by Sophie Taylor
David Cameron was elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom in 2010, when his Conservative Party formed a coalition government with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrat Party. In 2015, he made history, securing the first Conservative majority Government in the UK for over 2 decades. Cameron arrived at Downing Street one of the youngest Prime Ministers in British history, full of hopeful promises that would pull Britain back from the brink of recessions. However, the bleakness of his legacy does not reflect the man who first came to power. In 2010, no one could have predicted the calamity of his government years or the disaster of its end. Perhaps, however, it is time to try and comprehend what went so wrong. Cameron may have been a Conservative politician, but his coalition with the Liberal Democrats placed his government at the centre of politics. Six years on, Britain, and many Western countries, are under far more right-wing leadership. Could this in part come down to Cameron’s legacy and his inability to please either side of the political spectrum?
During the 2015 election campaign, Cameron may have won mainly because he was the only politician who promised to carry out a referendum so that the people of Britain could decide whether or not Britain should continue its EU membership. Following his majority victory, he called for the Referendum to take place on June 23, 2016, and set in motion the referendum campaign. Cameron stood very firmly in the ‘Remain’ camp, which in itself felt strange considering he called the referendum in the first place. Yet, he was largely alone in his party on this issue. Although he announced that the Conservative position was ‘Stronger In’, a number of key party members, including the then Mayor of London Boris Johnson, deviated from their party and supported the ‘Leave’ campaign.
The campaign itself was a shambles on all fronts for Cameron, a shambles which culminated with the Brexit vote on June 23.
On the 24th, defeated and humiliated, Cameron stood outside Number 10 Downing Street and resigned from office: his time as leader of the United Kingdom over, and his reputation in tatters. Perhaps this would have been less damning had he not already promised not to resign whatever the result, but as it was the Brexit fiasco had him branded as a loser and a coward: a man willing to lead his country into what he believed to be catastrophe, then leave it to crash and burn. It seems almost sad that 6 years of leadership are now defined by all Brits purely around Brexit, but that is how legacies, at least in the short term, seem to work. Now, Cameron seems to be cashing in on his expertise on Brexit despite rules against drawing on ‘privileged information’ learned during office for commercial activities.
Cameron Beyond Brexit
Even with Brexit aside, Cameron wasn’t without scandal. The most memorable of these scandals, while it impacted the referendum, had very little to do with politics. In September 2015, a story now dubbed ‘Piggate’ (think Pig-Gate) broke across all British newspapers, when it was revealed by a former university contemporary of Cameron’s spilled an account which alleged that, as part of an initiation ceremony into Oxford University’s Piers Gaveston Society, Cameron put a “private part of his anatomy” into the mouth of a dead pig. Cameron himself denied the accusation (a week following the ‘news’ breaking), but the press it received was enough to permanently tarnish any man’s, let alone the leader of the country, reputation.
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It was certainly an unfortunate accusation, especially considering it came around during the Referendum campaigns. The accusation shifted the debate away from politics and the economy towards the personal in-fighting between politicians which ultimately defined the end of the debate. Even if the story was untrue, whether in whole or in part, how would the public ever take him seriously again with that image in mind? In many ways, too, it damaged not only his personal reputation but that of his entire party; the incident highlighted beyond doubt how far removed many Conservative politicians are from the lives of ‘everyday’ people and the elitist circles their members come from.
Not many men could come back from #Piggate, #snoutrage or even #hameron unscathed, and Cameron certainly never did.
However, even if we look toward Cameron’s policies, the things politicians should be defined by, Cameron doesn’t seem to fare any better. In health care and education more than anywhere else, Cameron failed to deliver on his own election promises and to even keep them running stably.
NHS in Crisis
If there is one institution the British are inherently proud of, it’s the National Health Service (NHS). We pride ourselves on our accessible health care, sitting outraged at even the thought of having to pay to have your life saved. But under David Cameron, cracks began to show in the NHS like they had never been seen before. Despite his 2015 manifesto promising to create a 7-day NHS service for all and increase the funding going to the health service, Cameron’s leadership forced the NHS into a crisis. Strikes occurred on all sides and junior doctors took the worst of the fallout over pay disputes as contracts were changed without consideration for or consultation with unions.
With thousands of operations cancelled and disruption nationwide, the strikes seemed bad enough. But this wasn’t even the end of the problems. The so-called ‘7-day NHS’ – the program intended to provide a full NHS service every day of the week, instead of the reduced weekend service which is currently in place – never appeared. The system remained unchanged despite the intense disruptions; jobs were cut in an attempt to redirect funding because that promise went down the drain; and increasing sections of the NHS were privatised against the will of most of the population. Amidst all of that, Cameron stuck by the one man who was hated most in the whole crisis: Jeremy Hunt. It is possible that the situation could have been salvaged had Cameron called for Hunt’s resignation or even just appointed someone else to try and achieve something. But he didn’t. Hunt, and by association Cameron and his government, became hated by the entire medical profession and the population they serve.
Theresa May has been left with an NHS at breaking point, undoubtedly due to David Cameron’s incapabilities to sort out and reform the system to one that would function properly in the 21st century.
Failure in Lesson-Learning
What makes the health fiasco seem even worse, however, is the parallels that seem to run alongside it in the Department of Education. Cameron appointed Michael Gove to head up the Department of Education, a man only slightly less hated by the end of Cameron’s leadership than Jeremy Hunt. Like most leaders, Cameron had plans to ‘reform’ the school system, to improve the teaching of ‘British values’, to stamp out radicalism from schools, to do things that actually seemed to have no basis. The curriculum was changed dramatically: all non-British works removed from the English Literature curriculum, for example. Teachers became even more stretched as assessment methods changed, and decades of teaching material suddenly became irrelevant and needed re-writing. The education system, like it’s health counterpart, became plagued by strikes, as Cameron’s plans to make every school an academy (as in, schools still got government funding but were to be run by independent trusts instead of direct governmental control) caused backlash at teachers who suddenly saw their jobs and livelihoods threatened. Cameron’s legacy regarding education will always be one of great change, perhaps even great changes that he is proud of and feels like they are achievements. But in the current climate they are not what people are looking for.
Foreign Policy Divides
David Cameron did not face an easy global situation. Following the 2011 Arab Spring, Western powers have increasingly come into conflict with the growing strength of the so-called Islamic State, and Cameron’s leadership of Britain under these circumstances caused considerable levels of conflict. The most controversial of his leadership came when the Commons voted on whether or not Britain should part-take in the bombing in Syria on Dec. 2, 2015. The debate lasted an entire day, with protests going on up and down the country in the weeks preceding the vote, a nation divided on the best course of action. In the end, the vote was passed opposing the bombings. Interestingly, former secretary of state John Kerry said that the Obama administration’s decision not to intervene in Syria by enforcing the ‘red line’ was influenced by Cameron’s effort to seek approval: “I got a call Friday night, we met Saturday morning and the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval and that was the way we’d do something like that.”
Now, with the Syria crisis escalating, both governments may look back at this decision regretfully.
David Cameron was, indeed, an interesting figure. He inherited a United Kingdom on the brink. Labour policies of the noughties had almost destroyed Britain’s entire economy and we were still reeling in many ways from the tragedy of the 7/7 terror attacks. His controversial taxation policies disrupted and angered the nation, but the economy seems, thanks to him, to be back on track. London has not seen the same level of terror since 7/7, a testament to the work and commitment of the secret services under his leadership. Yet these positives will not be what define his term in office. David Cameron, in comparison to Theresa May and Donald Trump, seems like somewhat of a wet-blanket who was walked all over and immensely disliked. The Brexit fall-out may be May’s to deal with, but it is what defines Cameron’s legacy as a man who achieved very little of what he actually set out to do, a man who let his country down.
Sophie Taylor is a student from London, hoping to major in Modern History at the University of St. Andrews.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken by the U.K. Department for International Development, is under a CC BY-2.0 license, and can be found here.