I was lucky enough to go last night to a preview of Lincoln, the new film about America’s greatest President. Immediate thoughts – Daniel Day Lewis nailed on for an Oscar, great decision by Spielberg to focus on a relatively short period of his political life, climaxing with the vote to abolish slavery, pleased it showed Lincoln’s ‘dirty hands’ approach to politics, a bit uneasy about some of the private life dialogue between Mr and Mrs Lincoln, but overall brilliant film about a brilliant man.
My son was with me and as the film ended, he had a similar thought to one I had at several moments during the film, namely ‘Cameron should avoid this unless he wants to feel deeply inferior.’
Lincoln is such a giant that it is hard to put any politician past or present up against him, but there was something depressing about the timing of this reminder of what great political leadership can achieve, coming so soon after the highlight of an ill-advised and badly executed ‘mid-term review’ by David Cameron and Nick Clegg was a reference to a Ronseal tin. Emily Maitlis from Newsnight was there, so I thank her for telling me that one of the things said on a Ronseal tin is ‘medication required after swallowing,’ aka pass the sick bag Dave.
There was something so pygmological about the whole exercise. First, backward-looking is not a good posture in politics, as we found with our equally ill advised ‘annual report,’ dropped a couple of years in. Second, in so far as Cameron and Clegg did have an eye on the future, it was vague to say the least. Third, without a clear vision and strategy (his DNA problem) there is bound to be disproportionate interest in process and presentation, as with the stuff about the the audit broken and unmaintained pledges. Pygmological with knobs on.
The other thing that came home was just how little they have achieved. They had one big goal – deficit reduction – and have failed on it. At this stage in the first Blair government, if we thinking about history, we could look back on Bank of England independence, the minimum wage, the New Deal, a referendum legislated for, fought and won to set up a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, successful presidencies of the EU, Commonwealth and G8, a war fought and won to reverse ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, and much else besides.
Some of these – plus Diana’s death of course – have been the subject of feature films already. I am not saying that is how historical success should be judged, nor am I putting the above on a par with Lincoln. What I am saying is that compared with the first two and a half years of Tony Blair’s government, Cameron has very little to look back on, which is why the tone and the demeanour on Monday were so misplaced. And in so far as he has hit the cultural space, we have had When Boris met Dave, and Posh.
Meanwhile, his catastrophic handling of Europe leads the Administration of Lincoln’s successor Barack Obama to warn of the disaster it would be if we sleepwalked our way out of the European Union. Yet it is all of a piece with a style of leadership that is all talk about the moment, never the careful plotting towards important strategic goals.
A real leader would see that the UKIP surge in the polls is not much different to the kind of support Lib Dems got mid-term until they became a part of government. Instead of challenging the nonsense they spout, Cameron panders to it. At least John Major, though he may have been ineffectual, didn’t do much damage. This guy is entirely capable of seeing Scotland leave the UK and Britain leave Europe, all while cutting the economy to shreds. I suppose the decline of Britain from strong modern power to pygmological irrelevance would be a good subject for a film. But all things considered, we should prefer it didn’t happen.