First, Cameron's austerity measures have succeeded (so far) in the context of a coalition government with Liberal Democrats -- Britain's centrist third party. This alliance of the middle has made Cameron's government less dependent for support on the extremes of either party, resulting in a truce on divisive issues such as immigration and European integration. Cameron's alliance remains strong at the highest levels of political leadership. It will be tested as party activists from both coalition partners canvass against each other in next year's local elections and referendum on electoral reform.
A formal coalition government is not an option in America, which lacks a viable third party anxious for power. But large, politically risky spending reductions will require spreading the responsibility and the blame beyond a single party. Some type of center-right alliance of fiscally conservative Democrats and Republicans -- a coalition of the complicit -- will be needed in order to act boldly and marginalize partisan extremes.
Second, Cameron makes clear that austerity alone is not a sufficient message for a political party. He calls deficit reduction his "duty." He refers to his social agenda -- the "Big Society" -- as his "passion." Cameron has paired his emergency budget with a series of measures designed to encourage volunteerism, empower local communities, create charter schools, reform welfare and fund the work of private charities. The problem with centralized, government-oriented policies, he argues, is not only their expense. They have "turned able, capable individuals into passive recipients of state help." The alternative is a "thoughtful re-imagination of the role, as well as the size of the state."
Cameron envisions a radical kind of devolution, not only to local governments but to communities and individuals. Government, in his view, has an important role in building the Big Society, but it is mainly catalytic -- providing resources and authority to community institutions.
Critics in the Labor Party accuse Cameron of "cynically attempting to dignify its cuts agenda." But Cameron has been talking about these themes since well before the current financial crisis. The Big Society is not politically cynical, but it is politically smart.
Obama has every reason to fear the emergence of Cameron-style Republicanism. But American conservatives who respect Cameron's budget-cutting courage should also pay attention to his political insights. A successful austerity agenda depends on the assembly of an ideological coalition -- and it requires a domestic agenda more inspiring than responsible accounting.
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