The Right Thing to Do?

Review – For the Record by David Cameron

The premiership of David Cameron was dominated by stories of radicalisation, be it political or religious. While he was prime minister of the United Kingdom, Cameron did not experience an emblematic terrorist attack or series of outrages by jihadists, unlike his predecessor Tony Blair and successor Theresa May; but his term in office did see the rise and apogee of the Islamic State, the debate about British Muslims who travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight in those countries’ wars, and more of the perpetual debates Western societies have about radical religion and radical politics, far-right and far-left, immigration and the suitability of various divergent cultural practices.

It is a little strange that these subjects receive such little incisive discussion, in favour of mentions – amid a general look at Cameron’s life and times, and rather a lot about the European Union, and Britain’s rapidly diverging place within it.

In office, Cameron also attempted to formulate a foreign and domestic policy doctrine – which he called an ‘active, muscular liberalism’ – that held that Britain and other states could be a welcoming home for all, but that security for the many was guaranteed by a stronger, more assertive sense of the home nation’s values. It called for a real sense of national identity, a foreign policy which was not timid or complacent, and the adoption of overlapping identities, instead of sectarian or hyphenated ones.

Cameron put it rather well in a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2011.

‘A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, “as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone”, Cameron said. ‘It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.’ An active, muscular liberal society maintains that ‘to belong here is to believe in these things’.

The things Cameron chose to highlight then were familiar: ‘Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law, equal rights regardless of race, sex or sexuality.’ But notably, Cameron endorsed a more direct approach to identity, with the national or local idea at its core. ‘Yes, I am a Muslim, I am a Hindu, I am Christian, but I am also a Londoner or a Berliner, too’, his imaginary proponents said of themselves. ‘It’s that identity’, he said which could create ‘that feeling of belonging in our countries’.

All this was to be surrounded by defence spending sufficient to protect the nation; by an attempt to undermine the radical ideologies which drove many to extremism and violence; and the willingness to fight terrorist groups and radical elements directly.

Cameron’s belief in various parts of this doctrine is clear; they percolate through his memoirs. But they are never joined up. His doctrine is never seen to have been put into, and to have worked in, practice.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt

One object example is the question of the Muslim Brotherhood. Cameron approaches the subject with studied detachment. He notes its origins, its handle on the political forces which he dealt with in Palestine, in Turkey and in Egypt with the rise and election of Muhammad Morsi. Cameron explains that Britain’s position vis-a-vis the Brotherhood was muddled and inconsistent. Some civil servants wanted nothing to do with the Brothers. Others suggested that dealing with them was a necessity, even a preferable choice, in a world in which one of their adherents held elected executive power in Egypt. Meanwhile, the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates repeatedly told Cameron that the Brothers were a pernicious influence, and a root of evil theology worth uprooting wholesale.

Like any good, disinterested manager, Cameron commissioned a report, from John Jenkins, ‘our distinguished former ambassador to Saudi Arabia’, and Charles Farr of the Home Office. The report decided that the Brotherhood, rather than being a partner in waiting, was not at all nice – that it did not embrace the same ‘values’ as Britain and the report’s authors. Cameron, like any good manager, accepted without emendation the report and its recommendations, and decided to act on them. He did this not actively or muscularly, but rather by continuing to refuse visa applications from Muslim Brotherhood figures.

After Morsi’s election to high office, there is no further mention of Egypt. Cameron does not discuss Morsi’s deposition, or his successor. He does not have a position on Abdel Fattah el-Sisi – his rise to power, his conduct in office, or whether Sisi’s Egypt is a partner which shares Cameron’s and Britain’s values. Cameron’s consideration of Egypt is neither muscular nor liberal, and his handling of the Muslim Brotherhood, in this telling or in practice, barely registers as ‘active’.

Libya and Syria

On Libya and Syria, Cameron gives himself over to regret. In describing both states, Cameron hints at some of the immense moral pressure he must have felt in deciding whether or not to act. He notes the effect the protesters had on him and on those who saw them take to the streets. Their youth and optimism, their vulnerability, and their willingness to risk injury and death – all had a clear effect on Cameron. He also noted that, after the Arab revolutions began, a return to the previous state of affairs was ‘no longer tenable’. The question then was whether to consider events from afar, or to influence them.

He documents the extreme violence Libyans and Syrians faced from their states and justifies his efforts to counteract both. On Libya, Cameron succeeded, with Britain joining the coalition which assisted Libya’s rebels in deposing Muammar Gaddafi.

Cameron succeeded not only in defeating Gaddafi, but also keeping his party and coalition government together. Throughout his discussion of Libya, he notes to complexity of carrying his political allies and opponents towards the result he desired. He notes the unwillingness of many to act, their scepticism that action could work, and the hostility, on all sides, to any action against Gaddafi which included the deployment of British ‘boots on the ground’.

Cameron relates that he succeeded in removing Gaddafi with the limitations he desired; ‘there would be no British boots on the ground’, he writes – and justifies this limit on action because no one wanted it, not in Britain, not in Libya. This is a success of Cameron’s, to his own mind.

In dealing with Libya’s revolution, Cameron may have considered his limited strategy a success. But in the case of Syria, he and it failed, with consequences the world still sees, and has to bear.

Cameron’s policy in 2013 was punishment, incurred after the regime committed a massacre in Ghouta with the use of chemical weapons. He sought to ally with the United States and France to punish the Assad regime for its outrages, but was defeated – by the deception of the leader of the opposition, it can only be argued – in the Commons. Cameron declined to press his case further. He declared he would respect the view of the house on a vote he had unnecessarily called. Doing so gave the American president reason enough to think again. And the regime continued to slaughter and to advance – aided by crimes chemical and conventional. The result of that policy lies before us. And so do hundreds of thousands of dead.

Cameron’s crime is not in his intentions but his lack of action. His policy was active until it was not, right until it faced opposition, and muscular only until it met resistance. Cameron describes retroactively what he tried and failed to do. He makes clear his regret for the course of action his country followed, and laments the eight years of hell Syria and its people have had to bear. But this is a clever recapitulation, with slight condemnation for those whose deceit laid obstacles in his path. A well intentioned action undone by the reaction of others; a job undone; a great crime unaverted.

The Islamic State

ISIS represented to this prime minister a partial opportunity to readdress Syria and Iraq. During Cameron’s term, he advocated strongly for action to prevent the Islamic State overrunning both countries, and fought ISIS in the limited ways the United Kingdom was capable of doing. He authorised some measures to prevent the further radicalisation of those who were liable to join the Islamic State, and authorised, at a slight remove, military action against ISIS – first in Iraq, then in Syria. Strangely, despite the abhorrence with which the British public viewed ISIS, and the Islamic State’s position as an easy enemy – the epitome of jihadist violence and attempted religious tyranny – he had to do so in the teeth of some in parliament and throughout the country.

Cameron does enough – just – to justify his own actions and to demonstrate, by example, the weakness of the counterarguments. He acknowledges the ghosts of Iraq, and the ghost – interpreted in various differing shades – of Syria’s war. But he does not truly come to terms with the depths of the opposition conventional British policy faced after its heyday in the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century. All this despite Syria – the rock against which his good intentions thrashed – proving an object case in point.

For all Cameron writes about working to defeat ISIS globally, in coalition with half the world, with the active use of military force on his own terms – he does not truly contend with the extent to which this perfect enemy is the exception that proves the rule. British policy is now less active, less muscular, less truly engaged with fighting tyrants and theocrats than any time since the post-war settlement, from which many theorists effectively began counting.

The fight against ISIS, and its eventual defeat, are proof for Cameron of the rightness of his cause and the essential justice in active military policy, properly deployed for moralistic reasons. But instead, defending minorities faced with genocide, and populations faced with slavery, now appears a minority pursuit, steeped in cynical unpopularity, unlikely ever again to meet with serious public support absent a tremendous change in popular perception. Whatever Cameron believes these cases demonstrated the rightness of his approach, in fact the opposite is true. ISIS was fought less because it was the right thing to do than because it was close to the only thing to do. It was not an active, muscular choice, but the default – the standard against which every other challenge to dignity and peace may soon be measured against, and found lacking.

That this is not acknowledged in Cameron’s book – a readable summary of his public rationales and occasional private thoughts – is not a surprise. This was not a tell all, nor a truly intimate portrait of time in power. But the fact that it does not merit consideration is a concern. Perhaps in this exercise in looking back, Cameron is content to present as shallow an interpretation of the main crises and moral tests of his time in office as the type of image-driven politics he was accused of practising.


In his premiership and, later, in his accounting of it for his memoirs, David Cameron made and continues to make frequent use of the phrase ‘the right thing to do’. It serves a number of purposes. It associates Cameron with the good, for one. And it is a statement of how convinced he is of his position, of the sort most politicians give, yet somehow, it is also something more.  If one phrase can be said to encapsulate both how Cameron approached government and how he explained himself, this is it. It combines almost flippant self-assurance and real morality; power not only sought because the holder would be ‘good at [using] it’, but also for a moral purpose.

But as good as this phrase is for indicating a certain moral judgement that one often saw lurking in the background of Cameron’s policy, it does not account for the sea change which caused him to leave office, and which has only solidified since. His direct successor trumpeted the ‘national interest’; her successor first the need to get things done, and then, when faced with an unparalleled crisis in public health, a more determined desire to do ‘whatever it takes’ to save lives.

Both look less to doing what is right than doing what is necessary. And this is a greater change than many – especially Cameron – appear to realise. Its fruits will soon be before us, operating in a very different world to the one Cameron thought he would continue to shape after the moment in June 2016 which provided the summative point of his political career and, certainly so far as his memoir shows, the spur for much of his capacity for reflection.

This piece was originally published at Correspondence, a new journal.

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