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Columns, Opinions

Jacobs ’18: A capricious “conscious” conservative

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, March 23, 2017

When former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron finally appeared in the small Q&A room of about 50 students, the audience would be forgiven for exhaling a nostalgic sigh of relief. He emerged in a stately fashion; his youthful facial features and composed expressions were a reminder of another, more optimistic time — one when he was still prime minister, when Brexit seemed out of the question and a Trump presidency even more so. He was the familiar face of a disappearing world order that, despite its obvious failures, operated on a set of principles that brought a sense of stability.

And yet the audience would not be forgiven for allowing this initial sense of relief to linger. After all, the former prime minister sitting before us, legs crossed and fingers interlocked in confident anticipation of student questions, enacted misguided austerity measures under the purported aim of reducing the deficit. What resulted was an underfunded National Health Service, ballooning university tuition and, broadly speaking, a fiscal policy that seemed to disproportionately hurt the poor. Most significantly, he was the man who provided last year’s populist movements with their first chance at victory by calling for a public referendum on European Union membership. Despite Cameron’s controversial legacy and some of his shortsighted statements, his talk was a timely reminder of a political establishment willing to welcome open dialogue.

I went into the talk with strong opinions about Brexit in particular. Soon after the Brexit votes were counted, I wrote about my immediate thoughts on the decision. I said that “Cameron … gambl(ed) away the fate of the international system and transform(ed) an internal Tory schism into a case study in the perils of ‘tyranny of the majority.’” The misguided decision to call for this vote alone is sufficient reason to designate him as a “bad” Prime Minister — a man who will be remembered by history not for his successes, but for one single failure.

During the Q&A with invited students before the lecture, I asked Cameron about his decision to call for a referendum despite the obvious perils in doing so. I expected a non-response or evasion — why, after all, would a former prime minister substantively answer some American undergraduate? And yet, as he shifted his gaze from the floor to the audience and then back to the floor, he offered some thoughtful insights into his decision. He explained that the people had a fundamental right to vote on the means by which they were ruled and postponing the referendum or imposing voting quotas would only have delayed the inevitable.

Unconvinced as I was, I was thankful that he attempted to put forth a genuine argument. As I sat listening to his responses to other students, his approach to answering questions remained consistent. He offered praise of questions he thought were interesting or well constructed and polite disagreement with the framing of other questions. But most importantly, his responses were generally nuanced and coherent, intelligent and well-thought-out. I sympathized with some of his views and scoffed at others, but felt that the discussion taking place was always productive. Despite the obvious reasons why one might not like Cameron, there was refreshing common ground and a commitment to reasoned discussion that simply does not seem as possible in American politics.

Of course, this is chiefly a consequence of the political atmosphere in the United Kingdom compared with that in the United States — put simply, U.K. politics are operating within a more liberal paradigm today and the divides within Parliament therefore do not seem as large as those in Congress. For many Labour Party supporters, “Dodgy Dave” was the man who implemented Tory policies that targeted the poor while simultaneously privileging London’s wealthy elites. But in the United States, Cameron was a compassionate conservative — a centrist of the kind one might see in the Democratic Party establishment. His speech’s opening dig, in which he expressed relief at not having to listen to President Trump’s wiretaps, seemed to exemplify exactly this — it was safe, diplomatic, sterile and calculated “consensus” humor that would not have drawn laughs had it not come from a former prime minister.

And yet, amid Cameron’s professional championing of the liberal 21st century order, he made fatuous claims that dispelled his almost transfixing charm and aura of reason. When addressing the criticism that an interventionist foreign policy had bolstered terrorist groups, he was especially weak and unconvincing. In particular, he asked why an aggressive foreign policy would give a terrorist the right to commit murder — a rhetorical question so shortsighted that it would feel redundant to remark that it misses the point. Perhaps more significantly, he pointed out that 9/11 occurred prior to the Iraq War. We would therefore be misguided, he suggested, to blame U.S. or U.K. foreign policy for exacerbating terrorism or destabilizing the Middle East. To this I would simply respond: It’s 2017. Does anybody really believe this?

All of this is to say that the experience of having Cameron on campus induced a series of conflicting emotions. At first, I was struck by the extreme privilege of receiving the chance to hear him talk, then cautious thankfulness for his charisma, commitment to reasoned discourse and ample ability to defend his views. This was followed by a sinking disappointment at his legacy and policies. This resulted in an unsettling amalgam of gratitude and frustration. I was left both stacking my counterarguments to this capricious, “conscious” conservative and simultaneously hoping that one day our political enemies too can be so damn reasonable.

Julian Jacobs ’18 can be reached at julian_jacobs@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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