They look so fresh-faced, so promising, these two young leaders of Britain setting out in a historic coalition of left and right.
David Cameron, the new Conservative prime minister, and Nick Clegg, his Liberal Democratic deputy, offer their country an ideological bridge at a time of great economic challenge. Their unusual partnership may not match the gravitas of Churchill’s time or coalition government, but intuitively one wants this team to succeed.
The feeling recalls the historic inauguration day in Washington last year when Barack Obama became the first African- American president, carried into office on a promise of reconciliation, change, and hope. But the sharp facts of political reality popped his airborne balloon of bipartisanship. On many issues – but not all, such as education and financial reform – the Obama team is moving ahead alone. Rancor has again set in.
Mr. Cameron and Mr. Clegg have the opportunity to demonstrate that politicians of different stripes can unite in a spirit of problem-solving. National crises can foster that. The last time Britons came together in a left-right coalition was World War II, when they faced an existential threat from Hitler’s Germany. In the more immediate past, Americans, too, experienced a time of political unity in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
But these were responses to attacks on life and limb. What about attacks on a government budget, and, ultimately, a standard of living supported by too much spending and borrowing? The financial markets have proved they can shake a debt-burdened country such as Greece into riotous protest. Could they rattle Britain, and is that threat enough to bridge political differences?
Deficits and debt have yet to scare American politicians into one another’s arms.
At this starting-gate stage in Britain the economy seems to be a useful motivator, along with the political math that prevented any party in the May 6 elections from winning a majority. Unlike in the United States, the three main parties in Britain all supported a significant reduction of the deficit (now at about 12 percent of gross domestic product) within five years. As partners, Cameron and Clegg have agreed to cut spending already this year, with each party compromising on taxes.
They’ve agreed on other areas as well, including keeping Britain’s submarine-launched nuclear Trident missiles (the White House will appreciate this strong security stand). They’ve also decided to put decisions about governance – relating to Britain’s own democratic system now, and Britain’s role in the European Union in the future – to the people for a referendum.
The Cameron-Clegg partnership is strengthened by the fact that both men actually like each other and enjoy good “chemistry.” Cameron, too, has pushed his Thatcherite party more toward the center, at least in style. And it’s good that President Obama moved immediately to congratulate the new prime minister, to invite him and his wife to Washington, and to underscore America’s special relationship with Britain. It stands in contrast to Obama’s cool approach to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Those are some of the factors favoring the new coalition. Many others could scuttle it, including differences over how to put a government on a diet when, since 2001, it has doubled spending on welfare, education, and health. Internal divisions within each party could also make for rough sailing (Obama knows all about this).
At those tough times when compromise or a way forward seem impossible, political experts, party hacks, and the media will play the role of realist – focusing on every conceivable reason for breakdown. That’s when political leaders must remember the hope for a fresh start, for politics as unusual, that voters so yearn for. They want problem solvers, not backbiters.