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The Monitor's View

British coalition of Cameron and Clegg may survive on their new localism

The joining of the Conservatives' "big society" concept and the Liberal Democrats' power-distribution ideas may help this British coalition overcome their differences.

By the Monitor's Editorial Board / May 19, 2010

An unexpected revolution in governance has begun in Britain, like a shot heard round the world. It is one that former colonials in America might want to track, perhaps even follow.

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The revolution comes out of the surprising coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats after the country’s inconclusive May 6 election.

While perhaps a shaky alliance, the odd-fellow team of Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg could easily survive for some time if only for one reason: Both men have a strong desire to decentralize power away from London (for Americans, substitute “Washington”) and toward local government and community groups.

Mr. Clegg, the Lib Dem, says Britain has the most centralized government in Europe (bar Malta), and he wants a “power revolution” that would be the biggest shake-up in the country’s democracy in 178 years. It would, he claims, “transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state.”

For his part, Mr. Cameron, a post-Thatcher Tory, ran on the promise of a “big society” whose core idea is that government should be a catalyst for revitalizing civic groups, entrepreneurs, community volunteers, and local officials to carry more of the burden that central bureaucracies do now.

Their conjoined ideas aren’t anti-government, as old Tories were, or the Reaganesque, government-is-the-problem Republicans. Rather they offer a different form of government, one that is closer to the people, less intrusive, and more reliant on private efforts.

This could easily be dismissed as a nostalgic attempt to recreate an idealized version of 19th-century life, when charities and churches dealt with society’s woes. Cameron’s big-society campaign pitch was, in fact, too vague for voters to give Conservatives enough seats in Parliament for a firm majority.