Magazine article The Spectator

The Political Education of David Cameron

Magazine article The Spectator

The Political Education of David Cameron

Article excerpt

The big influence on Cameron from his youth is the think tank founded by Neville Chamberlain, argues fellow Conservative Research Department alumnus Andrew Gimson

Eighty years ago this week, the institution in which David Cameron and his closest lieutenants learned their trade was born. The press is fascinated by his membership of the Bullingdon Club, but Cameron owes a thousand times more to the apprenticeship he served in the Conservative Research Department.

How dreary those words sound, and how modest the press release on 17 November 1929 announcing the foundation of the new body: 'In view of the growing complexity of the political aspect of modern industrial, Imperial and social problems, Mr Stanley Baldwin has decided to set up a special department charged with the task of organising and conducting research into these matters.'

But the ambitions which lay behind CRD were anything but modest. Neville Chamberlain, at whose urging it was created and who remained in charge of it until his death in November 1940, used it to develop the measures closest to his own heart: an ambitious programme 'to elevate the condition of the people'. Chamberlain became Prime Minister in 1937 and planned to fight an election in 1939 or 1940 in which the Tories would show that they, rather than the socialists, had the best policies to alleviate poverty and distress. This has a contemporary ring:

Cameron tells the Tories that they, rather than Labour, would do most to help the poorest.

The earnestness of CRD's early work did not prevent, and may well have promoted, an enduring tradition of frivolity and eccentricity among its staff. Frank Pakenham, the future Lord Longford, who at this point was still a Tory, joined CRD in 1929 and flung himself into drawing up a proposal for the education of the working classes. Pakenham told the following story about his colleague, Henry Stannard, a former president of the Oxford Union, when their chief visited them in their room in the house occupied by CRD at 24 Old Queen Street, next door to the present offices of The Spectator and overlooking St James's Park:

Neville Chamberlain showed every desire to put us at our ease. In a dead silence he walked over to the window, gazed across the park for a moment, appeared to be thinking hard for something to say, and then threw out the gambit: 'I wonder if those trees are cherry trees?'

Stannard drew himself up to his full five feet three inches. 'All trees, ' he remarked in his oldfashioned Union manner, 'are cherry trees.'

Chamberlain looked at him, puzzled. 'Surely, ' he said, 'that's rather an exaggeration.' 'All truth, ' said Stannard, 'is an exaggeration.' Chamberlain seemed to ponder this one deeply. He frowned, less it seemed in rejection than in genuine bewilderment. He left the room with no further word spoken on either side, and never visited us upstairs again.

Chamberlain's reputation as a social reformer was obliterated by Hitler. In a fascinating new collection of essays, Tory Policy-Making: The Conservative Research Department 1929-2009, Alistair Cooke attempts to rehabilitate this much pilloried prime minister, and describes how, after 1945, the Tories had to begin again the struggle to escape being written off as a harsh, anachronistic party of two nations and high unemployment, whose upper-class leaders had no understanding of social reform. …

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