In the wake of Brexit, Tom Harper looks to history for comparisons.
David Cameron probably doesn’t deserve to be impaled on a red-hot poker. But it wouldn’t be unprecedented.
Trying to digest the enormity of the Brexit vote, I’ve been looking to history for comparisons. To be clear: I think it’s a catastrophe. Leave aside, for now, the economic, social and political arguments. It’s the sheer bloody incompetence that really gets me. For centuries, the most basic duty of every British government has been to ensure a balance of power in Europe, and to maintain the territorial integrity of the nation at home. Now we’ve stormed out of the European playground, and we’re looking at the breakup of the United Kingdom. Scotland seems likely to hold and win another independence referendum; Northern Ireland may sink into the arms of the Republic; Gibraltar will retire to Spain. And all because one man didn’t have the courage to face down the fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists among his own backbenchers.
So how far back do you have to go to find a British leader as monumentally, destructively incompetent as David Cameron?
Way beyond the twentieth century. For foreign policy disasters in the last hundred years, the two names that stand out from the pack are Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden (another Old Etonian). Cameron makes them look good by comparison. Eden gave us the Suez Crisis, which was humiliating, but it didn’t fundamentally change anything: it was simply the moment the world saw that the British Empire had no clothes (because America stole them). And while appeasing Hitler turned out to be a career limiting move, even Chamberlain’s harshest critics would struggle to claim he could have stopped World War 2.
Our nineteenth century prime ministers presided over some unsavoury foreign adventures, but they were pretty shrewd when it came to protecting the national interest. For a real geopolitical balls-up, and the last time Britain needlessly lost a sizeable chunk of territory, go to the American Revolution. I’ll declare George III innocent by reason of insanity, but what about his prime minister, Lord North (1770-1782)? Yet another Old Etonian (spotting a pattern?), he was a little too fond of chillaxing as a crisis brewed. His response to growing problems with America was the Intolerable Acts, a sort of proto-austerity program which notably failed to convince Americans that we were all in this together. As well as America, North’s diplomacy was so inept that at one point Britain was fighting wars on four continents with not a single ally. Half of Europe was fighting us, while the other half was trying to lock us out of continental markets. Sound familiar?
Further back, in an age before prime ministers, there was plenty of incompetence, but the penalties for failure were higher. In a sort of reverse-Brexit, James II ruled for three years and made himself so unpopular that his subjects didn’t lift a finger when the Eurocrat Prince William of Orange came over and took control in 1688. James’s father, Charles I, went one better. Arrogant, too confident in his own abilities, he divided his kingdom and started a civil war, though he paid for it with his head. Worse than Cameron? If predictions of the economic pain to come are right, eleven years of rule by Puritans might seem like the better outcome. Plus, with the country now divided 52%-48%, it’s not entirely clear that a civil war won’t be yet another of Cameron’s legacies.
Other kings lost territory, but it tended to be overseas. King John, who looms large on any list of Bad Kings, ceded vast swathes of France that belonged to the English monarch, but he wins points for bequeathing us Magna Carta. Plus, we did get some of those lands back, before Henry VI lost them all over again at the end of the Hundred Years War. That left us clinging on to Calais (‘the brightest jewel in the English crown’), until that went too in 1558. Mary Tudor felt it so keenly she said you’d find ‘Calais’ inscribed on her heart if you cut her open when she died. I don’t foresee a post-mortem on David Cameron finding ‘Sangatte refugee camp’ tattooed on his left ventricle.
There’s plenty of precedent for our rulers taking against an unelected pan-European bureaucracy with the power to legislate into the deepest corners of English life. Kings had been squabbling with the papacy for centuries, before Henry VIII got so frustrated that he Brexited the Catholic Church, annoying half of Europe in the process. But at least he was guided by someone who knew what he was doing, the most Machiavellian mastermind in British history. If Thomas Cromwell had been advising David Cameron, it’s fair to say that right now Sky News would be showing Nigel Farage’s severed head mounted on a spike outside the Tower of London. Ponder that.
For me, to really plumb the depths of David Cameron’s ignominy, you have to go back to Edward II. He stuck by his favourites long past their sell-by date (think: Andy Coulson). He had counsellors he hated foisted on him by Parliament (think: Liberal Democrats). He alienated half the kingdom through his divisive policies, favouring his cronies and impoverishing everyone else. He picked a fight with France over sovereignty, and tried to get immigration down by ordering every Frenchman in England to be arrested. He lost Scotland at the battle of Bannockburn. As the Articles of Accusation against him put it in 1327, Edward was, ‘incompetent to govern’; he had ‘stripped his realm, and done all that he could to ruin it… By his lack of character, he has shown himself incorrigible, without hope of amendment.’
Incompetent to govern??? Do you have any idea how useless a king had to be to get sacked for incompetence in the middle ages? It was the ultimate job for life. The divine right of kings meant it was technically impossible for a monarch to resign, or be deposed – God was the ultimate employment right – but for Edward, the nation made an exception. He abdicated (under duress, with his barons playing the part of the ‘men in grey suits’), and was locked away in Berkeley castle, while his former counsellor Roger Mortimer helped himself to the kingdom and the queen. Finally, as every Old Etonian schoolboy knows, Edward was murdered by having a burning spit ‘hit into his fundament as deep as they might… and oftentimes rolled around within his bowels.’
(actually, most historians claimed it didn’t happen like that. But I think we can all agree with Michael Gove that we’ve had enough of so-called ‘experts’ ruining our fun with their so-called ‘facts’.)
I don’t want to labour the analogy. It’s unlikely that Samantha Cameron will flee to the Elysée Palace in Paris, start a scandalous affair with Ken Clarke, and return to depose her husband at the head of an army captained by Jean-Claude Juncker. For better or worse, history doesn’t repeat itself quite like that. David Cameron’s probably saved his arse.
But really, would it be that different to what he’s just done to us?
- Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister 1937 – 1940
- Lord North, Prime Minister 1770 – 1782
- King Charles I, ruled 1625 – 1649
- Edward II, ruled 1307 – 1327