I thought I had longer to write this – that’s why it is a little late. But politics moves too quickly for all of us these days. Last Monday morning David Cameron believed he had another two months as British Prime Minister; in fact he had barely two days. It seems unlikely he will be remembered fondly – with defeat in the EU referendum leaving the bitterest of tastes. Yet I’ve been defending Cameron from the left for some time, and I still maintain that his administration will seem liberal and caring compared to what is likely to follow. For that reason, I want to provide a more positive eulogy for Cameron’s premiership, and to draw attention to some achievements that perhaps deserve more credit.
Before that, though, I have to admit that on the biggest questions, I think Cameron got it wrong. The greatest single project of his administration was austerity, which was wrongheaded fiscal policy, and failed on its own terms. The decision to hold a referendum on the EU was a gamble that went wrong, and probably and unnecessary one (though not as obviously unnecessary as some people seem to think). His government’s NHS reforms have been a costly distraction, and universal credit a fiasco. Immigration policy has been a cruel failure.
Having made such damning criticisms against Cameron, it might seem odd that I am defending him. My argument is that these policy failures are attributable to the mainstream Conservative party or specific ministers, and would likely have occurred without him. By contrast, a number of positive government actions can be linked specifically to Cameron.
To begin with, I believe Cameron deserves substantial credit for the maturity with which he handled two of the major constitutional challenges he faced in his term of office (the third, the EU referendum was, of course, his undoing). The 2010 General Election produced the first hung parliament in a generation, and in turn significant confusion. Cameron’s Conservatives, in particular, had expressed significant alarm at the prospect in the election campaign. And yet, when it came to the event, most accounts suggest that Cameron was very quick to adjust to the new reality, and immediately keen to make the deals necessary to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats. By contrast, some have suggested that Labour were reticent and obstructive. Cameron also deserves credit for his handling of the Scottish National Party’s push for independence following their victory in the 2011 Scottish Parliamentary elections. Cameron could have responded as Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy did to the Catalan government’s plans to hold an independence referendum: stubbornly dig in and refuse to grant it any legitimacy. But instead he recognised that the democratic approach was to allow Scotland a full and open debate, and he rightly cleared the route for independence if that had been the will of the people. He did not need to make it so easy, but in my view it was the right thing to do.
The major policy success that Cameron has been credited with in the past week is legalising gay marriage. This is rightly celebrated, and Cameron took a lot of flak from his support base, but it may well be another area where policy would have taken the same direction without him – social attitudes seem to have been moving in that direction regardless of the politicians. Instead, in my view, Cameron’s greatest achievement is his legislative commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on foreign aid. Given the immense potential for good from aid (especially with a relatively effective disbursing agency like the UK’s Department for International Development), this is one of the PM’s strongest levers to achieve good in the world. Cameron used it well, even though maintaining spending abroad has been unpopular in some quarters in a time of government austerity. It was a brave and moral decision, and one that appears to have been driven by Cameron himself. It remains to be seen whether his successors will be so politically courageous.
Elsewhere, many of Cameron’s projects were little noticed, but valuable nonetheless, and may ensure him a legacy in some unexpected places. He has built a number of institutions that ensure that the UK is at the vanguard of the translation of social science into policy. Most notably, for those who believe in the incredible potential of behavioural economics, Cameron’s support of the Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the ‘nudge unit’) ought to be lauded – it remains world-leading. Wellbeing economics and alternative measures of national welfare to GDP are less developed, but under Cameron’s guidance, the British Office for National Statistics is one of the first in the world to track personal well-being. While this has yet to influence policy directly, it is encouraging that the infrastructure is in place. Behavioural science has helped shape initiatives such as the National Citizen Service (NCS), a programme with cross-party support, which encourages 16-17 year olds to volunteer and develop social and personal skills. Evaluations suggest that NCS boosts participants’ confidence and resilience, aspirations, teamworking and communication skills, social trust and support for social mixing. In a time when austerity is cutting so many other social supports, it might be debatable whether protecting NCS is an optimal use of government money. Nevertheless, it offers a beguiling view of what Cameron’s ill-fated ‘big society’ could have been.
Cameron’s most exciting legacy might be a set of bodies you’ve never heard of – I hadn’t until earlier this year – the ‘What Works network’. Their purpose is so simple and yet so valuable that it is extraordinary that it took so long for them to emerge. These groups evaluate and summarise the available evidence on different interventions to support the decision making of public servants in areas such as education, policing, local economic development and elderly care. The model is the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) which for years has recommended which drugs and treatments and sufficiently cost-effective as to be offered on the National Health Service. In a similar vein, the Educational Endowment Foundation consults with headteachers and can advise them on questions like whether it is better to spend money on smaller class sizes or better equipment.
Cameron got a lot of things wrong, but also handled the constitutional challenges of a hung parliament and Scottish independence movement well. He fought off the Tory right to introduce gay marriage and increase foreign aid. He introduced a number of institutions that will hopefully short-circuit the gap from social science to policy and practice. We ought to cherish his achievements – and be wary, for his successors may not match them.