A year can be a very long time in politics. When Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon published their book, Cameron at 10, in 2015, the Prime Minister was riding on the crest of the wave of election victory. When they came to update the book this summer, following the Brexit vote, he had resigned.
How the Cameron premiership will be remembered depends very much on how Brexit pans out, they said. If it is disastrous for Britain and Europe, if could be disastrous for him too, but they both seemed to hope for a kinder outcome.
They painted a broadly sympathetic portrait of Cameron, the youngest Prime Minister for 198 years, and the first to lead a peace-time coalition government since the 1930s. Perhaps, they suggested, he was both happier and most successful at coalition government than when he won a majority, and that the partnership with the Lib-Dems allowed him to pursue a reforming agenda which many in his own party would have opposed.
Whether for good or ill, his premiership was dominated by the issue of Europe. While he saw it as a “boil which had to be lanced” in order to get on with his agenda (a left-of-centre, modernising one which included gay marriage, overseas development aid and prison reform) others within his party saw it as central.
Did he have to call a referendum on Europe? It’s likely, Snowdon said, that when it appeared in the 2015 election manifesto, it was a promise the party never thought they would have to fulfil as they didn’t expect to win a majority. With rebellion in his own party and Ukip snapping at his heels, he clearly felt that he had no other choice, but both writers were critical of the way he conducted the campaign. While describing the Remain campaign as “infantile”, Seldon then went on to say it was a “tragedy” that, just when Cameron had worked out exactly what he wanted to do, and had the political experience do it, he lost the Brexit vote, and with it, his job.
The day began with two novelists whose books examine the subject of surveillance.
Patrick Flanery’s new book, I Am No One, is about a middle-aged American academic who begins to receive packages which suggest his internet browsing history, emails and phone calls are being monitored. Flanery said he was interested in “how accidental acts can put you on the wrong side of a set of algorithms”, in a society where we are all observed and the “horse of privacy” has already bolted from the stable.
Surveillance was very different in 1981, the year of Francesca Kay’s novel The Long Room.
Her protagonist, Stephen Donaldson, works for “The Institute”, and falls in love with the wife of the man whose conversations he is tasked with listening to.
Kay’s book also captures a period of time, the year of the Falklands War, the royal wedding and the onset of Thatcherism proper, which feels like it is swiftly becoming part of history.
But all writers are observers, listeners, sometimes to others, sometimes to themselves. Louis de Bernieres described the art of listening to the poetic muse in his event, in which he read from his collection of love poems, Of Love and Desire. “Poems just turn up. They arrive in the most impolite way and you have to make room for them. One arrived last night on Princes Street.” And he treated us to that poem’s first reading.
The best-selling author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Birds Without Wings explained that poetry is his first love, and that he was first “outed” as a poet by Brian Johnstone, then director of StAnza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, who encouraged him to bring his poetry out of the closet. His love poems, written from young adulthood to middle age and reflecting all moods of love, are, he said, “biography, with plenty of lies and transformations”.