A modern lesson in ‘old school’ leadership: UK Prime Minister David Cameron

by seangljacobs

The British Prime Minister deserves more credit than electoral success

Sean Jacobs

Until the recent UK election it had become common, even among staunch conservatives, to write off the Tory leader David Cameron. The sum of accusations Cameron faced, from disfiguring conservative principles to peddling an overly cosmetic appearance, primed the Tories to predictable electoral defeat. No British party, the experts said, should fantasize of an outright majority. And certainly not the Conservatives.

While many were surprised with Cameron’s win the applause has, understandably, shifted rapidly to pressing issues of Greek debt and offshore terror attacks against British nationals. But Cameron’s triumph, especially in the context of a modern Western democracy, is remarkable.

A growing lack of interest in politics, alongside a fading sense of national identity, isn’t exactly the arena where extolling the principles of conservatism receive great traction. The modern Western democracy, with an addiction to debt-financing and government-led solutions, also presents obstacles for center-right leaders seeking less government and greater individual responsibility.

Attributing electoral success, too, isn’t always easy. In office, for example, larger elements present beyond the leader’s direct control – the fluctuation of capital markets, gaffes from candidates and, especially in Europe, Greek profligacy and German benevolence. Many have also argued that procuring the help of Australian pollster Linton Crosby enabled Cameron to simply fall over the line – manipulating electoral success rather than earning it.

What we can touch on with some certainty, however, is Cameron’s career performance, his conservative principles and, perhaps most importantly, how he has communicated these principles over the past few years.

The fight, to paraphrase Muhammad Ali, is never won and lost in the ring. It’s won, Ali famously said, ‘behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.’

Political leaders are the same. Stepping back to examine Cameron we see an early life of privilege but not absent of the professional grind and hard work that are prerequisites for success in any field. Eton and Oxford educated, he catapulted into politics as a political researcher followed by a short stint in the private sector.

He got noticed in the way that most others do – by delivering results and adding value. ‘Well, there is this bright lad in the CRD [Conservative Research Department],’ said the former British Prime Minister John Major, referring a colleague to a young Cameron in the early 1990s.

Cameron clearly took time in his early years to not just learn lofty tones but take apart and understand the details. ‘He was particularly good at explaining economic policy,’ reflects Bruce Anderson on the young Cameron. ‘He had the clarity of mind, and the patience, to explain economic conundrums to an ignoramus, and would have made an excellent don.’

Indeed, I can think of three examples of Cameron’s skill as a versatile communicator. First is a 2008 TED talk  titled ‘The next age of government.’ Here we see Cameron, in the TED arena where conservatives rarely tread, delivering depth to policies with an easy message and simple graphics.

The second is Cameron in 2012 speaking to a group of young minority kids at a youth center. There’s no teleprompter. Cameron, sleeves up, is ring-fenced by the crowd. The audience isn’t hand-picked and their questions are hard. Yet he doesn’t pander. He’s not dull or monotonous. Instead, he matches their questions with energy and, importantly, he’s sincere. While they’re not likely to agree you can sense an appreciation of his presence. Again, by enthusiastically getting his points across in a forum that conservatives don’t usually enter, he departs with a morsel of their respect.

The third example of Cameron’s skill a versatile communicator is after the Boston bombings, where Cameron delivers a press conference alongside Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. The contrast between the two styles is evident. Patrick is understandably measured and somber. Cameron echoes Patrick’s sentiment but, at the same time, forcefully delivers a message of resilience, methodically laying out his steps toward anti-extremism by ‘crushing the narrative’. In this moment Cameron is a leader who, in true Westminster fashion, must think of the mechanics – not just the vision but the execution. The principle ingredients of a Cameron speech, writes Dylan Jones, are ‘charm, confidence and loose, easy sincerity.’ Here, however, he sheds charm in favor of tenacity.

Cameron clearly knows his audience. But he also knows, and remains anchored by, his ‘smaller government and bigger citizen’ principles. ‘The centre right have still got some of the best arguments about how we change society,’ he reflected in an interview almost a decade ago, ‘how we improve the economy, how we get people back to work, how we get better results from schools, and a modern generation of Conservatives can make those arguments free of the baggage of the past.’

What is Cameron truly passionate about? ‘Social recovery,’ he said in 2011, ‘as well as economic recovery.’ With these twin passions he’s not uncomfortable about a role for government beyond the usual conservative commitments to law and order or national defense. ‘There’s an important branch of Conservative thinking that understands that you will only build a strong society if you build strong civic institutions,’ he says, ‘whether that’s the family or neighbourhood and community institutions… if you look at the pioneering work that previous Conservative leaders, whether locally or nationally, did on things like slum clearance and urban regeneration.’

But, at the same time, Cameron has been clear about the limitations of government. He has been consistent, for example, on cutting down spending, injecting greater choice to government services and removing red tape. His Big Society program, despite receiving broadsides from all angles, has consistently been about rolling back the state and elevating greater personal responsibility and social entrepreneurship. While easy to mock the Big Society has been strategically clever in getting people to think before asking, in Cameron’s words, ‘Well, what can the government do to sort it out?’

Appearance is, of course, important as a leader. Having briefly observed Cameron behind closed doors in 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and at the 2014 G20 Summit, I’ve seen him over the years appear greyer and more fatigued. But it was clear that his poise – the brisk gait, the considered thought, the intense focus in his eyes – had not changed.

Away from the thrust of Westminster politics, Cameron appears the type of person able to produce results in any situation; set him down flat broke in any city in the world, as the saying goes, and he wouldn’t miss a meal. He’s a versatile communicator constantly expounding his message, not just with a carefully calibrated philosophy, but armed with a bespoke communications toolkit for a diverse range of audiences. ‘As comfortable in a church pulpit,’ to quote Stanley Greenberg’s observation of Bill Clinton, ‘as in a Wall Street Conference Room.’

I feel Cameron’s performance in the 2015 UK election isn’t attributable to slick electoral tactics or manipulative polling but reduces to a sturdy example of un-muddled and old-fashioned leadership – working hard, tailoring a simple message and staying committed to principles. His triumph not only gives hope for center-right leaders but those possessing a well-crafted philosophy able to sell their message in diverse terrain – lessons, ultimately, that won’t go unnoticed in 2016.

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