Cameron’s tragedy is that he fails in even understanding the point of leadership

12:59 pm - August 30th 2013

by Chris Dillow    

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David Cameron is a terrible advert for Oxford PPE. He's long been ignorant of economics – as his prating about the "nation's credit card" and the "global race" attest – but his defeat last night suggests he knows little about politics and history too.

It's a cliche that this was a failure of leadership. I suspect, though, that it was a failure to even see what leadership is. Leadership is the art of getting people to follow you when they don't have to; if they do so because they must, you're not a leader but a boss.

But leadership in this sense is not just about speechmaking and doing the right thing. It's about getting dirty, and using the darker arts of politics.

One such art is timing. If your position is strong, you should act. If it's not, you should wait. Had Cameron waited until the UN inspectors have reported, his case would have been strengthened by reports of the incendiary bomb attack on a school.

But there's another failure. Leadership also means identifying potential oppenents and cajoling them – maybe nicely, maybe not – into supporting you. And at this, Cameron has long been poor. Fraser Nelson says he's "aloof."

And only a few months into his permiership one Tory sympathizer wrote:

There is little affection for Cameron on the Tory benches. His regime is chilly, even aloof. MPs who cross him know that they are unlikely to be forgiven. Slowly, the numbers of the disaffected and dispossessed are growing.

Contrast this with two great American leaders – Abe Lincoln and Lyndon Johnson. Their success rested on not so much on them taking the moral high ground – the best that can be said for LBJ's "moral compass" is that it wasn't quite as defective as Nixon's – but on their ability to twist arms, and appeal to low motives.

Their precedents are, I think, relevant. Both men faced parties which were loose and fissiparous, which is the condition of today's Tories. Not only are they intellectually divided – for example on both social and economic liberalism – but they are also socially so; the Cabinet might be full of public school millionaires, but the backbenches aren't.

His long failure to close this gap means that Cameron lacked both the ability to convert potential rebels and the trust which was necessary to induce people to follow him on what would have been a speculative venture.

In this sense, there's a tragic aspect to Cameron. He has thought of politics as (by his own lights) a noble venture – as when he pushed through gay marriage and in his desire to stop crimes against humanity. But politics isn't just that.

Sometimes, to win a moral crusade you need immoral means. Leadership isn't about being like Martin Luther King, but being like Lyndon Johnson. 

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About the author
Chris Dillow is a regular contributor and former City economist, now an economics writer. He is also the author of The End of Politics: New Labour and the Folly of Managerialism. Also at: Stumbling and Mumbling
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Westminster

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Reader comments

1. George King

Cameron has bested Milliband yet again. When Assad starts dropping scud loads of gas on the Syrian population he’s going to have his arse handed to him.

“David Cameron is a terrible advert for Oxford PPE. He’s long been ignorant of economics – as his prating about the ‘nation’s credit card’ and the ‘global race’ attest – but his defeat last night suggests he knows little about politics and history too.”

I heartily agree. His credibility on his concerns over violations of breaches of international law/agreements would be the greater if he were to take a more even-handed approach and take account of flagrant and continuing breaches by Israel.

American presidential administrations may be obliged to comply with the wishes of Israeli governments, because of domestic political pressures, but there is no such comparable requirement for British governments and politicians to do so.

“It’s about getting dirty, and using the darker arts of politics.”

It wasn’t even a failure of DC to do this that lost him the vote. It was a failure to listen and a failure to understand that a case for war requires more than saying “X has done something bad”. There were MPs on all sides who were basically saying “make a specific proposal that has a chance of success without causing a regional war and we’ll support you”

I’ve always said that Cameron is stuck in a Napoleonic mindset. He’s a “leader” in the sense he thinks he can wave his hand and the mob will do his bidding because he is their lord and master. You see it in every speech and policy he gives; he talks of bold sacrifices that have to be made (by other people) and how the people who suffer will do so nobly (for his glory as is his right). When people oppose him, it isn’t because they disagree, it is because they are traitors(!) as only a traitor could disobey his command. Cameron could fit in rather nicely as one of those weird nobs you see on Sharpe, in fact I sometimes wonder if he is Simmerson made flesh.

5. Man on Clapham Omnibus

I think you are being a bit unfair to Cameron. Fair do’s – he’s an idiot but even Machiavelli would have been hard pushed to make this particular turd shine.

The real question was ,did it take 45 mins for the whole nation to get to the brandy after the now infamous catchphrase ‘weapons inspector’ was launched ?

GCHQ will know!

“I’ve always said that Cameron is stuck in a Napoleonic mindset. He’s a ‘leader’ in the sense he thinks he can wave his hand and the mob will do his bidding because he is their lord and master. ”

Both Mrs Thatcher and Tony Blair had similar mindsets. It’s not a mindset which should be encouraged. The sociologist Max Weber usefully distinguished between three types of leader; traditional (as with hereditary monarchs), legal-rational (selected by political process or selected as considered best suited to accomplish a particular task), and charismatic.

I believe, Mrs T and Blair both thought of themselves as charismatic. Such leaders tend to be or to become pains in the proverbial because they believe that their opinions are the only opinions worth having and everyone else should accept that.

Hence all the claims about there being “no alternative” to an official policy regardless of argued critiques and conflicting evidence.

Another fairly standard approach when faced with opposing views is to seek agreement “in principle” with some meaningless phrase which is open to all sorts of interpretations. A classic example was Robespierre’s declared aim of seeking to create the “virtuous society” at the time of the French Revolution. Any who disagreed with what Robespierre regarded as virtuous obviously had evil intentions and could therefore be sent off to the guillotine.

7. Man on Clapham Omnibus

6. Bob B

I dont think Dillow’s argument is that sophisticated Bob.
Its more akin to – if Cameron wanted war he should have been more underhand ; maybe present exaggerated claims in a dossier for example. He obviously thinks Blair did good.
Personally I think his argument is reprehensible but we can be sure that the Labour Party,that broad church from Marx to Goebbels, has plenty more like him that think this way. I wonder if he wears a tin hat at the weekends.

8. Realpolitik

Wilson said no to US over Vietnam, US said no to UK over Falklands (well, it was a ‘no full support’). Cameron could have pushed Obama for a longer time frame, Obama would feel more comfortable with the’ allies ‘ lined up. So the measure of leadership in relation to Cameron is recognising his bargaining power with USA.
I suspect a small part of Cameron will be very happy that he does not have to commit UK to an inevitable military, political & social failure. He listened to the will of Parliament, & lives to smarm us for a few more days.

9. Mark Thompson

“David Cameron is a terrible advert for Oxford PPE. He’s long been ignorant of economics – as his prating about the ‘nation’s credit card’ and the ‘global race’ attest – but his defeat last night suggests he knows little about politics and history too.”

Absolutely. His claim during the AV campaign that he “couldn’t understand AV” it was a demonstration of either that or an utter boldfaced lie. What PPE graduate can’t understand a simple preferential voting system?


“I dont think Dillow’s argument is that sophisticated Bob.”

IMO, the case for bombing Syria apart, Chris and other posters here are correct in pointing to persuasive evidence that Cameron doesn’t understand pretty basic stuff in the PPE domain. He patently doesn’t understand economics – perhaps he opted out of the economics courses in PPE to concentrate on the politics.

As for Syria, the Commons was effectively being asked to sign a blank cheque authorising unspecified military actions “in principle” leading to unforeseeable consequences and without any indication as to whether and when the punitive military actions would be deemed sufficient. In Iraq, the sectrarian killing has continued 10 years after the invasion of March 2003.

Some of us also had concerns about the sources and quality of the “intelligence” implicating the Assad regime, especially given numerous reports about conflicts within the Syrian opposition forces, which include extreme Islamicist factions.

In Spain’s civil war in the late 1930s, thousands on the Republican side were executed by other Republican elements over ideological disputes – try Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. It therefore cannot be assumed that the gas attacks must have come from Assad regime forces because the victims were in areas supporting the opposition.

I also believe an attack on Syria would compound street sentiments in the Middle East that Israel is not held to the same standards regarding flagrant and continuing breaches of international laws and agreements concerning banned weapons – such as use of white phosphorus shells in Gaza in 2009 – and the continued building of Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. There is a long history of Israeli forces being implicated in atrocities – such as the Deir Yassin massacre in 1948, the Qibya massacre in 1953, what went on at the Khiam Prison in South Lebanon, the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in 1982 and so on.


Try this: Alleged British use of chemical weapons in Mesopotamia in 1920

Note, especially, the reported quote of Winston Churchill.

Good news. Call me Dave has made a total mess of this call to arms. Rich mans war, poor mans fight.

WCA threshold say 20 points. Working on PIP now will report back. Bedroom tax say average of £20 rather than £14. Should about do the fiscal trick to pay for this ‘moral war’.

We are all in this together.

All is this together? Try this recent healthcare news in the Telegraph (15 August):

NHS waiting lists are longest in five years

Almost 2.9 million people are on a waiting list for treatment at NHS hospitals – the highest level in five years, according to official figures.

15. Mike Killingworth

He is not a terrible advert for PPE – just for the way it’s taught at Christ Church.

PPE — the Oxbridge equivalent of Media Studies at Bog Lane Poly?

17. Mike Killingworth

[16] Some say so. I couldn’t possibly comment…

18. Baton Rouge

One cannot help but think we have just witnessed one of those rare tectonic shifts in international relations. Namely the realignment of Russian and British imperialism after nearly a century apart. I think the Tory right see Putin as a potential bulwark against an increasingly powerful Germany as the EU begins to break up. Europe is returning to the old power blocs at the expense at the moment of the Syrian people and of course Silly Milly is happy to play the game as well as take the blame.

Re Baton Rouge at # 18: I don’t think we’re seeing an Anglo-Russian bloc taking shape. I suspect that what is driving Miliband is a reflection of the disquiet within the military top-brass and foreign-policy-making establishment about the situation in Syria in particular and the merits of military intervention in the Middle East in particular. I know (from where I was working at the time) that the Iraq war caused concern amongst the military top-brass and consternation amongst senior diplomatic staff.

If one reads serious analyses, the main feeling is that intervening in Syria today would make a difficult situation worse, and that the most likely winner in the situation would be al Qaeda and fellow Islamist extremists. (Most if not all serious analyses see the jihadists as the only effective military force opposing Assad.) Any sensible mainstream politician would recognise that the very real possibility, should Assad fall, of Syria becoming another Iraq is not something that is in the interests of any Western power.

The USA has, by its President rabbiting on about ‘red lines’ and chemical weapons, boxed itself into a corner. It might even yet not attack Syria, or at the most make a token missile attack. What Miliband is doing is implicitly suggesting that the situation in Syria needs a more sensible approach if the big Western powers are not to make the situation in the Middle East worse, both in respect of the Middle East itself and their own interests. He understands Western imperial interests better than Cameron, who sees things through Blair’s distorting spectacles.

“PPE — the Oxbridge equivalent of Media Studies at Bog Lane Poly?”

As I recall, more students take PPE than any other degree course at Oxford and the rejection rate for applicants is over 70pc. The structure of the course is very flexible nowadays so it possible to “do” almost only P, P or E. My son dropped Politics at the earliest possible opportunity – he regarded it as analytically trivial compared with Philosophy and Economics. Before the reforms to make the degree structure more flexible, students in the final exams had to take 2 papers in each of P, P and E with a further two papers in options. Tim Harford, the “undercover” economist, who writes for the FT, is a PPE graduate. Martin Wolf, the lead economics writer for the FT, is another PPE graduate. Btw I’m not a PPE graduate so I’ve no vested interest in talking up the degree.

Bob B at 20: ‘As I recall, more students take PPE than any other degree course at Oxford and the rejection rate for applicants is over 70pc.’

The college (part of the University of London) where I worked did a Business Studies BSc and the rejection rate was massive, but that’s because it was also very popular, with vast quantities of applicants. This was not, I suspect, that studying business gripped the imagination of so many youngsters, but that many youngsters saw it as the best course with which to get a job. I wonder if that’s also why PPE is a popular course…

22. Mike Killingworth

[20] I was in the same year as Wolf, but only now have I discovered that he was three years older than me, and two years older than most of us (I now see that I “went up” far too young…) – what did Wolf do with those three years, I wonder?

23. Baton Rouge

`What Miliband is doing is implicitly suggesting that the situation in Syria needs a more sensible approach

I am not really bothered by what Milliband is doing in this context. If the establishment wanted to go to war it would not be asking Parliament and certainly not Ed Milliband. In this context I am more interested in the way the Tory right has used Milliband to make a seismic alternation to Britains usual alliances by moving it into realignment with Putins Russia. This is a tectonic shift in European and Global world politics.

21 and 22

To state the obvious, which university/course is deemed “best” depends on those international league tables or the choice of other assessment criteria.

In Britain, the University of Surrey continues to claim to have the top employment rate for its graduates but it is nowhere near the top of the international university league tables:

We’re still top for jobs!

If you want a university that gives you the best possible chance of a great career, then Surrey’s the place for you.

Our students are the most employable in the country – fact.

Oxford, more so than Cambridge or the LSE, seems to have a greater grip on the post of party leaders – since WW2: Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson, Eden, Macmillan, Douglas-Home, Heath, Thatcher, Blair, Hague, Cameron, Miliband were all Oxford alumni.

25. MarkAustin

@4. Random22

No, I don’t think Cameron is a Napoleonic figure, in the same way as Blair or Thatcher were. To use Weber’s terminology, he’s a Traditionalist. He thinks—indeed believes in the very fibre of his being—that he and his are destined to rule, so opposition is futile. That’s why he messed up the vote: it simply didn’t occur to him that he could be opposed, having made his will clear, so he didn’t prepare.

26. CloseShave

Yes Mark

It has always been said that

“their arroGAnce will be their undoing”

@ Chris in the OP

I think the point you miss about LBJ is that he didn’t just practice the black arts. He was likeable. That is immensely important in politics. It’s a quality lacking in many of our current crop.

By a report in the Telegraph, there is mounting criticism of Ed Miliband from within the Labour Party for the way he has responded to Cameron’s request for a blank cheque endorsement by Parliament for his proposed military action against the Assad regime in Syria.

Also in the news, reports of recent separate public opinion polls in America, France and Britain are all saying that there are majorities against military action in Syria.

If so, on that evidence, Ed Miliband called it correctly.

As for the LibDems, Lord Ashdown is saying that Parliament should have a chance to change its mind.

i am sick of the left and the right,posh boy boy cameron and posh boy milliband,these people live far apart from working class people like me,fuck the both of them.

31. gastro george

“As for the LibDems, Lord Ashdown is saying that Parliament should have a chance to change its mind.”

He’s mad. There’s no majority for this. There’s possibly not a majority in favour in any of the 3 main parties if there was a free vote.

Syria crisis: MPs ‘right to reject military action’ – BBC poll

Almost three-quarters of people believe MPs were right to reject UK military action in Syria, a poll commissioned by the BBC has suggested.

In the news are suggestions that there could be another vote in Parliament but only if there is a significant change in circumstances.

Recap Guardian news report on 28 August:

Former UK military chiefs voice objections to Syria attacks

Leading figures warn of unintended consequences, but foreign policy analysts insist red line crossed

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