Cameron’s less than discreet

Tony Judt, the gifted British-born historian who has died in New York from motor neurone disease at the age of 62, was a truth-seeker, tireless in his pursuit of precision. Latterly unable to sit down and write, he organised his thoughts in the course of sleepless nights and dictated word-perfect essays the following day.

By Neil Berry

Published: Wed 11 Aug 2010, 9:04 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:08 AM

His bracingly lucid last testament, Ill Fares the Land, scorning private greed and loss of public purpose in Western society, epitomises the faith he shared with George Orwell: that linguistic and political health are indissolubly linked.

Judt would have been less than astonished by the extraordinary recent sequence of ‘mis-speaking’ by the leader of Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, Prime Minister David Cameron. Judt regarded Britain as a materialistic, celebrity-fixated society with a debased political culture – a country where hard thinking and scrupulosity had ceased to be conspicuous features of public life. It is, to be sure, hard to imagine that Cameron’s role-model, former British prime minister Tony Blair, ever lay awake struggling to ensure that the words of a forthcoming speech corresponded to the truth. Yet compared to Cameron even Blair has begun to seem like a stickler for exactitude.

Consider the evidence of Cameron’s mental sloppiness that has accumulated within weeks of his coming to power. On his first prime ministerial visit to Washington, he described Britain as ‘very much the junior partner to the US’ in the struggle to defeat Nazi Germany in 1940 at the beginning of the Second World War. Despite his education at Britain’s most revered fee-paying school, Eton, Cameron was evidently unaware that the US had not even entered the war at that stage. Even when he apologised for the mistake he continued to refer to Britain as America’s ‘junior partner’. How, though, can a country that is a much older nation-state than the United States be properly described as its junior? It is true that by 1940 Britain was being eclipsed in power by the US, but that is a different matter.

In Turkey, Cameron denounced Israel for turning Gaza into a ‘prison camp’ and then in India lashed Pakistan for ‘facing both ways’ in the war on terror. Critics of Israel were bound to welcome his denunciation of Israel over Gaza: no previous British prime minister has been prepared to speak out against the inhumanity of Israel’s conduct. Yet it was all too apparent that in both Turkey and India, Cameron’s overriding aim was to be ingratiating, to say things to which his audience would warm, in the hope of promoting British commerce.

Neither of his outbursts seemed free from cynicism. Nor was it easy to quell the suspicion that Cameron’s palpable concern with speaking for effect might be bound up with an essentially slipshod approach.

That suspicion was much strengthened by his subsequent comment suggesting that he believed that Iran already possesses a military nuclear capacity, when there is not the least evidence that that is the case. The gaffe was portrayed as another case of ‘mis-speaking’ but the impression is forming that ‘mis-speaking’ may actually be a defining characteristic of David Cameron, and that he is a far less competent performer than he was apt to seem before he became prime minister and was exposed so the full glare of the public gaze. It is hard to think of any previous British leader who has appeared so loose of tongue or who has vouchsafed so many verbal hostages to fortune in such a short space of time.

According to the old British wartime adage, ‘careless words cost lives’. Certainly, there is a worrying implication of a dangerous absence of thought behind much of what David Cameron says. As it happens, his most questionable use of language has received only token attention. Cameron has labelled one of his leading domestic policies the ‘Big Society’, a term that apparently betokens the desirability of individuals becoming more involved with their own communities, helping their neighbours and engaging in voluntary work. It is astonishing that nobody in the British media has troubled to ask Cameron what justification there is for describing such self-evidently small-scale activity as the ‘big society’. True, the ‘big society’ may be a mere slogan but even slogans usually bear a semantically intelligible relationship to whatever they are supposed to signify.

The conventional British wisdom is that Cameron has made a confident start as prime minister, but it is disturbing that a leader who has pledged to carry out a hugely contentious programme of public spending cuts and who is often obliged to offer his views on highly sensitive foreign issues has already given distinct indications that he may be in the wrong job. Considering the volatility of the times and the formidable domestic and international challenges that confront Britain, Cameron bears a great responsibility to think carefully and make sure that he is properly briefed before opening his mouth. Yet with his penchant for cavalier utterances that have to be quickly retracted he is running the risk that, whenever he makes a controversial statement, people will wonder whether he actually meant, or indeed even understood, what he was saying.

David Cameron’s background is in public relations, hardly a field in which to acquire the sense of statesmanly gravitas that distinguished Winston Churchill or the punctilious concern for the English language that marked out George Orwell. Professing concern about his country’s manifold social problems, Cameron has often spoken of the need to repair ‘broken Britain’. It is beginning to seem that the repair work might well start with his own habits of mind.

Neil Berry is a UK-based writer. For comments, write to

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