The Center Holds

Article excerpt

Byline: Fareed Zakaria

In Britain, even pain is popular.

We've all seen the pictures of Britain's chancellor of the Exchequer holding a tattered briefcase as he proceeds to Parliament to present the budget. The rest of the world has watched the event with some bemusement. It's a typically British spectacle, complete with funny titles (why isn't he called finance minister like everyone else?) and lots of tradition. It's very quaint, very old money. (The briefcase is in fact 150 years old and is so tattered that it was finally sent to a museum.) But no one has really cared much what was inside that budget box.

Until now. Three weeks ago the new chancellor, 39-year-old Tory George Osborne, presented a budget that promised to get Britain's fiscal house in order with sharp cuts in spending, coupled with tax increases. It landed in the midst of a heated debate across the industrialized world about how to best get the economy back on track. Osborne and his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, have come down firmly on one side of this debate, hoping that a major effort to reduce the deficit will reassure bond markets and investors that Britain is a safe and compelling place to put their money.

Leaving aside the economics of this, what struck me as I spent time in Britain last week was the politics of deficit reduction. Having announced major cuts in popular programs, plus hefty tax increases, the Cameron government might be expected to be losing popularity by the day. But in fact the budget was well received by the public--though attacked ferociously from the left--and the governing coalition has actually inched up a bit in the polls.

There are several possible reasons for this. Cameron has played the public role of prime minister exceedingly well, making a pitch-perfect apology for the British Army's wrongful use of force in Northern Ireland in 1972, and handling himself on the global stage with grace and ease. It's also true, of course, that the effect of the cuts and taxes have not yet been felt, and when that happens, the government's poll ratings might plunge. But clearly the honesty of the budget has resonated with voters. It's heartening to see a government do something that it must have thought would be deeply unpopular, and then be rewarded by the public.

Outside the country, Cameron is the victorious and, so far, successful prime minister of Britain, but inside, particularly in his own party, a debate continues about the election results. …