The BBC makes a tragic hero of poor David Cameron
Review: ‘Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil’ explores how Britain got into this mess
Poor David. Photograph: Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
It’s hard to decide what the guiding question behind Inside Europe: Ten Years of Turmoil (BBC Two, Monday, 9pm) might be. The first episode of this new documentary series on the EU’s recent past meticulously follows the slow, six-year drumbeat towards the Brexit referendum, implying that the question should be, How did Britain get into this mess?
But the angle of the title, and its slight exaggerations (the series begins in mid 2010), together with the promise of later episodes addressing Greek debt and the Syrian refugee crisis, suggest another, self-assuring question: how can Britain get out of this mess?
That may be the consequence of political programming for a sharply divided audience. It pays to be ambiguous.
An odd decision, though, from this vantage point, is to choose a hero for this tale, and an odder one still is to make it David Cameron. The former prime minister is presented as a kind of noble tragic hero trying “to put to bed a question that has plagued British politics for generations” and instead finding himself, “out of the job, his party torn apart and his country’s future hanging in the balance.”
But is there not also a case that this is what happens to political invertebrates, swivelling to appease rancourous Tory backbenchers and conservative headline writers?
Even a sober review of his record in Europe makes Cameron seem, at best, like a myopic stumblebum.
Withdrawing from the European People’s Party, an influential conservative group, as a sop to his party’s Euro-sceptics, he still hopes to wield influence among its powerbrokers – like a man who has just jumped ship and starts yelling navigational advice from the sea.
When Britain attempts to insert self-serving guarantees into urgent treaties designed to safeguard the threatened Eurozone, a furious Nicolas Sarkozy outmanoeuvres the demands. “Britain was out in the cold,” says the solemn voice over.
But even if these scenes came with a waddling tuba soundtrack their dignity could hardly be lessened.
Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and jilted partner in the coalition clearly gets it. “It felt like being in a cage and with a demented gorilla,” he says now of the Tory’s EU fixation, losing votes and eventually party members to the smirking ranks of Ukip.
That’s one way to slice it.
“And what happens if we lose?” asks George Osborne, seemingly one of the very few to do so, while Theresa May, then Home Secretary, remained taciturn (“par for the course in those meetings,” recalls Osborne, slyly).
Cameron, spooked by Ukip’s populism, assures UK voters he will seek to curb immigration from EU countries. German Chancellor Angela Merkel surveys the extent of Britain’s relative stability and security and replies, “David, I don’t understand what the problem is.”
In asking for “an emergency brake” on immigration – something he knew the EU could never allow – did David?
Here, interviews with political figures – including a no-nonsense Jean-Claude Juncker (whose presidency of the European Commission Cameron had tried to block) and a sympathetic President of the European Council, Donald Tusk – are taken up with the inevitability of Cameron’s failure, isolated in Europe and rattled at home.
Yet the real problem, ironically, is how little Britain seems to understand the EU at all. Who even remembers that Cameron secured major concessions from Europe by curbing access to benefits for EU migrants? “No one in London appreciated his victory,” shrugs Donald Tusk.
Does the documentary really appreciate the depths of his failure? It’s hard to say, but it’s telling that Cameron’s resignation speech is replayed here without the inclusion of his distracted singing, caught on microphone, which has now become an indelible part of his political portrait, a man both feckless and oblivious. “Do doooo, do do.”
Like Britain’s place in Europe, it’s a sad omission.