, and the joy which the press takes in detecting gaffes, this is a considerable achievement.
Even when short of time and sleep, Cameron appears able to remain calm and to work out a reasonable course of action. A conspicuous instance occurred on the morning after the general election, when he made his “big, open and comprehensive” offer to the Liberal Democrats. In my opinion, Cameron has good manners. He is a credit to his family and to his schools, especially Heatherdown, his now defunct prep school, which as his biographers, Francis Elliott and James Hanning, relate, “attached great importance to good manners”. Heatherdown was not an academic hothouse. It sought, in the words of one old boy, to cultivate “a sense of duty, Christian moral responsibility and awareness of people around you and how to behave properly”. We have an Anglican Prime Minister with Anglican attitudes.
It is true that good manners can become coercive: a way of forcing people to do what you want them to do. They can also lead to excessive tactfulness, which makes it difficult to speak with the force and directness of a great leader. Perhaps Cameron has too much self-control to form an emotional bond with the nation: he is instead suspected, I think unjustly, of arrogance. But I have heard him hold brief conversations with voters from completely different backgrounds to his own, while managing to sound neither condescending nor cursory. His replies demonstrated that he had listened to what he had just been told, which is a form of good manners.
The qualities I have so far enumerated may seem, and indeed be, rather unexciting. As Bagehot remarks in his study of Sir Robert Peel, “A constitutional statesman is in general a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities.” Cameron’s opinions are not remarkable. He is very quick-witted, but is uninterested in intellectual questions, or even in books. He does not grapple with theory, but looks for practical things he can do. Hence the inadequacy of “the big society” when presented as his big idea: it is not an idea, but a description of something which already exists.
To some Conservatives, Cameron is intellectually vacuous: a man without an ideology, so without any real idea of what he is trying to do. But to me, and to many of the Tories who elected him as their leader, he is something more valuable: a man immersed in a continually evolving tradition of political behaviour, who in Michael Oakeshott’s words can “make a friend of every hostile occasion”, including occasions not foreseen by the motley rabble of nostalgic Thatcherites and socialistic agitators who, with wilful uncharitableness and mendicant perfectionism, denounce the Prime Minister for failing to discover a shortcut to happiness. To keep afloat on an even keel (Oakeshott again) is not the most melodramatic form of politics. But it makes it less likely that we shall all drown.