David Cameron’s legacy will go deeper than the Europe question

The outgoing prime minister brought in a generous and civilised Conservatism, writes Vernon Bogdanor
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Europe has helped to destroy five of the past six Conservative prime ministers: Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and now David Cameron. It was not meant to be like this.

When Mr Cameron became leader in 2005, he hoped to stop his party “banging on” about Europe so that it could engage with the real needs of voters. Despite the outcome of the EU referendum, his legacy is unlikely to be defined by Europe as Anthony Eden’s is by the Suez crisis of 1956.

The Tories were in a parlous state in 2005. They were no longer the natural party of government, having lost three consecutive elections. Their support was concentrated among the elderly and the socially and geographically immobile. They were anathema to ethnic minorities and students. Since Tony Blair won his landslide majority in 1997 for the Labour party, the Conservatives had lost ground in constituencies where the proportion of university graduates was above average. By 2005, they were the third party among students, behind the Liberal Democrats, and seen by many, as Theresa May pointed out, as the “nasty party”.

Not only did they appear socially illiberal. Their reputation as sound custodians of the economy had not recovered from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism debacle under Mr Major in 1992. The party seemed unelectable.

Mr Cameron changed all that. From student days, he had seen that the Tories could be successful only if they combined economic efficiency with social liberalism. He came to power in 2010 in the middle of an economic crisis but, five years later, Britain had the fastest growth rate among the G8.

Indeed, it was economic success that gave Brexiters the confidence to propose life outside the EU. At the time of the first Europe referendum in 1975, Britain’s economic condition was such that Christopher Soames, the European commissioner, warned this was no time to leave a Christmas club, let alone the common market.

The recovery was, admittedly, concentrated in London and the British economy remained highly unbalanced. But George Osborne’s Northern Powerhouse, a radical policy of devolving power to Greater Manchester and other urban centres, sought to remedy this while, at the same time, resolving the “English Question”.

Mr Cameron’s aim, however, was not simply to secure economic recovery. He also sought the “Big Society” — more equal life chances and an aspiration nation. Though blown off course by the economic crisis and Europe, he still achieved significant reforms. The expansion of academies and the introduction of free schools — 150 by 2015 — with reforms in the curriculum and the examination system — should in the long run raise educational standards. Certainly the days of what Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair’s press spokesman, called “the bog standard comprehensive” are well and truly over.

In welfare, reforms to disability benefits and delays with universal credit have been justly criticised. Nevertheless, the welfare-to-work programme has led to the proportion of out-of-work households being the lowest for nearly 20 years, while gay marriage emphasised Mr Cameron’s social liberalism.

Perhaps the most striking evidence of his tolerant approach is the good feeling he created in government: a happy ship in contrast to the cabinet squabbles of the Blair and Brown years. It was this good feeling that made coalition possible. Many Conservative MPs complained that he got on better with the Liberal Democrats than with his own rightwing. In 2015, Mr Cameron might have secretly hoped for a second coalition rather than an overall majority, and potentially avoided the EU referendum.

A political leader should be judged less as a legislator than as an educator. Tony Benn once ruefully commented that, even if one repealed every legislative act of Thatcher’s 13 years in power, her legacy as a teacher would remain.

Mr Cameron’s will be as a teacher of a generous and civilised Conservatism, which attracted the support of centre and centre-left voters. It was these voters who last year gave the Conservatives their first overall majority since 1992. It is a legacy which Mrs May, judging from her speech on Monday, with its emphasis on a socially responsible Conservatism, seems determined to continue.

History will judge Mr Cameron more kindly than today’s commentariat. For, as Iain Macleod, Conservative colonial secretary in the 1960s, noticed, “the Conservative party is a very generous party. It always forgives those who are wrong. Sometimes it even forgives those who are right.”

The writer is professor of government at King’s College, London

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