For the Record by David Cameron

They used to ask people who had suffered a bad knock to the head a number of questions. After asking you to recall your own name, they usually asked for the name of the prime minister.

In the recent procession of failures, show-offs, and nonentities who’ve run Britain, you’d almost be forgiven for failing to know who David Cameron was. He was the one with the smooth skin and the air of entitlement, the last but one to hold what was once one of the most important jobs on earth.

Now here come his memoirs. There is a predictable template for these things. The moody cover mug shot. The teams of fact-checkers and ghostwriters, the ritual thanks to people like the constituency chairman and election agents one has never heard of. The confected “row” to whip up interest (in this case some nonsense involving the Queen). Underlying everything is the conviction that the author is omniscient, always right, and often misunderstood. We are admitted to the periphery of the court, and thrown a bone or two. At least this memoir spares us anything like Tony Blair’s toe-curling description of his sex life.

He was the one with the smooth skin and the air of entitlement.

These memoirs have been a long time in coming. But they have not missed the boat, partly because his successor, Theresa May, was such a wet weekend, and more because Britain is still trying to work out how to deal with Cameron’s legacy. As I write, the government, Parliament, and 11 judges of the Supreme Court are all dancing the hokey-cokey across the country’s constitution—such as it is.

For Cameron was the man who had the bright idea of testing his country’s fondness for Britain’s membership in the European Union by holding a referendum on the subject. For a man who boasts in his memoirs of thinking deeply about politics at Oxford, this was an extraordinary thing to do and shows a deep misunderstanding of the country he claims to love. In a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to make decisions. Passing the buck to a referendum messes everything up.

Majority Rules

Why did he do it? It is hard to resist the feeling that Cameron is a glib man whose effortless rise had convinced him he could get away with anything. His 700-plus pages of memoirs are notably short on the demons that drive those who enter politics, and the best he can come up with is that “I genuinely believed it was the right thing for Britain.” If so, he chose an odd way of going about things. He wanted Britain to stay in the European Union, yet abdicated responsibility for maintaining that status. Instead, having called a referendum, he attempted to have his cake and eat it by passing the decision to the people, while also campaigning for the country to remain in the E.U.

He failed, and he admits he failed. Cameron had the support of almost the entire Establishment—most academics, businesses, trade unions, international organizations, the I.M.F., O.E.C.D., former chiefs of the intelligence services, former foreign ambassadors, even the head of the Church of England. Yet the nation he purported to lead blew a resounding raspberry at the lot of them. They were never Cameron’s people, and he was never their sort of bloke.

He did not understand his fellow citizens’ dislike of mass immigration from the rest of the E.U., nor did he ever really recognize the organization’s democratic deficit. Instead, Cameron appears to have thought that a referendum was a way of gathering public support for a more acceptable relationship, and that any lapse in doing so was “a communication failure.”

At least this memoir spares us anything like Tony Blair’s toe-curling description of his sex life.

Various figures from the European Union pantomime-dance in and out of these pages. Angela Merkel commands respect. The French president François Hollande lets him down on a budget deal, and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, does him a kindness. The priapic, perma-tanned old crooner Silvio Berlusconi uses his position representing Italy to advise everyone to get a mistress in Brussels. If only the British people had been able to see foreign leaders as human beings, perhaps they’d have got over their hatred of being ruled by people who do not speak their language.

Cameron estimates that he spent about one third of his time on foreign affairs. How much easier it had been for him to send warplanes to bomb president Qaddafi’s Libya, and how he had enjoyed basking in the applause of Libyan crowds chanting his name! That the intervention turned the place into a failed state was the U.N.’s fault. As for his inability to get the Westminster Parliament to endorse his plans later to bomb Syria, that was just “an overreach,” no more.

The best Cameron can come up with is that “I genuinely believed it was the right thing for Britain.”

He doesn’t seem to recognize that others cared more than he did when he failed to prevent the boozy Luxembourger Jean-Claude Juncker from becoming president of the European Commission, the Union’s mighty, but unelected, bureaucracy. When it came to the issue that ruined his office, he promised to negotiate a better relationship with the Union (and told other European leaders it was the key to getting a vote to remain in the organization), yet privately recognized he couldn’t do so.

We shouldn’t care about Cameron’s dully privileged backstory—the Home Counties stockbroker’s son who went to Eton and Oxford (shocking revelation that he smoked dope at school). What matters is what people do with the opportunities they have. True, Cameron effected some genuinely important social changes in Britain, like the legalization of gay marriage and the promotion of Free Schools. If only he had stuck to them. But, like a moth and a flame, he could not resist the lure of his real or imagined influence on the world stage. In succumbing to the mystique of his role, he is more to be pitied than hated.

He wasn’t the first prime minister to have his head turned, but he will go to his grave regarded as a failure. He knows it and gambles that eating humble pie will be enough to be forgiven. Perhaps it will. I doubt it.

Jeremy Paxman is a British broadcaster, author, and journalist, who for 25 years presented Newsnight, the BBC’s foremost nightly news-analysis program. He lives in London