Last week, a coalition government in the United Kingdom made its long-anticipated announcement about $128 billion in government spending cuts. It’s aggressive and audacious — and certainly more ambitious than anything being done on this side of the pond.
In the United States, politicians of both parties talk of “sacrifice” and “tough choices.” Yet when pressed, they fail to specify where they would actually make cuts. The reason isn’t complicated: If you say you’re opposed to spending in this or that area, you awaken powerful constituencies that are vested in government spending. Few politicians are willing to pick those kinds of fights, even if it’s in the broader public interest.
Not so in Great Britain. Echoing Winston Churchill’s calls for unity in austerity, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg are mobilizing their nation for a war against Britain’s budget deficit.
On the day of the announcement, the Financial Times quoted Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as saying: “Today is the day where Britain steps back from the brink.” Osborne, the Financial Times reported, “revealed dramatic reductions to several key departments over the next four years, (an $11 billion) fall in welfare support and confirmed that about 490,000 jobs will be lost in the public sector by 2014-15.”
Defending the cuts, Osborne pointed out that if such measures weren’t taken, the jobs would be “unavoidable” when the government’s financial well eventually runs dry.
Predictably, there is opposition. Jobs and services will be lost. Hundreds of thousands of British citizens will face major changes in their lives, in many cases permanently. Yet British citizens embrace the measures, animated by the same esprit de corps that brought them together once before when German bombers pounded London during the Blitz.
Most remarkably, this is a bipartisan effort. The coalition government of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats — the right and left ends of the spectrum — has prevailed over the objections of the establishment Labour Party to promote the cuts.
Is there a blueprint here? Could this kind of bipartisanship light the way to a similar movement in America? Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum isn’t sure Americans are culturally predisposed to embrace austerity, in part because of our history. “Nostalgic Brits, longing to re-create their country’s finest hour, remember postwar scrimping and saving,” she writes. “Nostalgic Americans in search of their own country’s finest hour remember postwar abundance, the long consumer boom — and, yes, a time when even instant gratification wasn’t fast enough.”
Her reasoning is persuasive, but I think Americans are built of sterner stuff than that. This nation of consumers also produced the heroes who liberated Europe from fascism, and fought to promote the policies of freedom that eventually tore down that wall in Berlin.
Surely we’ve got at least one more big fight in us.
If the Brits can do it, so can we.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How the Democrats Won Colorado (and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care).”