Toil and Tears

Article excerpt

Byline: William Underhill

Britain's new leader is out to top 'Iron Lady' Thatcher.

Britons can't say they weren't warned. Much of David Cameron's drastic reform program was outlined months ago in his party's election manifesto, well before he was chosen as prime minister. No one paid much attention, though: long experience has taught the country's voters to regard campaign pledges as vague aspirations, not as commitments to immediate action. Besides, Cameron seemed like such a nice young man. He had remade the Tories' image from a heartless pack of Thatcherite free-market ideologues to something gentler and more humane. He had visited the Arctic Circle to witness the effects of global warming. He had voted to recognize civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples. Out went the flaming torch as the party's official emblem; in came the scribbly oak tree in ecofriendly green and blue.

But a different David Cameron has emerged, and his vision for Britain is every bit as radical in its way as the Iron Lady's. In some respects he's actually outdoing her: it wasn't until Margaret Thatcher's second term as prime minister (1983-87) that she began her nation-transforming moves in earnest, from selling off state industries to smashing the power of the unions. For his part, Cameron is wasting no time. Barely four months after moving into 10 Downing Street, he's already constructing his promised Big Society. He's decentralizing the health-care and education systems, overhauling the welfare system, and declaring war on government spending. As soon as he took office, Cameron got Parliament to enact $9 billion in emergency cuts from the current budget, amounting to nearly 1 percent of the roughly $995 billion total.

That was only for starters. Even the hardest-core Tea Partier would admire the ambition of Cameron's chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, to effectively eliminate Britain's deficit by 2015. When the results of a top-to-bottom review of government spending are issued next month, all departments except health care and foreign aid are expected to face cuts of at least 25 percent over the next four years. By the end of this first term, Cameron and Osborne's plans would reduce spending to 39 percent of national income--down from 47 percent when they took office, and two points lower than the figure Thatcher had achieved when she left office in 1991. As many as 600,000 public-sector employees could lose their jobs in the process.

Like Thatcher before him, Cameron is heading for a bare-knuckle fight. The country's labor unions have already begun squaring up for a showdown, with threats of a coordinated wave of strikes and civil disobedience. At last week's annual conference of the Trades Union Congress, speaker after speaker stood up to denounce Cameron's budget plans. "Cut services, put jobs in peril, and increase inequality--that is the way to make Britain a darker, brutish, more frightening place," warned Brendan Barber, the TUC's general secretary. Even the nation's police, usually strong Conservative backers, are voicing qualms about the civil and industrial unrest Cameron's cuts might inspire--especially since as many as 40,000 frontline law enforcers may be laid off. (Politicians are also making sacrifices, of sorts: government ministers have had to give up their automatic right to official cars and chauffeurs, and beer prices have soared at House of Commons bars after a slashing of subsidies.)

Those worries don't seem to bother Cameron. "We're going to have to change the culture of government and stand up to some powerful vested interests," he wrote in The Observer last week. "But the fact is that this country wants and needs this power shift--so, I promise you, we will see this through." The recent fiscal disasters in Greece and elsewhere have frightened many Britons into accepting the need for austerity, presenting Cameron with a rare opportunity to reshape British society. …