GE2015 plus 05: prime ministers and the legacy virus

Posted: 12 May 2015 in general election 2015, politics
Tags: , ,

Given how often politicians, and especially Prime Ministers, must think about how they’ll be remembered, it’s somewhat  pleasing to me that they have no choice in the matter. Well, apart from Churchill, but then many unbreakable rules were broken by Winston Spencer Churchill. “History,” as Konrad Adenaur said, “is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided.” Which is a neat way of saying that life – and a political career – is a consecutive and continuous series of “well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.” 

Though as Mark Twain said, “In the real world, the right thing never happens at the right place at the right time; it is the task of journalists and historians to rectify this error.” Not strictly relevant, but I’ve always liked the quote.

Point being that you never know, and nor does a Prime Minister, what your legacy will be, for what you’ll be remembered above and beyond anything else. Certainly not while you’re doing it, and almost as definite, not in the immediate aftermath when you’ve left office.

OK, there are exceptions. Churchill’s the obvious. I’m pretty sure Winston knew for what he would be remembered. After all, he wrote “History will be kind to me, for I shall write it.” But even so, he pretty much knew he’d be remembered for World War II. David Lloyd George possibly hoped he’d be remembered for laying the foundations of the welfare state just as Nye Bevan no doubt fervently wished he’d be remembered for the NHS. 

Lord North, on his deathbed, asked his daughter how history would remember him. The answer, of course, was for losing America.

But all of these politicians have been dead for decades, or centuries in that last case. How will more recent politicians be remembered. I’m sure that Tony Blair, during the Iraq War, didn’t think that conflict would define his premiership. His administration did so much more, much that was genuinely impressive, but it’ll be another 20 years, maybe longer, before his time as Prime Minister isn’t be overshadowed by that. Thatcher? She’s left office in 1990, twenty-five years ago… and there’s a strange bifurcation of views. For a large section of the populace, she’s remembered for destroying the industrial nature of Britain, while for others her maiming of the trade unions and the politics of the left are her legacy.

Heath? Remembered for taking us into Europe, and not much more. Wilson? MacMillan? Callaghan’s legacy was, sadly, the Winter of Discontent. I say sadly because, as I indicated yesterday, I’ve a soft spot for ‘Sunny Jim’; he was the first Prime Minister I actually paid attention to, rather than was merely aware of. And what I saw, I liked. I really should read a biography of him. Gordon Brown? Too soon to say, but my gut feel is that he won’t be remembered as a stunningly good Chancellor but as a bitterly unlucky Prime Minister. Mitch Benn says that Colin Baker wasn’t the worst Doctor Who, merely the unluckiest. I feel the same about Brown.

And so we come to David Cameron. The election we’ve just had, and the days immediately following it have, quite possibly irrevocably, changed my view of him, and also what I think he’ll be remembered for. When Cameron came to office, back in 2010, I felt, like much of the country, I suspect, perfectly willing to give the man time to see what sort of politician he was, what sort of Prime Minister he’d become. I further suspect, however, that what I saw and what I believed about him as time passed varied greatly from what others, including close friends, saw and believed.

Cameron was accused of being ‘the heir to Blair’, and ‘Thatcher’s child’, the former because of his style, the latter because of his policies substance. I never agreed with either. I came to see him as, if he was anyone’s political progeny, the scion of Harold Macmillan: utterly convinced of his rightness to ‘rule’, but with a genuine feeling of noblesse oblige. Hamstrung by the right of the Conservative Party who would never trust him for not winning the 2010 election outright, I thought, and to a lesser extent still think, that it was nothing but political cowardice on his part that stopped him being the Prime Minister he should have been: someone who believed power was his right, that he’d been trained for it, but that power carries responsibilities; to the poor, to the needy, to the ill, to those who need help.

And it was that same cowardice that stopped him sacking incompetent secretaries of state, that stopped him slapping down errant ministers, that stopped him being a Prime Minister of whom it could be said “He did his best for the country as a whole, and you know what? that was good enough for me.”

Strangely, it was the 2015 election – or rather, the result of the 2015 election – that gave him strength instead of weakness. In the hours after it became clear he’d won an outright majority, he could – and should – have fired the entire Cabinet and appointed, possibly rarely reappointing – the Cabinet he really wanted, one not bound by either wing of the party. Never would his personal authority be greater. Never again would he have the power to do what he wanted, how he wanted and the moral authority to appoint who the hell he wanted.

And he blew it. He blew it to an extent that as I say, I have to revisit my views of the man himself. I mentioned previously that character didn’t end up playing anywhere near as big a part in the election campaign as predicted. At the time, I wasn’t that sorry; elections should be about policy, not personality. But I think I was wrong. (Hey, look at that, something else about which I was wrong.) For David Cameron’s actions show that one of three things has happened since the election:

  1. He really doesn’t think he’s got the authority in the party that he really has;
  2. He’s already planning his exit strategy and he’s just keeping the seat warm for his successor; or
  3. He really is a heartless bastard who doesn’t give a shit about the poor, the needy and the distressed.

If it’s 1. above, then he’s genuinely not understood the process and consequences of being re-elected, and I despair.

If it’s 2. above, then it’s obvious that he doesn’t think he’ll get a deal on EU renegotiation and all he’s doing is setting up the leadership battle for 2018.

And if it’s 3., above, well, coming back to the theme, his legacy won’t be supervising the economic recovery or equal marriage, it’ll be as a Prime Minister that did his best through negligence to destroy the fabric of our British society. And, sadly, his best will be good enough. 

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