Review of ‘The Meaning of David Cameron’

It might come as a surprise that this is not actually a book about David Cameron. It does however shed more light upon the political and historical significance of the new Prime Minister than any book about the man himself ever could. As Richard Seymour puts it, “the real subjects of this book are the historical forces galvanising the Tory leadership … the deep structural transformations that have taken place in the UK in the generation since the zenith of Thatcherism”. The Meaning of David Cameron is a broad and compelling survey of the last 40 years of British history which emerges at a profoundly opportune moment: the neo-liberal project stands in crisis at the same time as the apotheosis of this project ascends to high office.

The relative brevity of this book is belied by its laudable scope. It is an ideology critique taking aim not just at  ‘progressive conservatism’ but the broader language of modernization and meritocracy which prepared the discursive ground for this latest vacuous instantiation of such rhetoric. It is an economic and social history offering a potent and comprehensive account of the structural and cultural changes which facilitated the emergence of Thatcherism, New Labour and now Cameronism. It is a passionate rehabilitation of the conceptual categories of class and struggle at a time when such theoretical tools are less in fashion and more in need than ever before.

The book is divided into three chapters respectively titled ‘apathy’, ‘meritocracy’ and ‘progress’ and Seymour’s critical intentions are clear from the outset as all three terms come with scare quotes in chapter titles. The most commanding section of the book is contained within the first chapter as the author offers a critical history of British politics leading up to the recent election. Beginning with British enfranchisement, which he convincingly argues was largely a concession to ward off the threat of social revolution, Seymour offers a fascinating historical account of British democracy in terms of the shifting constraints and enablements placed upon working class agency. He offers an account of the post-war welfare consensus as having “absorbed some working class demands” for reform and “stopped them going too far”.

However even this relatively meagre degree of structural accommodation to grassroots reformist pressures (as Seymour observes the Attlee government had only nationalised 20% of British industry and had done so to preserve that which could not survive alone rather than as a result of any intention “to redistribute power and wealth from the capitalist class to the majority”) fostered a reactionary backlash. Through the rehabilitation of long discredited free market doctrines and their well-funded intellectual advocacy, figures like Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Freidman were able to develop an increasingly prominent intellectual critique of state intervention which was seized upon by the new right throughout the 1970s to explain recurrent economic crises. However unlike her friend General Augusto Pinochet, who seized power and brutally forced free-market doctrine upon the Chilean people, Thatcher accepted the need to create a political consensus in support of her goals. This initially involved carefully coordinated attacks upon labour (see for example the Ridley plan) but, as the new right’s grip on power was consolidated, grew to use social and economic policy in order to pursue their ideological goals through attacks on manufacturing, limiting public housing and promoting financialisation:

“The destruction of manufacturing saw manufacturing employment fall by 30% in the UK between 1979 and 1990. This slash-and-burn represented a faster rate of de-industrialisation than in comparable European economies. Union membership fell by almost a half. As a side effect, it also hollowed out many of the social bases from which the left drew its strength and in which cultures of resistance were maintained […] By rationing housing, the government helped send house prices soaring. After 1983, the Tories imposed a moratorium on public housing, with the rate of annual construction falling from 160,00 in 1975 to 25,000 in 1990. The level of housing expenditure fell from 1.4% of GDP in 1979 to 0.4% in 1990. And owner occupation increased in the same period from 60% to 72%. Homeowners were encouraged to treat their houses as asserts against which they could borrow, to pay for the consumer durables that stagnant wages no longer would.”

However these efforts did not produce the ‘landslide’ electoral victories that the Tories are popularly believed to have won in the 1980s, as the antiquated first-past-the-post system meant that around 42% of the vote in 1983 and 1987 translated into 61% and 58% of seats respectively. Seymour argues that Thatcher was able to win elections through persuading a significant minority of the cultural virtues of neoliberalism (“that what they wanted above all was not the safety nets and security of the post-war era, but the flexibility, risk and protean adventure of free market competition”) and a larger portion of the electorate of their economic investment in these transformations. High unemployment, homelessness and poverty may have reemerged as a pervasive features of the British landscape but some of the population found their disposable incomes soaring, buttressed by rising house prices and the easy availability of credit.

Rather than challenge these transformations New Labour embraced them as part of a ‘modernising’ project: a superficially plausible psephological critique relating to the need for Labour to move beyond their core constituencies eventually morphed into a deeply ideological embrace of the free-market. The architects of New Labour uncritically accepted much free market dogma and seized upon the financial markets in particular as an engine of economic growth. They derided talk of socialism and redistribution as anachronistic ideological baggage and argued that a ‘modern’ party must accept the reality of ‘globalisation’ while trying to utilise continual economic growth to fund programs of public spending driven by leftist values. This attempt to utilise the ‘dynamism’ of finance for social ends led to an unholy marriage between New Labour and the wealthy: ministers came to deify the ‘wealth creators’ and promulgate their perceived virtues. Progress was seen to consist in bringing the apparent expertise of business into the public sector. A pragmatic analysis of how to pursue leftist goals in an undoubtedly changing world ultimately led to the most profound betrayal of those goals imaginable… and it paved the way for a ‘progressive conservatism’ aiming to irrevocably entrench the revolution of the 1980s through unprecedented spending cuts, the effective privatization of the education system, a committed attack on the expansion of higher education and the remoralization of poverty.

This is a powerful book, as Seymour utilises the erudition he regularly exhibits on Lenin’s Tomb to great polemic effect without sacrificing the analytical rigour which so often characterises his writing. It pursues a number of distinct aims and yet it somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Perhaps this is because the overarching purpose of the book is at heart a simple one. While this purpose pervades the book it is at its most explicit in the final paragraph when Seymour directly explains the ‘meaning of David Cameron’:

“Cameronism comes with irenic intonations, soothing, anaesthising language about change, just at the time when an epochal social crisis with deep political polarisation is about to be visited on this unhappy island-state. Just as Margaret Thatcher launched a bellicose administration with a pacific quote from St Francis of Assisi, so David Cameron comes to us as an agent or discord, distress and social misery, with an olive branch thrust towards his opponents. What is the meaning of David Cameron? He means war.”

At a time when the coalition government is committed to cuts which will affect our “whole way of life” Seymour offers a timely critique of a radical right wing agenda (‘rethinking the role of the state’) presented as an unavoidable solution to an otherwise insurmountable problem. Furthermore he offers a great insight into the transformations within political culture which have allowed such an agenda to be presented as a ‘progressive’ project. Inevitably for such a short book there are questions raised which lack answers: for example how does the Con-Dem agenda fit into the wider ‘politics of austerity’ in Europe and beyond?  Nonetheless this is a valuable and judicious book which deserves to be read by all those interested in the future of British politics.

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