America’s lawmakers might have benefited from a visit to London during their long August vacation. There, they would have witnessed how a radical shake-up of Britain by a new coalition government has fared after only 100 days in office.
A British tour guide would have pointed out these amazing sights:
Two longtime political rivals, the Conservatives and Liberal-Democrats, have worked well together since forming a government after elections in May. “Many of us are sitting next to people that we’ve never sat next to before,” says Prime Minister David Cameron about the new House of Commons and his odd-fellow partnership with Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister
A second sight would be all the government ministers living with a 5 percent pay cut and no individual cars and drivers for their work. That’s combined with a two-year pay freeze for many civil servants, not to mention the prime minister recently taking a scheduled commercial flight to Washington instead of a private plane.
These steps are the most visible examples of a swift and deep austerity, driven by fiscal red ink after a recession. The coalition is well on its way to a 25 to 40 percent cut in government spending within five years.
The new frugality, however, is balanced by another policy-tourist attraction: merchants and consumers gearing up for a rise in the value-added tax in January, part of the compromise spirit on finances aimed at helping Britain dig out of one of Europe’s deepest debt holes.
Our tour continues into dozens of communities being given new freedom from rule by London (under the “new localism”). You can see private groups popping up to start new “free schools,” challenging the old education system. You can see communities moving to directly elect police commissioners or being given more say over spending.
Not to be missed is all the action in Britain’s bloated national health-care system. Big chunks of the bureaucracy that manage the system are being dismantled, and the nation’s 36,000 doctors have been given authority to decide what is best for their patients.
The final sight – and this is the most difficult to see – is the coalition’s attempt to create a “big society,” or a bolstering of social groups, charities, and entrepreneurs to step in as government withdraws from much of its role. The best example of this altering of Britain’s social fabric are preparations to enlist 16-year-olds into national volunteer service.
The big society is Cameron’s vision, one that assumes people are ready to shed decades of dependency on London and step in to help others.
The concept could be almost as difficult as the biggest of the budget cuts, due in October, which will test the coalition’s finely woven political compromises. And will the private sector be ready to fill the holes left by the cuts?
So far, the coalition has moved swiftly but cautiously, to test these plans, benefitting from the fact that the opposition Labour Party is tied in an internal struggle over its leadership. Labour is also weak because of its huge expansion of government spending and a rise in income inequality during its 1997-2010 period in power.
The coalition, too, may face charges of creating more inequality by reducing top-down governance in favor of local rule and more reliance on private initiative.
But the recession and the red ink have driven Britain to act boldly, and that has put a strong wind behind the coalition’s efforts. The patience and stiff-upper-lip of the British also might see this through.
All that would be a sight to behold for many of Washington’s dueling politicians who barely talk to one another.