This last week has felt terribly strange. It was – at least in domestic terms – the first time in my politically aware life that things have seemed tremendously, dreadfully significant. I have lived through many wars and revolutions in foreign countries (and I have followed many of them with interest), but the current chaos overtaking Britain’s political system seems different again; it is both less severe and in a way worse, not least because it is entirely self-inflicted. Ministers have resigned; shadow ministers have been fired; and every political party (with a few exceptions) now faces real internal turmoil. This is not the stuff of stable government; it is not the ideal breeding ground for a generation of sensible, pragmatic leaders and statesmen.
Amid this febrile atmosphere lies a small but remarkable personal realisation: I will now have to revise my entire theory of events. Something, after all, has actually happened. I had until now become used to nothing of real importance occurring – at least in Britain. It seems to me that we lived, until Friday morning, in an age of glorious stasis. The country was governed (with varying degrees of success), but simply nothing changed. Outside Britain things did change, of course; but largely these did not, due in part to our innate unwillingness to let the outside world affect our own fortunes, seem to matter. And these events did not seem to have parallel or corresponding incidents within these islands.
In Britain there was great continuity, as a long-term Labour government fell from power after an extended period which seemed to signal the inevitability of that outcome. afterwards an apparently fragile coalition government formed, did not break up, and was eventually supplanted by a Conservative ministry comprising many of its principal figures. Things did not fall apart; despite some riots and strikes and all the rest – which felt, even when London was burning in August 2011, like a species of mildly interesting background noise and not the catalyst to anything greater and more significant – it simply seemed that the contemporary would become the perpetual. Glass did not shatter.
David Cameron, meanwhile, glided through our politics serenely, never appearing to put a great deal of effort into anything. He (just) won the general election of 2010; he scraped an unexpected majority in 2015; and all the while he endured threats to the status quo from Scotland’s nationalists, and in the form of a referendum on the essential characteristics of our democratic system, with surprising calm and fortitude. Untouched by such things as events, he simply sailed on. But that seemingly effortless success – the product of (if one permits a cliché) a charmed life – has come to an end; and it is an abrupt one.
On an issue of Cameron’s own choosing, the forces of the radical right – in Ukip effectively (or at least apparently) banished to electoral oblivion in 2015 – have come storming back. Perhaps ironically, where Cameron was once considered the most successful British conservative in decades, that mantle could well be bestowed upon Nigel Farage, a fringe figure who was – or so it was thought – to all intents and purposes vanquished by the Prime Minister at the last election. The radical right (with the assistance of their more liberal opportunist allies) have forced Britain’s exit from a trading operation and a political bloc which once bestrode the continent but which is now unlikely to outlast this decade – at least in its current form.
In the process they have, like it or not, handed a tremendous victory to those who see themselves as the custodians of the Iranian revolution and to the forces of Russian imperialism, splitting a continent on political and moral terms and making mechanisms such as those regarding international sanctions considerably less effective – and also less likely, in sum, to have the desired effect. They have emboldened their counterparts and would-be imitators across Europe – Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and populists of all stripes in countries such as Italy, Greece, Austria, and even the United States. The geopolitical effects of such an event are profound, and they are also almost entirely unknown.
And the man who, perhaps in a fit of true complacency, decided to create the situation in which this could happen – and thereby seal his own resignation – in early 2015 now has a few months left of power in Britain, a few mere weeks before the entire edifice of his apparent success, the entire system of stasis he designed and seemed to pioneer, collapses around him.
Alex Massie writes in Foreign Policy that Cameron is now the least successful Prime Minister in living memory; he concludes that all of his work has been undone by this frivolous and ultimately destructive electoral contest. Who will remember the skilful electoral victory, the first his party has won in decades? Who will remember his modernisation, his advocacy of positions many Conservatives would have died in the last ditch to oppose at the time of his election as party leader? Who will remember his de facto victory in the argument over the necessity of austerity, which the nation had decided to tolerate, and the value of such things as international aid? No longer is David Cameron a new Macmillan, heir to the grand old tradition of competent Tory government. He is not on his way to an assured (if brief) entry in the chronicle of our time. He is alone, unsuccessful, and he has only himself to blame.
I do not necessarily agree with every implication of this judgement; the referendum was won and lost by more than the Prime Minister and on the watch of a far larger number of people than it may be convenient to remember. The Labour Party will now, it seems, take this as an opportunity to tear itself apart. Such is its wont. The Conservative Party will probably do likewise, and emerge headed by an opportunist whose most recently expressed opinions that were not insincere praise Syria’s murderous dictator. But this result is a shattering blow in particular for David Cameron the man and, I would argue, in some small way, for us all.