Updated: Oct 29, 2020
William Collins, October 2020
A year after publication, three years since it was supposed to be published, a month after the paperback, and several lifetimes in politics later – I’ve finally finished For the Record (the hardback, so minus whatever updates were made to the paperback).
I read a good chunk of it when it came out last autumn, and stalled for no particularly good reason other than having too many books on the go – and, perhaps, a sense of fatigue about the way the Cameron premiership ended and more of a focus on what was to come. Picking it up a year later was always going to give it new context, but we would never have imagined just how much.
Whatever else they may have achieved – in each case, lots - Eden will never shake Suez, Blair will never shake Iraq, and the multiple achievements of David Cameron’s premiership will be forever overshadowed by his decision to call the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. This is a shame – ditto for Blair – as, like Blair, he really did make strides in evolving the raison d’etre of his party to fit the times. Reading about this now in a political climate which has evolved more in a year than in a generation is worthy of reflection.
Cameron emphasises early on in the book that the Conservative Party is driven by a combination of aspiration, patriotism, freedom and common sense, which gives it “the ability to transcend class, geography, gender, race and sexuality." He goes on: "Then there is the ability to move with the times. The country keeps changing socially, and the Conservative Party keeps changing with it.” (p236). This aptly summaries why it is the world’s oldest political party. So Cameron supported gay marriage because he is a Conservative (p440); concentrated aid on treating causes not symptoms (p481), pointing out that “those who complain about our waning influence in the world are often those who complain about our aid budget” (p486); and when chairing the UN committee on global development, he used the opportunity to put the atrocity that is FGM under the spotlight. As he puts it (p507), “I always thought Conservatism was about where you were going, not where you came from.” And of course, successfully working with another party for five years shows a great deal of maturity and leadership.
As is the case with evolution of all kinds, successive governments throughout history have been influenced by their near predecessors, adding their own twists: Blairism was shaped by Thatcherism, and the Coalition by Blairism. In retrospect, the Coalition years seem like the pinnacle of civilised and effective politics, but now, only 4 years after Cameron left office, it’s almost as if those years never happened. We’re more polarised than ever, with members of one party barely able to work together, let alone those across party lines. There are many who will say that this was the doing of Cameron’s referendum – but it isn’t just that. The pandemic, social movements, and the ability for all to have a voice in a digital world have changed the nature of our discourse beyond recognition. Sasha Swire may criticise Cameron for his "clique" but something was working.
Cameron is a good writer, and is notably candid about his mistakes and his inner thoughts. He has always had the aura of being completely at ease with himself - a strong basis from which to lead. I recall a Times interview with Jeremy Hunt back in the summer in which Hunt describes himself as nerdy at Oxford; Boris as cool, and Cameron as “uber-cool” (Hunt and Cameron were contemporaries, reading the same subject, but they never met). It’s easy to assume that this self-confidence comes from “privilege” defined as wealth and connections. These no doubt help, but one of the most striking pieces of self-analysis in For the Record is Cameron’s emphasis his close, nurturing and supportive family when he was growing up. For me, this is key: family closeness is not always or indeed often associated with wealth and connections (see Tom Bower’s recent biography of Boris, which I understand puts great emphasis on the functionality of his family in his formative years, particularly his relationship with his father). This, rather than his expensive education, is for me what stands out as key to Cameron as a person and as a leader; and it's unusual (and enviable) in a leader, many of whose drive comes from a place of adversity.
Five years on, For the Record feels like a piece of history - an important one. Regardless of its unfortunate ending, this period in our political journey has much to teach future generations.