During his weekly one-on-one meetings with Queen Elizabeth II to discuss the state of British affairs, Prime Minister David Cameron quickly assessed that he couldn’t come up with pretenses to explain away economic troubles or other problems the United Kingdom was weathering.
“I realized, ‘I’m the 12th prime minister she’s had, including Churchill.’ She’s heard every excuse,” he quipped.
Cameron, the youngest British prime minister since Lord Liverpool in 1812, served from 2010 to 2016, resigning after British voters decided to leave the European Union.
He launched Lesley University’s 2017-18 Boston Speakers Series in Boston Symphony Hall on Wednesday night, entertaining the audience with anecdotes from his prime ministership, “unpicking the populist myth,” reflecting on Brexit, and even revealing his preference in The Beatles vs. Rolling Stones debate. (See more photos.)
Cameron joked with moderator and WGBH personality Jared Bowen that it was a joy to deliver a speech uninterrupted, compared to raucous sessions on the floor of Parliament, one of which he brought his mother to.
“My mother came out ashen faced and said, ‘Darling, the things they shout at you!’” he recalled.
He said political leadership requires a thick skin, as well as time and patience, for thoughtful decision-making, which is increasingly challenging in a world facing crisis-upon-crisis and beset by digital distractions.
When asked whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s Tweets are affecting America’s relationship with its allies, Cameron said he would give President Trump the following advice: “Switch off your television and hand over your phone.”
He continued, “It’s very hard today to find time to make decisions. When you look back at your political career, which is obviously a little sad doing it at 51, you remember the big decisions, and you regret that you didn’t make more of them.”
He recounted that Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet in 1940 took five days to deliberate and discuss before deciding to fight the Nazis rather than explore a peace settlement with Adolf Hitler.
“In today’s world you’ve got to create some space to make decisions and think,” he said. “If all you do is fight Twitter wars, you’ll never get anything done.”
‘Unpicking the populist myth’
Cameron spoke about his brand of compassionate conservatism and devoted the bulk of his speech to highlighting Britain’s successes during his tenure as prime minister, using these to illustrate what he called the fallacy of “the populist myth.”
He asserted that free enterprise is the best way to improve living standards and economic success for all people and nations, both rich and emerging economies.
“I agree it hasn’t worked for everyone. The rewards at the top have accelerated, and the bottom has stagnated,” he said. “But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. Don’t reject the whole system.”
Cameron said that during his tenure, Britain gained three million jobs and saw one million new businesses, while also cutting taxes, paying down the deficit and introducing a higher minimum wage. He said the business community must also play a role to advance global progress around trade, climate and prosperity.
“We need big business to step up to do far more to sustain the economy and the environment,” said Cameron. “These problems are so big they can’t be solved without big business.”
He advocated for the value of international collaborations and alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the United Nations, the World Bank and the Paris climate accord – and said that the benefits to the international community outweigh any inefficiencies or flaws.
“All countries need bilateral and multilateral relationships, and we need these things more than ever,” said Cameron.
He criticized “ersatz” democracies and “strong man” leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
“Without a free press, courts and open markets, you make a mockery of democracy,” said Cameron.
Fighting for democracy, against extremism
Cameron recalled meeting with Margaret Thatcher when she was elderly and frail. She gripped his hand and locked him in her gaze and said, “The only thing that matters is liberty under the rule of law,” which he has taken to heart.
He laments the polarization that pits the left and right against each other – and says it’s often misguided.
“I’m pro-environment and pro-market. … I approved gay marriage not in spite of my conservatism, but because I am. I’m a big believer in family and marriage,” said Cameron, who passed the UK’s Same Sex Marriage Act in 2013.
Cameron said the world is in serious geopolitical distress as it grapples with the global migration and refugee crisis, climate change and North Korean nuclear threats. But he believes the greatest threat is Islamist extremism.
“Many on the left refuse to believe this has anything to do with Islam. While many follow Islam peacefully, a small minority has perverted it into a death cult,” said Cameron, who asserted that denying this “is delusional.”
But he said many on the right get it wrong, too, when they fear all Muslims and “some inevitable clash of civilizations.”
“That leads to travel bans on countries rather than individuals,” he said. “It’s not just wrong – it’s dangerous, and might breed more extremists.”
He called on members of the audience to support free speech – but not hate speech – and to embody the American ideals of freedom and equality for all. He criticized President Trump for blaming “both sides” for the deadly violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
“America is so much better than this,” he said. “In these dark times, America is still the shining city on the hill. My message to you: Don’t give up on this ideal.”
A Boston tea party
Earlier in the evening, as the event began, Lesley President Jeff Weiss took the Symphony Hall stage first. He welcomed the packed house to the opening night of the series, expressing his delight to kick off a season of thoughtful lectures on a range of complex issues.
Cameron came on stage amid the din of rousing applause, and warmed up the audience with a few compliments and digs on Boston. Hoisting a jersey, he announced that the New England Patriots are his son’s favorite football team. Then he noted there are some shared customs among Bostonians and Britons.
“You serve afternoon tea. You’ve done interesting things with tea,” he deadpanned. “I prefer mine with fresh water. Of course, a lot of relationships get off to a rough start.”
He fielded a Q&A session, during which Bowen read audience questions submitted on note cards that included queries about Her Majesty, American politics, and The Beatles vs. Rolling Stones. (It may come as no surprise that he favors the Beatles, and considers Paul McCartney a friend.)
The next speaker in the series is Jon Meacham, a Pulitzer Prize-winning presidential historian, who will present on Wednesday, Nov. 1, followed by journalist and author Cokie Roberts on Wednesday, Nov. 29. See a full season schedule here.