A myriad factors will play some part in deciding the coming general election, and none of them will be David Cameron’s uncle. Not a single pencil hovering uncertainly over a ballot paper next May will have its journey towards or away from a Conservative candidate dictated by Bill Dugdale (second baronet), who has just died aged 92. Yet while dwelling pleasurably over the old boy’s obituaries, it was hard to shrug off the feeling that, in a deeply nebulous way, Sir William’s life hints at the PM’s enduring failure to connect on a gut level with the electorate.
Crudely put, the problem is the hoary one of class. But a more nuanced analysis might identify that condescending, patrician attitude towards the rest of us which, however seemly in Sir William’s time, renders his nephew by marriage off-puttingly anachronistic.
Sir William seems to have been a drolly engaging man who, in the grand tradition of clever English aristos, hid his intelligence in an air of cultivated buffoonery throughout a long, mostly charmed (though he lost his first wife when very young) and unbelievably rich life. A scion of Warwickshire landed gentry, his role as a semi-accidental eye witness to history paints him as a sort of toffish Zelig.
As a small boy, he watched an outed gay uncle of his own (Evelyn Waugh’s inspiration for Lord Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited) forced to emigrate. After Eton and Oxford (Bullingdon, natch) he joined the Grenadier Guards, winning the Military Cross in Italy before motoring past the hanging figures of Mussolini and his mistress and escorting a couple of Nazi Field Marshalls to Nuremberg.
After the family colliery was nationalised by the Attlee government, he qualified as a solicitor and developed the ambition to become prime minister until his wife’s death prevented him becoming an MP. He flew planes, rode in the Grand National, sired six children, led Warwickshire County Council, chaired two utility firms, served as High Sheriff of Warwickshire, and, as the chairman of Aston Villa, presided over their triumph in the 1982 European Cup (before being ousted by “Deadly” Doug Ellis, a generous Tory donor whom Dugdale’s nephew treacherously saw fit to knight). He ate and drank well, shagged himself silly, and built a treasure trove of hilarious stories to see him through his anecdotage. What. A. Life.
If the extent of his influence over Cameron cannot be gauged, he was clearly responsible for the PM’s support for Aston Villa by taking the boy Cameron to his first football match at Villa Park. Here you sense that tenacious Cameron problem again. Most of us remember our first game for the unnerving thrill of being a small person jostled among thousands of giants. Cameron watched his from the director’s box. Although that was hardly his choice, it nods towards the sense of entitlement that now and again glints through the facade.
It never glinted more brightly than when Cameron, taunted at PMQs by the honourable member for Bolsover, blushed crimson with rage and imperiously told Dennis Skinner it was time to retire. It was a shamefully arrogant way to treat a venerable former miner, and to his credit he learned enough from the mistake never to repeat it.
As a mine owner himself, we may imagine Sir William being infuriated by such insolence. “The thing is, and the Labour Party underestimate it,” he posited at the launch of his privately published memoir in 2011, “if you ask the working classes who they want to lead them, they prefer to be led by a duke. I know it’s an unpopular thing to say these days. However, I have learned this from my own experience.”
You cannot visit the misapprehensions of the uncle on the nephew, and Cameron doubtless believes nothing of the kind. But we are all prisoners of our upbringings, and however valiantly he fights to suppress it, there is something about the demeanour that suggests that on a subconscious level he sorta feels the same way; that his take of One Nation Toryism and the utopian Big Society wittering are rooted in the faith that, if only the little folk had the sense to trust them, chaps like him would see them right.
In the 1930s, when Dugdale was a young blade at Oxford, and Bertie Woosterishly throwing soot bombs over such socialist marchers as Tony Crosland and Roy Jenkins, this was mainstream Conservative thinking. It died as a cod political philosophy in 1945, when the British people felt that their sacrifices entitled them to a greater stake in society than being patronised by Churchill, and gave Labour the landslide that led, among much else, to the nationalisation of Dugdale’s colliery.
Yet it lingers like a ghost at a famine to this day – and try as he might, Cameron can never quite shake off the taint of being an Edwardian gent trapped out of time; a decent enough cove who wants to look after the servants, yes, but one who simply cannot appreciate the privations, stresses and terrors of those not raised in privilege.
If Cameron fails to win this election, it will, as I said, have nothing to do with Uncle Bill. But perhaps the remarkable life and the world view of this charmingly Flashmanesque figure, and the sense it underpins of who Cameron really is, will go some small way towards explaining why.
An image for Labour to conjure with at the election
What the Prime Minister’s uncle would have made of the latest exhibits in the Chamber of Selfie Horrors, one can barely guess. But if David Cameron’s opponents have one whit of nous, they will deploy them, without any need for captions, as election posters.
Unless he is planning to launch a post-political business career by marketing a chemical-free emetic, you have to wonder what possessed Cameron to pose at a charity event with two of this country’s, or indeed any country’s, leading billionaire grotesques. Have you ever, in all your puff, seen anything as nauseatingly hideous?
Philip Green is one thing. It isn’t a madly appealing thing in the “We’re all in it together” context, in truth, considering the degree to which he and his wife deny the Exchequer by dint of their tax-limiting residency in Monaco. Still, all perfectly legal and above board, and the man who cares to spend £6.5m on a tasteful 21st birthday party for his daughter has to husband his resources as best he can.
Richard Desmond is quite another thing. Less than two years ago, the Larry Flynt of newspaper proprietors smirkingly told the Leveson inquiry that if his Express titles had to settle libel actions for only 38 of the 102 stories published in their wicked persecution of Madeleine McCann’s parents, this meant that 64 of them were “good”.
On reflection, you can guess what Uncle Dugdale would have made of it. I mean, really, the sort of people a boy has to mix with these days just to make a crust…Reuse content