Change the Record

Ian Parker read David Cameron’s smug self-serving shite in his For the Record memoirs so you don’t have to.

Every month, David Cameron tells us at the beginning of his memoirs, he offloaded his thoughts about how things were going during his reign as Prime Minister to his advisor, Financial Times journalist Danny, now Baron Finkelstein. Now, as you would expect, this justification for every twist and turn of his rule reads as if it were ghost-written by someone schooled in winning quips on panel shows and in turning a cute turn of phrase.

This makes the memoirs cooked up in the £25,000 Shepherd’s hut in his house in the Cotswolds even more awful than they would otherwise have been, Cameron interspersing thoughts about how well he was doing in this or that negotiation with colleagues he clearly despises with family matters. You will learn that Eton College, at which Cameron was following three generations of forebears, was a place where “you are able to find your own way”. If you want a recommendation “The teaching is first-class”. The book reeks of entitlement. If you disliked him already, this book will have you practically throwing up.

Between school and university Cameron took a year off to work in the House of Commons for his godfather, a Tory MP. At the Oxford Union, he reports seeing “stars like Boris Johnson, already a very funny speaker”, and “masters of debate like Nick Robinson, who would later become political editor at the BBC”, though Cameron omits to mention that Robinson was head of the Conservative Society at Oxford, and has carried on doing the Tories’ dirty work ever since. He cringes at reports of his membership of the Bullingdon Club, but makes it seem like he was a rather reluctant member, and not at all, of course, implicated in the trashing of places and goading of the poor – intimations of austerity – that mark it out as one the network-points of the British establishment. And here is Tony Blair, who will do anything to get into the ruling circles, who was “a different sort of politician”. Blair, we are told, showed a “mixture of charm, intelligence and a touch of star quality”. He was, of course “full of common sense”, the kind of common sense that makes the ideas of the ruling class into the ruling ideas in class society.  

Cameron presents himself as a reasonable and compassionate character, though the material on the embarrassing failure of the ‘big society’ is surprisingly thin, and the book itself gives lie to his supposedly progressive embrace of women politicians, for example. He makes a big play about increasing the number of women MPs, but actually almost all of the conversations reported in the book are with his buddies – some anecdotes about Angela Merkel an exception here. There is barely a mention of Theresa May, instead a condescending silence (and not a hint of George Osborne’s reported comment after she sacked him, that he wouldn’t rest until he had her chopped up in little pieces in his freezer). Cameron’s wife Samantha figures as part of the humanising domestic background. Oh yes, there is report of a brief interaction with Aung San Suu Kyi, saint of the liberal establishment, who doesn’t come over too well. Cameron says that he asked her about the Rohingya in Burma, and she responded by saying “They are Bangladeshis”.

The book is so busy about how nice and even-handed our hero is that it dishes the dirt mainly by damning those who have fallen out with Cameron through faint praise. Michael Gove, for example, comes across very like the two-faced gossip-merchant of radio satire programmes, deciding not to support Cameron when he stood as party leader because, Gove said, he was worried about the toll it would take on David and Samantha’s home lives.

The material on Nick Clegg is more damning still, including the famously-reported discussion the Tory-LibDem coalition government had over student tuition fees. Cameron praises Clegg’s “brand of sensible centrism and personal charism”. George Osborne cautions Clegg about publicly supporting the increase in fees, advising him that it would be better if he voted against, while letting the policy go through. Clegg responds by saying very clearly that he thinks it is a good policy. So much for the glum ‘sorry’ statements after the deed was done.

The LibDems were clearly gagging for coalition well before the Downing Street Rose Garden arrangements, “keen” is the word Cameron uses, and Clegg was willing to sell every progressive promise made to the electorate down the river for a place in government. Cameron politely omits to mention that Jo Swinson was Parliamentary Under-secretary of State for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs, and was an avid supporter of privatisation of the post office.

There are some choice bad-faith remarks about valiant efforts to oppose the Assad regime in Syria, and Cameron’s disappointment that Obama was unwilling to follow through on attempts to remove the butcher of Damascus, and it is amusing to imagine what Putin would say about the naïve well-meaning encounters your man had with the Russian leader. At a first meeting, Cameron tries to impress with a list of cities he has visited, but at the mention of Yalta and Kiev, Putin stops him to say “Yalta and Kiev are no longer part of my country”. The high point of the so-called “Putin-Cameron bond” sees Putin warning his friend that although he might think that he, Putin, doesn’t really believe in democracy “you wouldn’t be entirely wrong”.

There are many points in this book where it is impossible to know what is being accurately reported – with some meretricious reporting of his own tape-recorded thoughts from the actual moment, supposedly to back up this or that claim – or confected to make him look good in hindsight (or redacted, or made up in line with current British state policy). The attempt to bomb Syria first time round, for example, in order, Cameron says to “put Assad’s chemical weapons beyond use”, was backed to the hilt by the LibDems; Nick Clegg “in spite of his insistence on action at the UN”, we are told, “was in fact very keen”.

The book ends, as you would expect, with the Brexit referendum fiasco, something Osborne apparently referred to, when speaking to Cameron, as “your fucking referendum”, but not a shred of guilt at the stupidity of posing the question as in or out. There is much framing of the road to the referendum in terms of what the EU was offering and where it was going, too far towards integration. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for example, is presented as a deal that “could break down many of the barriers to exports and give an unprecedented investment boost to the British economy”. When it comes to the crunch, Cameron clearly expected that he could ride out the referendum with as much success as his defence of the Union in the Scottish referendum. In the one case, to defend the unity of the British state, and in the other to, well, defend the unity of the British state.

We know that gamble didn’t pay off, and there were competing visions of this unity ready to be mobilised by the xenophobes. What we should be clear about, however, is that a Cameron yes to Europe vote would have entailed a strengthening of border controls, and the carving out of stronger national sovereignty. He always wanted Britain to be in the hands of his class as a going concern, and it is this that runs as a bright blue thread through the book. The options it lays out are presented as being nice, but there is an undercurrent of class-hatred running through the thing, one to avoid as holiday-reading if you want to keep your blood pressure low.

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