David Cameron’s legacy: the historians’ verdict

Risk-taker, pragmatist, placater – or all of the above? Six leading historians assess Cameron’s aims, achievements and failures as prime minister

Ian Kershaw

Ian Kershaw: ‘It ended in disastrous failure’

David Cameron came into office at a difficult time, in the aftermath of the financial crash. He left at another difficult time, immediately after Brexit. In the intervening six years his record was patchy. Far more was promised than was achieved.

Nothing came of the “big society”, a largely empty slogan that quietly disappeared. His government imposed the bedroom tax, which penalised people at the bottom of the pile while doing little to erase large-scale tax evasion by the rich and by big corporate enterprises. The economy was stabilised, but ordinary people paid most of the price in deteriorating public services. For all the talk of “we are all in it together”, the sense of “us and them” grew, along with the widening disparity of wealth. Britain became a more divided, more embittered nation on his watch.

He represented Britain effectively for the most part on the international stage, though intervention in Libya left that country in a lasting and dangerous mess. He was a highly articulate speaker, and often a generous-spirited one, both inside and out of parliament. He seemed instinctively to be a one-nation Tory, yet weakened himself from beginning to end by trying vainly to placate the Conservative party’s radical and europhobic right wing. His balancing act left him as little more than a pragmatic party manager who gave little clear idea of what he wanted to do with power other than to possess it.

David Cameron driving a dog sled in Svalbard, Norway in 2006
David Cameron driving a dog sled in Svalbard, Norway in 2006. Photograph: Andrew Parsons/PA

Whatever the pros and cons of his premiership, it ended in disastrous failure. Like Tony Blair, on whom he often seemed to model himself, his legacy will be summed up in one word. For Blair it was “Iraq”. For Cameron it is “Europe”. He entered into an unnecessary referendum to appease his europhobic right and, in so doing, paved the way for personal failure and, most likely, lasting damage for the country he claims to love so much. Having lost Britain a leading role in the EU, a consequence of Brexit may ultimately be to break up the nation’s union, which has lasted for over three centuries. That would amount to some legacy.

Prof Ian Kershaw’s most recent book is To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 (Penguin, £12.99)

Selina Todd

Selina Todd: ‘The referendum confirmed that he is inept in a crisis’

David Cameron has been extremely successful in delivering one of the unstated but important objectives of Tory prime ministers: he has kept wealth in the hands of the few. He brings to mind Stanley Baldwin, the Tory politician who dominated interwar government. Baldwin, like Cameron pre-Brexit, benefited from a positive public image that associated him with pipe smoking (chillaxing, 1930s style) and a quiet, rural life. In reality, he championed a punitive means test for the unemployed and provoked the 1926 general strike, in which he used troops against workers.

Like Baldwin, Cameron has been lauded for his own positive press, but that takes no effort for Tories – press barons aspire to peerages, a lot of journalists are conservative and Cameron had no principles about which hacks he supped Pimm’s with.

History is unlikely to judge Cameron’s economic mismanagement as generously as the media. He made the crisis of 2007-08 worse by encouraging financial speculation, failing to regulate the housing market and privatising large swathes of the public sector at huge cost to the taxpayer.

David Cameron speaks to British forces at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in June 2011
Cameron speaks to British forces at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province in Afghanistan in June 2011. Photograph: Reuters

He claims gay marriage as a major achievement, but he needed opposition votes to enact this, and a prime minister who told a female MP to “calm down, dear” is no champion of civil rights.

Of course, Cameron will be remembered for breaking up the UK, and for Brexit. But whether history will judge him particularly harshly for either is moot. Scotland’s independence movement is a response to the gross economic and regional inequalities fostered by the Thatcher government. History will judge the 21st-century EU as an institution that aimed to sustain neoliberalism long after it had failed. But the costly Brexit referendum confirmed that Cameron is inept in a crisis. He has bombed the Middle East and supported free-trade agreements while refusing to deal with the consequences, whether by denying entry to Syrian refugees or by disregarding the inequalities that inevitably shaped the Brexit vote.

That should not surprise us. Conservatives can’t stand change, so most prefer to ignore crisis, as Chamberlain did, or fight for a discredited past – that was Churchill’s aim in the second world war, and why he and the Tory press declared the Labour party’s proposals for a welfare state would introduce a Gestapo to Britain. In 1945 it took a man with little charisma but a popular movement behind him to embrace change and turn crisis into opportunity: Clement Attlee.

Selina Todd is professor of modern history and co-director of women in humanities at Oxford University

Anthony Seldon

Anthony Seldon: ‘A patriot who worked tirelessly to keep Britain safe from attack’

David Cameron will be remembered as a giant risk-taker, taking Britain to war in Libya in 2011, and failing to do so in Syria in 2013, calling the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 and the EU referendum in 2016. As a much better tactician than a strategist. For seeing off Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband and bequeathing Jeremy Corbyn to Labour. As being the first Etonian prime minister for 50 years, and probably the last for 50 years. (Despite that, or perhaps because of it, he had the most inclusive vision of Conservatism of any Tory PM since Stanley Baldwin in the interwar years.) For bringing the Conservatives back to power in 2010 after 13 years, and for winning the general election in 2015 against the odds, the first outright Tory majority for 23 years. As head of the first coalition government since 1945, which few expected to last five years.

He will be remembered for his surprise announcement before the 2015 election that he would not fight another. As a social progressive, who took on his party over gay marriage and donating 0.7% of GDP to international development. For relying on a close circle of advisers and trusting them too much, with Steve Hilton and Michael Gove betraying him when he most needed them. As the youngest prime minister for 198 years; his errors were often those of a young man. As a patriot who worked tirelessly to keep Britain safe from attack. As the PM who restored the national finances, albeit with a deficit reduction that was too harsh for some and too slow for others.

David and Samantha Cameron with Barack and Michelle Obama in London in May 2011
David and Samantha Cameron with Barack and Michelle Obama in London in May 2011. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

It is still that decision to call the EU referendum that looms largest, as one of the greatest gambles in political history. The verdict of posterity on that decision will depend on whether the great benefits the Brexiters promised materialise or not. If Britain emerges stronger and more united, he may yet come to be thanked.

Finally, he will be noted for resigning at the peak of his powers, not yet 50, with his “life chances” agenda at last defined, with much more prospect of success than his big society agenda after 2010. And with a marked humanitarian and diplomatic agenda, which he had started to outline abroad. Leaving prematurely is a tragedy for him personally. It may yet prove a similar one for the nation.

Anthony Seldon is co-author with Peter Snowdon of Cameron at 10: The Verdict (William Collins, £9.99)

hakim adi

Hakim Adi: ‘There has been no real change’

David Cameron’s political legacy might be immediately deduced from the declared aims of Theresa May, his successor. May has already delivered two speeches in which she has stated her intention to remove the inequalities and injustices that affect those who are poor, working-class, black or women. She claims that her government will serve the interests of the many, not the few, and will give the majority more control over their lives. The conclusion that might be drawn, therefore, is that Cameron’s governments did not act to remove such inequalities but rather governed in the interests of the rich and privileged. History may well draw this conclusion, since Cameron’s six years in office produced two governments that were both strongly committed to austerity measures. These cuts in social programmes and provision ignored society’s responsibility, exacerbated inequality, particularly for disadvantaged poor, working-class and minority communities, and were widely resented and opposed.

Cameron came to power promising “real change” via a government that would look after the poorest and rebuild trust in our political system by reforming parliament, making sure that people are in control and that politicians are always the people’s servants. It can be concluded that he was unsuccessful, since there has been no real change and the majority of the electorate have no more political control or say in decision-making than we did in 2010.

David Cameron and Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg forming a coalition government in 2010.
David Cameron and Lib Dem deputy prime minister Nick Clegg forming a coalition government in May 2010. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Paradoxically, Cameron’s governments did provide the three referenda, on the voting system, Scottish independence and the EU. Undoubtedly, history will consider this noteworthy. However, the first two did nothing to resolve the problems they were designed to address, while the EU referendum, conducted in a racist and chauvinistic atmosphere, was a defeat for Cameron and threw the major political parties into disarray. Moreover, it appears to have exacerbated those unresolved problems relating to self-determination in Scotland, Wales and the island of Ireland.

In foreign policy, Cameron’s legacy is particularly evident in Libya and Syria. He was one of the main architects of the Nato bombardment of Libya, which aimed at regime change and resulted in anarchy in Libya, as well as destabilisation throughout North Africa. Cameron’s military intervention in Libya and Syria has not come under the same scrutiny as Blair’s in Iraq, but history will undoubtedly judge harshly such interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states that resulted in countless deaths, a major refugee crisis and greater global instability.

Hakim Adi is professor of the history of Africa and the African diaspora at the University of Chichester, and author of West Africans in Britain 1900-1960 (Lawrence & Wishart, 1998). He is currently writing Pan-Africanism: A History

Juliet Gardiner

Juliet Gardiner: ‘Britain’s greatly diminished power will be his legacy’

In 1848, the French politician Ledru Rollin is reputed to have said: “There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

David Cameron could be said to have done the same thing, with disastrous results. The decision to call a referendum was a narrow political one, motivated largely by the internal politics of the Conservative party, not the good of the country.

Like Humpty Dumpty, it predictably fell off the wall; and like Humpty Dumpty, it can’t be put together again. Britain, Europe and indeed the world are poorer for it. It has unleashed all that was worst in this country: racism, antisemitism, hate crimes, insecurity for valuable immigrants already living here who now feel threatened and unwanted.

Brexit has left a broken Britain. The cracks were was already latent in a north/south divide, class alienation and a lack of trust in our politicians to put it right, or often, it seemed, even to care. It has returned the British economy to the pre-Keynesian policy of the 1930s and pandered to big business, the banks and undesirable corporate predators such as Sir Philip Green.

This Conservative government has systematically rolled back the state. It has sneered at the 1906 reforms of Lloyd George, who recognised that 19th-century philanthropy (which was always pretty judgmental and selective) was no longer adequate for a modern industrial country. And it has shaken the changes consolidated by Clement Attlee, that deeply uncharismatic but honourable and far-sighted politician.

David Cameron and family leaving Downing Street for the last time this week
David Cameron and family leaving Downing Street for the last time this week. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Brexit is the despair and scorn of Europe and the rest of the world, including a huge swathe of the British population. Forget same-sex marriage and fox hunting. It will be the destruction of Britain and its return to a small-status, selfish little offshore island with greatly diminished power in the world that is Cameron’s legacy. It can be no other.

Never forget that the constituency that Cameron represents is Witney in West Oxfordshire. His milieu of prosperity, kitchen suppers and cosy relations with press barons is irreducibly part of middle England – with its complacency, aspirations and prejudices, and little understanding of the other half of the country.

Juliet Gardiner is a former editor of History Today. Her most recent books include The Thirties: an Intimate History and The Blitz: the British Under Attack

  • This section was amended on 18 July 2016. An earlier version said Cameron’s constituency was in South Oxfordshire; and that Humpty Dumpty was put together again. These have been corrected.
Vernon Bogdanor

Vernon Bogdanor: ‘He sought to create good feeling in the country’

David Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005, determined to destroy the image of the “nasty party”. But, by the time he took office in 2010, Britain had undergone the credit crunch. In Britain, as on the continent, this weakened the power of the political centre – the centre-left and centre-right – to the benefit of the radical right and, in the Mediterranean countries crucified by the euro, the radical left.

Ed Miliband had hoped that 2008 would herald a social democratic moment. But in Britain and in Europe, it has proved a nationalist moment. Politics has come to be dominated less by questions concerning the economic role of the state than by questions of identity. The key questions have been: what does it mean to be British? Is it compatible with being Scottish? Is it compatible with being European?

David Cameron sought to meet the challenges of economic crisis without compromising his brand of liberal conservatism. In government, he encouraged good feelings, a marked contrast to the cabinet squabbles of the Blair and Brown years. He sought to create good feeling in the country as well, a Britain more at ease with itself, an aspirational society in which life chances were less determined by who one’s parents were or where one went to school. He pressed for gay marriage against the instincts of many in his party. But he could not undo the resentment against elites that had been generated by the banking crisis. The referendum was the revenge of the betrayed, an insurgency that is taking Britain out of the European Union.

Theresa May seeks to continue the Cameron legacy of a socially responsible private-enterprise system. But the insurgency, which came primarily from those who sought to resist the forces of globalisation has, by a striking paradox, released the Conservative right from its cage – not the one-nation right, but the free-market right of Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell. The referendum marked their triumph from beyond the grave.

Brexit moves us into a harsher economic world, and our politics is likely to become more polarised. It will not be easy for the new prime minister to control the forces that Brexit has unleashed. But unless she succeeds, the Cameron legacy of a tolerant and civilised liberal conservatism will not survive.

Vernon Bogdanor is professor of government at King’s College, London. He taught David Cameron at Oxford

David Cameron: a political obituary


Ian Kershaw, Anthony Seldon, Selina Todd, Hakim Adi, Juliet Gardiner and Vernon Bogdanor

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