Sunday, 11 March 2012

David Cameron and Top Table Syndrome

Lately we have heard much wailing from conservative commentators on the blogosphere about David Cameron: why does he take the strange and seemingly perverse decisions that he does? Does he really have any beliefs, or a strategy to fulfill them?

Only yesterday, Tim Montgomerie, writing in the New Statesman of all places,  called David Cameron "one of the most disappointing Conservative leaders". Likewise a perplexed Ed West in the Telegraph almost gloated about an impending Tory defeat in 2015, adding in a clearly perplexed tone:

"[I] don’t understand the party’s strategy of targeting the high-hanging fruit of metropolitan liberals, the sort of people who will never vote Conservative, while the core vote drifts off to Ukip."
 Mr. West is looking in the wrong direction: it is not a matter of strategy, but of personal psychology. 

It is both unfair and simplistic to state that Cameron makes such poor political decisions because he is "privileged". True, life has brought him great privilege in some areas, but also terrible misfortune in others, having suffered in his family life in ways that most of us can barely dare to think about. No, the reason Mr. Cameron thinks and acts as he does is because he possesses a psychological trait very common in people of his background.

Let us call it "Top Table Syndrome".

From a very early age, Cameron has been inculcated by his education and upbringing that a place in the first division was not only his by rite but by necessity. Brought up told that he was 'born to lead', his is the ultimate Establishment background: Eton, Oxford (1st Class honours), Tory Party leader then Prime Minister. Rarely has he failed to hit the mark required of him. 
This unquestionably brings with it its political advantages: people often remark how 'natural' leadership appears to him. However, its great weakness is that as an Establishment insider he simply cannot imagine a place outside the elite circles of power and social prestige. 
It is only when you understand that the seemingly often strange mixture of decisions he takes starts to make sense: he exercised an European Union (EU) "veto" to much acclaim, only to backtrack on it when he thought that no one would spot him doing so. Forget the need to placate Nick Clegg - to have held fast would not only have lit up a very large sign called 'EXIT' for the UK's place in the EU but also for his own place at the EU's, and perhaps the world's, top tables of power and influence.

Its the same with his weird obsession with 'gay marriage'. whatever the pros and cons of the subject, the issue does not register on most people's radar screens. It is, however, very much a litmus test for your acceptance in the smartest circles of Metropolitan society: not to have backed it would have risked permanent exclusion from its conclaves.

Hence those Tories who still wish Cameron to undertake radical reform in the areas of the European Union or, say, on issues likely to make him a social pariah in fashionable Metropolitan circles  (for example reform of the BBC) are very likely to be disappointed. Cameron will only countenance radical reform in areas  where his own elite political and social status is not threatened. Tony Blair (Fettes and Oxford) was exactly the same, often talking of hard choices but rarely if ever making them.

In fact, this desperate need to appear at the very top  is a pervasive cultural influence within our elite and arguably the primary reason behind every major British foreign policy disaster made since the war: Suez, Iraq, and, of course, membership of the EU. In 2006, the journalist Brian Walden recounted a discussion with two British MPs prior to Britain's entry in the then Common Market:

"Let me tell you of something that happened to me 40 years ago. We weren't then in the Common Market and I was talking to two MPs, one of whom was in favour of joining, the other was against. In the hope of being conciliatory I rather jokingly suggested that we might apply for associate membership, which would give us the economic benefits, but no political obligations or control.
The absence of political control shocked my colleagues. Both of them turned on me like tigers. And then one of them said something very significant. He said "Britain's place is and always must be at the top table."

Top Table Syndrome is also the reason behind the ridiculous myth of a exclusive "Special Relationship" with the United States. Almost completely without historical foundation, the concept was, and is, deeply hurtful and offensive to other Anglosphere countries, especially Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which arguably we are culturally closer to than America and who have made a far more altruistic sacrifice on our behalf. Our desperation to cling to this delusion  has often made us seem like a lapdog, and has had led to  abominations such as US-UK extradition treaty and the grotesque injustice  experienced by Christopher Tappin. Thankfully, the open hostility displayed the current President of the United States towards the UK seems to have finally dispelled the 'Special Relationship' myth, at least for now, but don't be surprised if some fool (almost certainly a Tory fool) infected with Top Table Syndrome doesn't try to resurrect it from the dead in future.

The sobering lesson for UKIP is this: in a society where government is now once again dominated by people with elite Establishment backgrounds similar to Blair's or Cameron's, it will be extremely difficult to get the UK out of the EU. For many such people, no matter how strong the intellectual case becomes, the emotional case for staying in is even stronger. Of course we will be more rich and free, but the elite's place at the top table's of the world will be gone forever, an that for some is too awful a price to contemplate.

The fight is, of course, still very much worth it.