Is David Cameron the ‘British Obama’?

Mike Kielty 19 June 2008

Britain and the United States. Two nations in which the present political leaders – George W. Bush and Gordon Brown – are facing the ire of both the media and the public. Two nations with rising political stars – David Cameron and Barack Obama – who both present themselves as the candidate of ‘change’, as the advocates of a new kind of politics that is set apart from the status quo.

Both of these men are young by the standard of politicians (Cameron is 41; Obama, 46), both have changed the image of their respective parties; both have the ability to impress a crowd. Obama’s handsome face and stentorian voice have managed to put bums-on-seats across America, as he proved recently by drawing 75,000 supporters to a rally in Oregon. The senator from Illinois has galvanised the country with his powerful rhetoric of ‘change’ and (what is arguably more impressive for a US Presidential hopeful), he has managed to win hearts and minds outside of America as well. It is he, not David Cameron, who is currently the darling of media commentators and voters on this side of the Atlantic. What will Obama’s rise mean for David Cameron, the Tory leader who has himself promised to ‘transform society’? Can he galvanise a nation with his own idea of ‘change’? Can he be the ‘British Obama’?

Last year’s Tory Party conference may have been rather less well-attended than Obama’s Oregon rally, but nonetheless, David Cameron’s personal approval ratings have been rising ever since his assured performance there. Striding confidently around the podium and speaking without notes, he delivered his cautionary version of the modern age: ‘New World, Old Politics failing, Change is Required.’ His line, ‘it might be a bit messy, but it will be me’, may have been due less to a spontaneous rapport with his audience and more to the astute speechwriting by his media-savvy advisors, but it worked well in the hall and on the TV screen, providing a clear contrast to the style of his Labour opponents. This was the type of laid-back performance that Gordon Brown could not deliver even with the advice of a thousand Alistair Campbells ringing in his ears.

Writing in The Times last year, Andrew Sullivan, the respected commentator on American politics, asserted that Cameron and Obama both ‘represent to their respective countries the latest answer to an old question’. For Sullivan, a potential victory for Obama (America’s first ‘postracial candidate’) in a future election would show that America had moved on from the racial tensions that had handicapped previous non-white candidates for the White House. In Britain, on the other hand, Sullivan argues that Cameron ‘represents a candidacy that is, at root, postclass’: the Tory leader proves that it is possible to have gone to Prep School, Eton and Oxford and still be an attractive figure for British voters. Sullivan’s argument neglects the extent to which race and class still affect the way that people vote in both Britain or America. Yet he is right to argue that Cameron and Obama at least present themselves as the faces of a more positive future for politics, a future which bypasses the cultural tensions of the past.

Before Cameron is triumphantly proclaimed by the Tory rank-and-file as ‘The British Obama’, however, it should be noted that when it comes to actual policies, there are marked differences between the two politicians. This is particularly evident with regard to international relations. Obama has called for more dialogue with Middle Eastern governments, including Iran, as a means of achieving a lasting peace in the region. Cameron has been careful to distance himself from such a position. The delight of most Tory MPs and members at Cameron’s recent condemnation of the European constitution suggests that even if he does desire to make Britain more actively-engaged in the international community, his ambitions will be limited by his own party. The old Thatcherite wing of the Tory party is still alive and kicking, and it is unlikely to give Cameron the same amount of leeway as the Democrats will give Obama in an America desperate for change after eight years of George W Bush.

Obama’s victory in the race for the Democratic nomination has taught many media pundits the folly of making firm predictions about politicians months or years ahead of elections. After all, who would have guessed that an inexperienced, little-known senator from Illinois would defeat the polished and well-sponsored candidate Hillary Clinton? Ultimately, it is only if Cameron and Obama become Prime Minister and President (still a big ‘if’ in both cases) that we be able to tell if Cameron has the guts to overcome the conservatism of his own party and become that most paradoxical of political animals: a ‘Conservative’ for ‘change’. It will only be after the first (suitably cringe-worthy) photographs of him shaking hands with Obama outside Downing Street or the White House that we will be able to decide if David Cameron is truly the ‘British Obama’ and if he is so, what that might mean for Britain and America.

Mike Kielty