British prime minister David Cameron finally recognizes (or admits) that he’s shrinking government not just out of necessity but because he believes it’s the right thing to do.
Last year, I observed that a political cowardice was wrecking Europe’s right-wing parties. Across the continent, conservative and liberal parties had come to power in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, promising to shore up their states’ budgets and get their economies back on track. They started the hard work of austerity but few were later rewarded in elections. The reason, I believed, was that the leaders hadn’t “dared articulate an alternative vision for fear of appearing asocial and losing elections.” And then they lost anyway.
Compare and contrast that record to Britain’s most successful postwar prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She didn’t win three elections in a row telling voters she didn’t have a choice but to enact unpopular austerity measures. “She convinced them that it was the right thing to do.”
I feared at the time it might be too late for Britain’s ruling parties to change their tone and argue that they were reducing government spending and shrinking the public sector for anything but pragmatic reasons. Yet there’s still a year and a half to go before the next election and David Cameron has started doing just that.
That his opponent, Ed Miliband, is chartering a more leftist course for his Labour Party has helped the Conservative in no small part. When Miliband lambasted “predatory” businesses and “wealth strippers” in a speech last year and said British society was “too often rewarding not the right people with the right values but the wrong people with the wrong values,” Cameron countered that the “real solution” to the country’s economic woes was not more state interventionism but rather “more enterprise, competition and innovation.” He added, “We are the party that understands how to make capitalism work; the party that has constantly defended our open economy against the economics of socialism.”
Earlier this year, Cameron said Miliband was “nuts” for proposing to freeze energy prices and confiscate private lands to build homes. “If we want to secure a recovery for all, if we want to build an ‘opportunity Britain’, we’re not going to do that by bashing business with higher taxes,” he said. “If we want to build more houses and give people the chance of home ownership, we’re not going to do it by confiscating land off people. I just think it’s a very backward looking, very old-style prospectus.”
And last week, he finally articulated his own conservative vision, saying spending cuts represent “something more profound” than clearing up balance sheets. “It means building a leaner, more efficient state. We need to do more with less. Not just now but permanently.”
That’s getting in the right direction. If Cameron stays the course and Miliband sticks to his 1970s rhetoric, the 2015 election could yet be a real choice between small-government conservatism and the socialism of the past.