The Prime Minister joked that the gaffes had “ended” his career during his appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman, a staple of late-night US television renowned for putting politicians under the spotlight.
Faced with an impromptu quiz by the programme’s acerbic host, Mr Cameron failed to correctly identify the authors of Rule Britannia, and could not provide the English translation of Magna Carta, the charter which outlined basic civil rights later enshrined in English law.
As the first sitting UK prime minister to appear on the show, Mr Cameron conceded yesterday that he could have performed better, and promised to supplement his Oxford education with further revision.
“I’m a history obsessive, so I’m sorry I didn’t do better,” he admitted during a trade visit to Brazil. “I think when I get home and do my children’s homework, maybe I need to sit down and do a little bit extra myself.”
While he was spared the personal jibes suffered by Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, who appeared on Mr Letterman’s show earlier this year, the light-hearted interrogation threw up some embarrassing gaps in Mr Cameron’s knowledge of Britain’s past.
Billed by Mr Letterman as “a lot of dumb American questions”, the 65-year-old’s inquisition left Mr Cameron floundering after asking him who wrote Rule Britannia, the stirring patriotic anthem and staple of Last Night of the Proms.
He told Mr Letterman he was “testing” him with the query, before wrongly guessing that Edward Elgar was responsible, despite the fact the composer was born more than a century after the work’s debut.
After being informed that the song’s lyrics were penned by Scot James Thomson, and set to the music of Thomas Arne, he Cameron replied: “That’s bad. I’ve ended my career on your show tonight.” Asked if he was familiar with Kelso-born Thomson, he added to laughter: “Well, I am now.”
Mr Cameron, who has a first-class degree in politics, philosophy and economics, encountered further difficulties when challenged to provide a literal English translation of Magna Carta, and had to wait for Mr Letterman to enlighten him.
His appearance in the interviewee’s chair, ordinarily home to actors and musicians, was widely considered to be a risky manoeuvre as part of an attempt to bang the drum for Britain in the afterglow of the London Olympics and Paralympics.
It is understood that Downing Street approached the programme’s producers to let them know Mr Cameron would be available during his visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly.
His performance in the mock citizenship test raised eyebrows at home and prompted jokes that he may well struggle at passport control upon his return. Satirist Rory Bremner took to Twitter to remark: “We were right all along. Turns out David Cameron doesn’t know his Arne from his Elgar.”
Elsewhere during the 15-minute interview, however, Mr Cameron delivered concise and competent answers, correctly identifying 1215 and Runnymede as the year and place the Magna Carta was signed.
He even drew applause from the audience at the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway when he spoke about how Britain did not allow political advertising on television, and mentioned the success of the London 2012 Olympics.
‘Some dumb US questions’
THEY were described by David Letterman as “a lot of dumb American questions,” but some of the queries that the chat show host put to Prime Minister David Cameron proved somewhat tricky. Here are some of the questions, the correct answers, and Mr Cameron’s replies:
Question: Who wrote Rule Britannia?
Answer: James Thomson wrote the lyrics, set to music by Thomas Arne.
David Cameron’s answer: “Um, you’re testing me there. Elgar, I’ll go for.”
Q: When was the Magna Carta signed?
Q: Where was it signed?
Q: What is the literal translation of Magna Carta?
A: Great Charter.
DC: “I, I … again, you’re testing me.”
Q: Where is it now?
A: Four copies of the original 1215 text are located in England, with two owned by the British Library, and others kept at cathedrals in Lincoln and Salisbury. Among various later copies, one can be found in the Palace of Westminster.
DC: “It does exist, a copy is in the Houses of Parliament.”
Q: How many people do you represent in total?
A: 62,641,000 according to World Bank figures
DC: “Around 60 million. Britain is the 22nd most populous country in the world.”
Q: Did Wales vote for you?
A: The Conservatives took more than 27.1 per cent of the vote, taking eight of the 40 seats available.
DC: “Some of them did, but my party tends to do better in England.”
The Kelso poet
BORN in Kelso in 1700, James Thomson moved to London when he was in his early 20s where meetings with bards, such as Alexander Pope, convinced him of pursuing a career as a poet.
His first prominent collection of poems was The Seasons, published in 1730, which won him praise and financial security. A decade later, however, saw the release of his most famous work, Rule Britannia.
He wrote the lyrics, which were set to music by Thomas Arne, although some scholars believe Thomson may have been assisted by his playwright friend and fellow Scot, David Malloch.
Thomson died in Richmond in 1748.