Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone
Originally published in the Guardian, June 1.
The prime minister has successfully pursued an agenda more radical than Thatcher’s – and has managed it without anybody being terribly worried by him.
“They abolished the Human Rights Act” sounds like the first sentence of an Aldous Huxley novel. The Conservatives actually campaigned on a manifesto pledge to get rid of human rights and people voted for it. As electoral choices go, it’s not far off choosing to be ruled by a dry, whispering voice taunting you from an antique mirror.
Here, in what may well be the final years of our civilisation, I would like to ask a question that has been worrying me for some time. What if David Cameron is a genius? A shrewd and malevolent psychopath who thinks two moves deeper into the game than any of his opponents? What if there sits in Downing Street today a modern-day Moriarty, living in a world where his schemes are only kept in check by the deductive brilliance of Harriet Harman? As Holmes would say, look at the evidence. Cameron has managed to set England against Scotland, Scotland against Labour. He has given his enemies the referendums they asked for, and won. He has left Nick Clegg looking like one of those terrified mouse faces that you find in an owl pellet. He has successfully pursued an agenda more radical than Thatcher’s with less popular support than John Major.
Most impressively, Cameron has managed all this without anybody being terribly worried by him. Immediately after his re-election he announced: “For too long we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens so long as you obey the law we will leave you alone.” A statement so far to the right that it conceded the political centre ground to Judge Dredd.
We have an idea of Cameron as an empty suit – he’s remarkably forgettable for someone who has a face like a gammon travel iron. What if this is simply a character he chooses to play? We can see the mileage Boris Johnson has got out of playing the fairly simple character of a sort of pissed-up dandelion. What if Cameron’s persona is actually more crafted and insidious? He has a brisk, stiff air of wishing he was somewhere else. We imagine he would much rather be a few years in the future, heading up some foundation that’s advising Qatar on how to bid for the Winter Olympics. Perhaps that’s quite an effective manner to adopt when robbing a country. Announcing in a clipped voice that you’ll be out of our hair just as soon as you’ve privatised the NHS, terribly sorry for any inconvenience. Cameron having a down-to-business persona is not terribly unlike one of those gangs who do heists in high-vis jackets.
Speaking of which, I’ve always thought that Batman hired Robin simply to draw fire: throwing a teenage boy a bright yellow cape and telling him to run through a darkened warehouse full of goons. There seems to be little difference in getting Michael Gove to dress up in a bib and plus fours and throwing him into a roomful of barristers. Gove’s appointment as justice secretary seems to be somewhere between a sardonic trolling of the judiciary and simple misdirection. If he ever does have to produce a Bill of Rights it will be a Producers-style clusterfuck that draws attention away from all the real business of the government.
Why else would he have put Gove there? Are we to imagine that his priority in choosing someone to draft tricky legislation was that they have a face that’s easy to carve into a pumpkin? Gove is a distraction for a robbery, who has been hired to be a kind of human bin fire. When the real business of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ratification is under way, he’ll be wheeled out on Newsnight looking like a treefrog trying to escape from a scrotum and the whole culture will stop to take aim.
It’s time we accepted the true depth and horror of Cameron’s genius. In the run up to announcing a legislative programme entirely composed of the sort of things the Sheriff of Nottingham would yell at villagers as threats, he had everybody talking about foxes. He’s introducing the bulk interception of our emails and the only feeling it seems to have provoked from the public is mild arousal. He got quarter of a million people to sign a petition for a Human Rights Act referendum that they would definitely lose (British people think the European court of human rights is all about making sure that Ian Brady can get Netflix or marmalade or something). Indeed, Cameron had us all talking about human rights legislation while quietly pursuing a TTIP trade deal that will make human rights meaningless compared with those of corporations.
And there we may have the real clue to Cameron’s manner. He is a sort of bored viceroy engaged in the handover of power from government to corporations. He has a detailed idea of what life will be like 10 years down the line, when sovereignty is subordinated to corporate courts. He probably feels that, in context, we are churlish to get upset at this colourful, Lannisterish little government he has got together for the handover. Imagine the wry contempt the master criminal must have felt for Holmes, living at the centre of the brutal British empire and imagining that Moriarty’s little crimes were the worst thing in the world.