Review: ‘For the Record’ by David Cameron

Europe looms large in former PM's memoir

Former British prime minister David Cameron addresses the media / Getty Images

A man buying a shed is rarely newsworthy. But in 2017, Britain's recently departed prime minister David Cameron made headlines for doing exactly that. With plenty of snark, the press reported on the price tag—$30,000—and plush features of this upmarket "shepherd's hut."

When a photograph emerged of Cameron smiling on the steps of his shed, it soon became the target of a remarkable amount of ridicule and anger. Those on the losing side of the Brexit vote blame Cameron not only for failing to lead a successful campaign for continued EU membership, but for calling the referendum in the first place. With his upper-crust upbringing, relaxed style, and relish for the cut-and-thrust of the House of Commons, Cameron always struggled to shake the sense that he had a born-to-rule view of politics as, first and foremost, a game. Those suspicions were heightened when he appeared to have moved on after losing that game. "How dare he enjoy his new purchase while the country burns," was the Remainers' indignant and incoherent logic.

Cameron's shed was intended as a place to think—and write—about the years he spent at the heart of British politics. Five of those years he served as leader of the opposition (2005-2010) and six as prime minister (2010-2016). The result is For The Record, a memoir in which the longest serving postwar Conservative party leader other than Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher spends a lot of time on the defensive. Unsurprisingly, Europe—the issue that brought Cameron's premiership to an end—looms larger than any other.

The divisions between Leave and Remain have only deepened since the referendum, and Cameron's legacy has been one of the victims of this rapidly escalating culture war. While Remainers see him as the prime minister who put party before country, calling an unnecessary if politically expedient referendum, he is the Leave movement's biggest scalp, the Goliath they defeated in that referendum and the man who had the full force of the British government on his side but still could not stop the plucky Brexiteers.

"My regrets about what happened went deep," writes Cameron, recalling his thoughts on the night he lost. "I knew they would never leave me. And they never have."

One thing he insists he does not regret, however, is the promise to give British voters a say on EU membership—the promise that would precipitate the end of his political career and the promise that makes him both a political punching bag and punchline today.

It's not hard to see why the move is remembered as something of a Faustian pact. In 2014, the Nigel Farage-led anti-EU party UKIP finished atop in the European elections, relegating the Conservatives to third. Cameron's own backbenchers were also agitating for action. A promise of a public vote on EU membership helped to hold the Conservatives together and neutralize the UKIP threat in the 2015 general election. Tactically, it worked—the Conservatives won an unexpected majority and therefore had to deliver on their pledge to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels and let the people choose between that tweaked version of EU membership and no membership at all "in the first half of the next parliament"—i.e., by the summer of 2017.

After five years leading a coalition government with the centrist Liberal Democrats, Cameron and his party no longer had to share power, but that came at a high price. And he knew it. Cameron quotes a private recording he made in 2012: "This is very, very difficult and very dangerous," he said of the renegotiation and referendum strategy. "I do worry that what is negotiable is not sellable and what is sellable is not negotiable," he said in another recording made in 2015. The next year his fear would be confirmed. "The strategy failed. I failed," he confesses. "And that failure has had some serious consequences for the UK and Europe."

But does that mean the course of action Cameron decided on was a reckless and short-sighted piece of party management? Not quite. Westminster machinations are not completely detached from the views of the British people. UKIP was riding a wave of public discontent that long predated its European election win. Pro-Brexit MPs were not acting in a vacuum. Indeed, as Cameron himself points out, the best response to the claim that Brexit was a weird obsession of a Tory fringe disconnected from the concerns of the public is the referendum result itself: More Brits opted for Brexit than have voted for anyone or anything in the country's history.

Looked at myopically, the vote to leave the EU can seem like the consequence of a series of pivotal decisions—including several mistakes made by Cameron. But a referendum-free counterfactual history would have been far from plain sailing. Britain was finding it harder and harder to see eye-to-eye on fundamental questions surrounding the European project; a fork in the road would have become more and more difficult for a prime minister to swerve by.

Inevitably, Europe overshadows everything else in For The Record. Before the Brexit clouds darkened his skies, Cameron put together a surprisingly stable coalition government, decentralized power in education, overhauled a welfare system riddled with perverse incentives and, most important, tackled the fiscal excesses of the previous Labour government. He embraced his reputation for reforming zeal, framing a 2010 Economist cover on which he was depicted as a punk rocker with a mohawk under the headline "Radical Britain: The West's most daring government." The only regrets here appear to be that he did not go further sooner, but the result was a modern brand of conservatism that delivered at the ballot box and won over a good number of the sceptics on his own side.

To relive Cameron's rise, and the moment when he reached his zenith with the election victory of 2015, is to step into a different world. Today, the referendum that he hoped would, one way or another, deliver some sort of closure for the British people on Europe, has only deepened divides and heightened passions. Not only has the Brexit vote so far failed to settle one question, it has opened up a plethora of others about democracy, conservatism, and sovereignty in the 21st century. While some will argue the current political crisis was of the former prime minister's making, that claim ignores the fact that Britain is hardly alone in having its politics turned upside down in recent years. Cameron is not the first leader to be toppled by trends far bigger than the series of decisions he made in power. Nor will he be the last.