The British Prime Minister Is Coming to America

By Ferguson, Niall | Newsweek, March 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

The British Prime Minister Is Coming to America


Ferguson, Niall, Newsweek


Byline: Niall Ferguson

He wants intervention in Syria and Somalia. Will he get his way?

Reading David Cameron's biography prepares you for a character out of Downton Abbey. His paternal grandmother was a direct descendant of King William IV, so technically he is a fifth cousin of the queen. His maternal grandfather was a baronet. His father's ancestral home is Blairmore House in Aberdeenshire. He was educated at Eton and Bwrasenose College, Oxford, where he was a member of the notoriously toffee-nosed Bullingdon Club. His father-in-law is another baronet.

Yet when you actually meet Cameron he's anything but a throwback to the Edwardian era. Disarmingly free of snobbery, he is Dave to his inner circle, hates wearing a suit and tie, and is as happy watching 30 Rock as Downton Abbey on TV. The only clue that Cameron is to the manner born is the seemingly effortless way he shoulders the burdens of power. He must be the first prime minister in history to look younger after nearly two years in office.

Cameron is in fact five years younger than his American counterpart. But when he meets President Obama in Washington this week, the age difference will look more like 10 years. Power has visibly aged Barack Obama. It has rejuvenated Cameron.

When I meet him in 10 Downing Street shortly before his U.S. trip, he is looking fit and relaxed--the very antithesis of the man whose portrait glares down from his office wall. Winston Churchill overate, guzzled champagne and brandy, smoked Cuban cigars, and liked nothing better than to work into the small hours of the morning. Cameron's lifestyle could hardly be more different.

"I go to bed quite early, and I get up quite early," he says. "I'm at my kitchen table doing my box [of official papers] at 5:45 a.m. My grandmother always said it's the hours before midnight that count. My hours are completely the opposite of Churchill's." He plays tennis every Sunday and goes for a run through Hyde Park once a week. Only rarely do the pressures of the job disturb his sleep.

And yet, for all their differences in temperament and lifestyle, Cameron clearly identifies strongly with Churchill. "It does still thrill me when I walk in and see the Cabinet Room [which adjoins his office] and think of the days in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Hitler." Last December, when Cameron refused to sign on to the latest European plan to rescue the euro, many Conservatives saw it as an act of Churchillian defiance. The parallel is not one Cameron disavows.

In another respect, too, he and Churchill are kindred spirits. It is often forgotten that Churchill began his career as a Conservative, switched to the Liberals in 1904, then returned to the Conservatives in 1925. Cameron has often described himself--in a phrase that sounds oxymoronic to American ears--as a "liberal conservative." (Think Rockefeller Republican.)

Revealingly, Cameron defines his version in terms of foreign policy (though he could equally well reference the fact that he leads a Conservative-Liberal coalition): "You get the instincts of a conservative--skeptical and worried about grand plans to remake the world--but [you are] liberal in that you want to see the spread of democracy and rights and freedoms that we enjoy here."

It is in the realm of foreign policy that Cameron is most obviously Churchillian. Like Tony Blair, he is drawn to the idea of military intervention where human rights as well as national interest are at stake. It was he, not President Obama, who pressed for military intervention in Libya last year. And while Obama was careful to occupy the back seat during the NATO air campaign that helped topple the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Cameron was up front, fighting with Nicolas Sarkozy for control of the steering wheel and gas pedal.

I ask Cameron why he is not pushing equally hard for military intervention in Syria. After all, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has now killed significantly more of its people than Gaddafi killed of his.

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