“A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”Â
James Freeman ClarkeÂ
I suppose we all flirt with stupidity once in a while. The relationship that we should have seen was doomed from the start. The career move than wasnâ€™t right and was made for the wrong reasons. The intemperate response to something that momentarily upset us but which, when viewed in the cold light of day, wasnâ€™t that important really. Itâ€™s part of the human condition to foul up from time to time. And when it comes to our leaders we know that at heart they are probably just as vulnerable as we are but we also hope that they might have developed a bit of judgment that is above the ordinary – or at least that they will be surrounded by advisors who will provide checks and balances. But when we look at the behaviour of the current British Prime Minister sadly that hope is misplaced. He stumbles from one inept act to another with predictable consistency. He seems unable to get anything right.
David Cameron has the weakest mandate of any of our recent PMs. Like Gordon Brown he did not win an election but, unlike Brown, he has never been elected to high office in any capacity. Cameron is only in office because of a stitch-up with the third party Liberal Democrats which as time passes looks more and more unwise not only from the perspective of the two Parties in the Coalition but, more importantly, from that of the people of Britain. It has been a shambolic Government in which an ideological drive from the Right has been only in small part been tempered by Mr Clegg and his friends. There was no mandate for many of the changes being implemented, especially to our public services, by this Government. Nobody voted for what they are doing to Education, or Healthcare or Welfare. Nobody voted for the measures that have caused austerity and which threaten to deliver a â€œtriple-dipâ€ recession. And Mr Cameron is unpersuasive on the need for all of these changes â€“ other than his platitudinous talk of needing to get to grips with our public debt as a top priority. And heâ€™s comprehensively failing to do this anyway as recent figures show.
But it on Europe that the Prime Minister has failed the most. As with previous Conservative Prime Ministers Cameron has to deal with a substantial rump of Anti-Europeanism in his party. These â€œEuroscepticsâ€ have an ally in the faintly ridiculous â€œUnited Kingdom Independence Partyâ€ (UKIP) who Mr Cameron, accurately, once called “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racistsâ€¦â€. And it is this band of dissidents within and just outside his own Party that the Prime Minister is allowing to dictate policy on Britainâ€™s relationship with Europe. UKIP â€“ a Party without even one seat in the House of Commons and the Tory Eurosceptics who are sworn foes of Cameron, the Coalition and mainstream Conservatism! Talk about the tail wagging the dog! Compare Cameronâ€™s handling of his dissidents with Margaret Thatcherâ€™s handling of hers. Thatcher marginalised the â€œWetsâ€ who criticised her from the Left of her Party and treated them with disdain. If they werenâ€™t â€œone of usâ€ they werenâ€™t anything in her eleven years of Government. Love her or loath her Thatcher was her own woman â€“ and she was a Stateswoman as well. Her recognition that an alliance with Ronald Reagan could bring down the â€œEvil Empireâ€ of the Soviet Union was genuinely Statesmanlike â€“ and despite the occasional anti-Europe bombast in her speeches she was actually quite pragmatic on Britain and Europe and our presence as a full member of the (then) European Community was not really at risk. Tony Blair was also a Statesman. As with Thatcher we might cavil about some of the things he did at home and on the Worldâ€™s stage but his commitment to support the United States on Iraq and Afghanistan was a commitment that was high above the level of Party politics. These commitments were unpopular in his Party, in the Country and with our European partners â€“ but Blair made them and saw them through. Whether we believe he was right or (as I do) that he was very wrong is not important to the argument here about Statesmanship. Even Statesman get it wrong sometimes â€“ but never for want of trying or because they are frit. Even Churchillâ€™s â€œWe shall fight on the beachesâ€ speech in June 1940 had far from universal support in the House of Commons or in his Party.
So what should Cameron have done in respect of Europe and his opponents? Well what Churchill or Thatcher or Blair would have done. Stood up to them not given in. The irony is that Europe isnâ€™t really that big an issue with the population at large. The Right-wing press is fiercely anti-Europe but despite this most of the British people either support Britainâ€™s continued membership of the European Union or donâ€™t know. In the jargon of these times they are â€œMehâ€ about Europe. What they are not â€œMehâ€ about is the economy, the National Health Service, Our Schools, our security and the need for peace not war and agreement not conflict. What Cameron has launched with his EU referendum is a guarantee that over the next few years Europe will be a continued and escalating battleground within not just the body politick in Britain but the nation at large. Something that in these febrile times we could do without.
David Cameronâ€™s weakness is that he plays politics rather than governs. That he is first and foremost a Party politician not a Statesman. He is increasingly becoming a laughing stock at home and abroad and when, as we must hope, he is defeated at the next Election and disappears from the scene he will be a rather grubby and soon forgotten footnote in our Modern History.