In the early 1950s, the Hooker Chemical Company was looking for a place to dump a variety of excitingly toxic chemical wastes, and settled upon a disused canal in Niagara Falls, NY called the Love Canal, which it promptly filled up with a touch under 20,000 tons of wastes and capped off with impermeable clay such that they could never be retrieved. The Niagara Falls School Board, in their infinite wisdom, then bought the canal — unwillingly, on Hooker’s part, under threat of eminent domain, and under a caveat that essentially reads “this is a pit full of toxic wastes, caveat emptor.” The school board then used this open — and most importantly to them, astonishingly cheap — land to build an envisaged new model community, including numerous homes and two schools, and breaching the impermeable clay cap in the process.
I mention all of this because the image of what happened next in this fascinating tale of compounding stupidity and irresponsible decisions brings to mind another series of quite transparently terrible decisions that are presently having long-run consequences upon innocent people who did nothing to bring them upon themselves, specifically the premiership of one David Cameron. We are now well past the “clay cap being breached” stage of Cameron’s legacy and straight into the “puddles of dioxin appearing in the gardens of children with multiple sets of teeth” stage. It’s very, very difficult to see Cameron’s premiership as anything other than a disaster on every level, and to say it has aged like milk is an understatement. “Aged like a leaking canal full of benzene” seems far more apropos.
We are, at present, undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime event, that being a global pandemic. This is something that threatens not only the health of our people (of whom almost 100,000 have died among millions contracting a novel disease) but that of our wider economy and even our social fabric. The tensions between those with assets and capital — landlords, bosses, the government itself even — and everyday workers have been strained to near-breaking point, with a variety of public sector workers from nurses to police stuck in the middle. Literally every single one of the issues we are facing today as a nation can either be laid directly at Cameron’s feet or was — at best — strongly exacerbated by his administration, in concert with the Liberal Democrats.
“Austerity” is a word that somehow does not quite cover the evisceration of the public realm that occurred under Cameron’s watch. A BMJ study attributes around 130,000 excess deaths to government cuts in the 2010–15 period, a study to which Cameron’s defenders reply “no it didn’t” without ever especially explaining why. “No it didn’t” is a common thread in the attempted rehabilitations and defences of Cameron’s period in office, alongside of course “it needed to happen” (it didn’t); a reflexive and deeply contemptible attempt to deny what anyone can see right in front of their face. It helps, however, to go beyond purely the fact of spending cuts in and of themselves and more onto the nakedly regressive and pointlessly spiteful way in which the Cameron administration tended to go about its business.
The welfare safety net is something that proves crucial in periods such as, purely as a random example, a catastrophic and once-in-a-century recession. Cameron’s government all but took it apart, shifting new claimants over to Universal Credit, a system that features designed-in aspects such as a month-long delay in first payments, an obtuse online-only application procedure and a need to borrow money from the government to meet initial immediate needs (that then needs to be repaid from already meagre payouts). It’s extremely difficult to see these as anything other than deliberately punitive towards those already on the receiving end of unemployment or ill health, or again as in this case a global pandemic, given that there is no cogent need for any of these measures in any system designed to actually help people. Of course, very few people cared until, as now, Universal Credit was not solely for those out-of-sight-out-of-mind people at the bottom of the food chain but instead is expected to be the sole safety net for millions of people, some of whom the Conservative Party professes to actually care about.
“Deliberately punitive” runs as a common thread through the government’s treatment of those it quite avowedly couldn’t care less about, including the disabled, who it systematically abused and impoverished for no particular reason to the point the United Nations censured it (Cameronites’ response: “no it didn’t”, “it needed to happen”), and those who had the temerity to have a socially rented house with an extra bedroom in it in a country with a severe paucity of socially rented houses. It also proved hostile to workers’ rights, making enforcement of these subject to swingeing and unaffordable tribunal fees, requiring unpaid work for high street chains as a condition of claiming benefits and showing itself to be intensely relaxed about zero hours contracts, phony self-employment and the concurrent growth of the gig economy, all transparent end-runs around workers’ rights that it did nothing to prevent and did not appear to consider a problem. Nor did it appear to care about the absurd explosion in private rents over the course of its existence, or the concurrent suppression of wages since the 2008 crash, leading to an easily foreseeable surge in precarity and tempering of economic growth. One of its first actions was even to increase VAT — an all but inescapable tax for individuals — to 20%, leading to an immediate increase in shelf prices for workers even while corporations received a significant discount on their tax bills.
Time and time again, Cameron’s government focused its punishment on the already-impoverished and the average worker; those already subject to vast inequalities of bargaining power and with no capital or even means of acquiring capital. Those who had capital were almost certain to be fine; those without were screwed further and the prospect of acquiring any allowed to drift further out of reach. Workers not able to escape the ensuing trap of high rents, low wages and what transpired as essentially at-will employment with few means of enforcing rights are now the ones who, given the COVID-sized hole blown in the economy’s side, are least able to withstand the shock. Although Boris Johnson’s government is (to put it generously) not doing all that much for everyday employees, the root cause of the problems they face is that David Cameron’s government either deliberately or through inaction undermined their conditions, undermined their protections and ruined their sole cushion and safety net simply through naked hostility mixed with a profound lack of concern for anyone the government felt it could safely ignore.
Of course, Cameron’s programme for government was not just limited to contempt for those it didn’t think would vote for it anyway — it also deliberately wrecked the public realm in such a comprehensive way that it’s doubtful it could ever possibly be repaired, in a way that even three Parliaments’ worth of 2019 Labour manifestos could not correct. Cameron’s limited worldview could not comprehend the idea of government investing in a public good, something that required money in the short term but did not directly generate any or was just nice to have. The “Big Society”, as it was branded, was nothing more than a con trick — this was not an empowerment of the everyday individual, it was the mass withdrawal of the state from provision of services, with the barely-concealed undertone that if you, the end-user, didn’t want to run the same services for no money then clearly you didn’t want them that much.
This, combined with cuts to local government grants (based on fanciful and spurious notions of “waste”) led to a devastation of the public sector and the everyday amenities that it provides that even Margaret Thatcher at her most Hayek-intoxicated would have balked at. Whatever could not be privatised or offloaded onto some other entity’s balance sheet was defunded and depleted, if not then eventually destroyed, either through deliberate ruination or indifference. The problem with the tricks Thatcher pulled in the 1980s to give the superficial illusion of redistributed wealth — share offers in government-owned utilities, Right to Buy, reductions in taxes — is that eventually you run out of state assets to sell. Cameron didn’t realise this and tried to do the same thing again, unsuccessfully, with nothing to show for it except a hollowed-out state.
Cameron’s limited calculus of “waste” subsequently led to the unstated dogma that anything that was required past the point of bare sufficiency for the quotidian needs of the present day is “wasteful” and therefore to be eliminated, with the corollary that if you can reduce a department’s spending by 10% or so arbitrarily then you can do it again without issue. The blunt idiocy of this worldview aside, no more clearly can the present day effects of it be seen than in the inadequate, insufficient and out-of-date PPE and borderline non-existent pandemic planning, both of which have contributed to a situation in which nurses in NHS hospitals treat those dying of novel diseases while wearing bin bags and die themselves as a result, and the NHS itself is consistently on the precipice of being overwhelmed even without a pandemic. You cannot run a system whose demand fluctuates unpredictably with zero slack; another fairly obvious truism that Cameron failed to recognise, either accidentally or on purpose, and that the British government is now having to rediscover for itself at the cost of hundreds of thousands of innocent peoples’ lives.
In the last few years of his premiership, having not even fully satiated himself with wrecking peoples’ lives and services out of a mixture of half-baked neo-Thatcherite ideology and rank incompetence, he decided to have a crack at settling looming constitutional questions too. The Scottish independent referendum of 2014 could at least have settled its question somewhat definitively; that is, had Cameron not the very next day taken its result as an opportunity to showboat to English voters about how he could shut the uppity Scots out of Parliamentary decision making, inflaming tensions unnecessarily solely for cynical party political gain at a point when an emollient show of unity could have gone some way to soothing the country. Far from settling the question, the SNP are now (somewhat reasonably) implacably in favour of a rerun, seeing Cameron’s completely pointless EVEL stunt as a symbol of how untrustworthy and duplicitous the Westminster government is.
Then, not particularly satisfied with playing chicken with the country once and winning, Cameron promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union in the 2015 election, won via a campaign laden down with scaremongering and lies, and dutifully called said referendum for June 23rd 2016. The only problem of course, given that he was to campaign for remain, was that he had spent the previous six or seven years stoking fears about immigration, banging on about targets that couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be met, and blaming the EU for those targets not being able to be met. Consequently, he sought out and got a “renegotiation” deal which it turned out did nothing to stop all that immigration he had spent time telling everyone was bad, in between bashing the EU for not letting him stop it.
And you know, even with that significant handicap, why couldn’t he win for remain? Every political crisis, every pointless referendum, he had snaked his way through and come out the other side unscathed, from being personally steeped in a seedy Murdoch phone-hacking culture to a disastrously mismanaged intervention in Libya to ruining public services and countless peoples’ lives. He was invulnerable. The winner of first Tory majority for just under 25 years, the victor in the Scottish independence referendum — why not? He put the whole house on red, lost, and then immediately resigned, with it later being reported that his parting words were wanting someone else to do the “hard shit”. It even transpired that this recklessness extended to actively forbidding his government from making plans for if remain did lose, bequeathing to his hapless successor a total absence of strategy in the face of a once-in-a-generation constitutional realignment dictated by plebiscite; a reckless, terminally incompetent charlatan until the bitter end.
It’s tempting to say that Cameron’s premiership ended with him finally having to take responsibility for his actions, ending his career as Prime Minister in ignominy. However, this is rather contradicted by the fact that he didn’t. Cameron has not suffered at all for his string of deleterious and downright stupid decisions as Prime Minister, up to and including stoking petty nationalism and then trying to tell people not to vote for petty nationalism when he didn’t want them to. He left office and with it left the job of negotiating Brexit to other people, living a shed-bound life of leisure while the populace continued to deal with the devastation he left behind. The nurses and care workers dying of COVID-19 in our hospitals and care homes, covered with nothing but black bags, are the ones suffering from Cameron’s decisions. Those dying and starving in cold homes over Christmas due to a welfare system so badly, wrongheadedly twisted in its design that it functions as a punishment mechanism for those without capital are the ones suffering. Those being compelled to go back to their zero-hours job or starve, whether they get COVID or not be damned, are the ones suffering. Cameron is safely ensconced in his shed, with his abundant capital, carefree. It is others that pay the price.
To return to the Love Canal metaphor then, the point at which the clay cap was broken and the evil released was not the Scottish independence referendum, or the EU independence referendum, but the COVID-19 crisis. Before that, the precarious were ignored — either young or poor or in low-status jobs and therefore of little concern to most of our politics, and therefore Cameron’s victimisation of these people was of no particular concern either. The ruining of their public services, the closing off of their routes out, their being thrown into a world where one needs capital to prosper but there are no routes to obtaining any, these didn’t matter because they didn’t matter; their concerns derided as childish, their voting decisions and political allegiances immature and borne of nothing but laziness and a desire for “free stuff”. Then, COVID happened. Now, everybody is precarious. People who wouldn’t previously have been subject to the Cameronite legacy of cruelty find themselves faced with an underfunded and overstretched NHS, a government in meltdown, a welfare system deliberately designed to obstruct and to hurt, employment rights scarcely worth the paper they’re written on and enforcement being pointless, if even possible at all.
Through nothing but political cynicism and adherence to a bankrupt ideology, David Cameron set in train a series of events that have led to millions of lives rendered poorer and shorter, and countless needless deaths, and directly depleted Britain’s ability to respond to its biggest crisis in almost a century. He reframed our politics around cruelty, indifference, xenophobia and spite, and then when people found something to vote for that gave them more cruelty, indifference, xenophobia and spite than he could offer slinked off to avoid the fallout. Some Prime Ministers’ reputations are enhanced by time over leaving office — as the barrels of toxic sludge now emerge from the ground he put them in, and the poison seeps into everybody’s homes, and the death toll rises, David Cameron’s cannot fall low enough to do him justice.