A Muddled Outlook for Olympics-Ready London

Michael Barone

7/12/2012 12:01:00 AM - Michael Barone
The best view of London's Olympic Park is from the picture windows at the top floor of the John Lewis department store in the vast Westfield Stratford mall five miles east of the Tower of London.

It's not the London tourists usually see. Westfield Stratford is an upscale American-style mall, and the sleek Olympic Park structures have nothing of the historic patina of the Tower of London or the Houses of Parliament.

This is a reminder that most Brits, like most Europeans, live not in tourist-thronged historic centers but in far-flung suburbs. They live in freestanding houses, drive cars most places and shop at malls, like most Americans.

Only they aren't shopping quite as they used to. John Lewis, like other London stores, is full of "sale" signs and deep discounts. Britain is at the brink of recession and trembling lest the collapse of the euro plunge its European trading partners into economic chaos.

Its political leaders don't seem to know quite what to do. David Cameron and George Osborne, prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer since the May 2010 election, approached office with assumptions that, like those of Barack Obama, have proved unfounded.

Obama assumed that economic distress would make Americans more supportive of, or amenable to, big government programs like his stimulus package and Obamacare. That proved wrong, and he's struggling to find a plausible re-election theme.

When Cameron and Osborne became leaders of the Conservative Party in 2005, they assumed that Britain's decade-long economic boom would continue to provide government with lots of revenue and that British voters wouldn't stomach serious cuts in public spending.

But recession hit before the election, and the Conservatives fell short of a majority in the House of Commons and in response formed a coalition government with the leftish Liberal Democrats.

The coalition is producing thoughtful reforms in education and welfare, but polls show the Lib Dems losing support because of their alliance with the Tories and the Conservatives running well behind the opposition Labor Party.

The coalition has significantly cut government spending, but has kept in place most of the tax increases pushed through by Labor's Gordon Brown when he was chancellor in Tony Blair's government and then prime minister from 2007 to 2010. It is scaling back only slightly the 50 percent top income tax rate that Brown imposed after the financial crisis of 2008.

But it has only started to reverse Brown's steady expansion of the public sector that created jobs for thousands of coordinators, facilitators and liaisons. Some of them may have improved the operations of government. But one suspects that the public would be able to get on perfectly well without most of them.

At least Britain is not imitating the "austerity" policies of most European governments, which consist more of tax increases than spending cuts. But they have not embraced the deep spending cuts that Canada and Sweden made in the 1990s, which helped those two nations to weather the international recession much better than other advanced nations.

British politics was roiled this week by the coalition's proposals, pushed by the Lib Dems, to make the House of Lords an elective chamber, filled by politicians elected for single 15-year terms. But a large enough number of Conservative backbenchers defied party whips that the coalition leaders had to withdraw a procedural motion necessary to pass the proposal.

The current House of Lords, under Blair's 1999 reforms, is made up of distinguished members who can amend and delay legislation, but do not threaten the primacy of the elected House of Commons. Conservative rebels feared an elective Lords would do so, and without the accountability to voters inherent in a legislature whose members, for the most part, expect to face the voters again.

The Lib Dems hoped that an elective upper chamber, chosen by proportional representation, would give them a perpetual veto on public policy despite the fact that they are heavily outvoted by the two major parties. They tried earlier to get proportional representation in the House of Commons, but that was defeated soundly in a referendum in spring 2011.

No one thinks the Lib Dems dare to bring down the government and force an election. The Queen's Diamond Jubilee last month was a British triumph, and the Olympics look likely to be another. But the British coalition government seems to be just muddling through.