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Great Britain's Man With A Plan

Britain has had four serious prime ministers since World War Two: Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill (great even in decline), Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.  They were right about some things and wrong about others, but they each made a big difference in Britain and in the wider world.  The current tenant at Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron, has made it clear that he wants to join their number.

Like Thatcher and Blair, David Cameron wants to put the “Great” back in “Great Britain” and he is taking serious political risks to see his vision fulfilled.  Under increasing pressure at home and abroad, he is sticking to his guns.  The NYT reports on a recent speech he gave at the Conservative Party conference this week:

Confronted by deepening economic woes at home and in the euro zone nations that are Britain’s major business partners, Prime Minister David Cameron vowed on Wednesday not to bow to growing demands for a retreat from his government’s sweeping austerity measures.

Instead, he promised Britons that they would pull through to better days if they shunned paralyzing “gloom and fear” about the future and embraced the “can-do optimism” that had made the country a worldbeater in the past.

[…]Mr. Cameron admonished those who had pointed to India, China and Brazil as economic models and who had overlooked, he said, the innate potential of Britain and its people.

“I say: We need to become more like us,” he said. “The real us. Hardworking, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do. That’s the spirit that has made this United Kingdom what it is: a small country that does great things.”

All the mediocrities in Britain will be in a confederacy against these plans, and it is risky for the Prime Minister to shake things up while governing through a coalition which could fissure.  But this Prime Minister is a rare thing: A leader with a vision for the future and the courage to stick to it.

It is a vision which Britain, and the rest of the world, should respect. Whether or not the Prime Minister’s macroeconomic policies will minimize misery at the moment, for the long term his instincts are essentially right.  The examples of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain demonstrate that Western governments can’t go on spending forever.

The coalition government’s austerity program has cut an average of 20% of the budget from all governmental institutions.  Experiencing these cuts is not pleasant for many Britons, but communities are finding creative solutions to replace government programs and the coalition government is seeking to meet them halfway.  The Free School program, which gives communities grants to charter their own schools, is just one example.

Cameron and his partners don’t just want to cut spending.  They want to make government work better and more efficiently so that it can do what people need it to do — at a cost the country can actually afford.  Cutting the budget is a macroeconomic must in the UK, especially given that the country’s economic dependence on a large financial sector means that the UK government needs to retain the ability to step to the defense of the banking sector.  But those cuts are also an opportunity to re-imagine and re-engineer the way government works and the relationship of government to civil society so that Britain can achieve something that we in the United States don’t yet have: sustainable governance.

Britain and the US have historically been something like the Steve Jobs of the global economy: creative innovators whose power derives ultimately from their ability to perceive and respond to both the opportunities and demands of the future faster and better than others.  David Cameron understands that it is time to make another leap into the future; it is too early to predict whether he will succeed, but it is already time to congratulate him on the kind of courage and vision that over the last 300 years have kept Great Britain in the forefront of human affairs.

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  • Neville

    “The coalition government’s austerity program has cut an average of 20% of the budget from all governmental institutions. Experiencing these cuts is not pleasant for many Britons, but communities are finding creative solutions to replace government programs and the coalition government is seeking to meet them halfway. The Free School program, which gives communities grants to charter their own schools, is just one example.”

    This all sounds great, but vastly overstates Cameron’s objectives and achievements. UK government spending has not been cut, and Osborne’s budgets do not even project that it will be. All they are setting out to do is lower the rate of ongoing growth in spending (Thatcher herself never managed to cut spending/GDP). The only way this looks like ‘austerity’ is in comparison to other governments.

    Real cuts would require the sort of determination you describe, and might generate the revival in Britain’s performance and prospects we would all like to see. Realistically there is currently no evidence however that any of that is at all likely. Britain is currently instead precisely on track to follow its post-war pattern: Conservatives stabilize the financial position following a prior spending orgy led by Labour, and then the voters re-elect Labour to get another spending spree.

  • WigWag

    I really enjoy Professor Mead’s blog; though I frequently disagree with him it is always fascinating to hear what the erudite gentlemen has to say. Right or wrong, his take is almost always thought-provoking, iconoclastic and highly entertaining.

    But this statement makes me fear for the good Professor’s sanity,

    “…this Prime Minister is a rare thing: A leader with a vision for the future and the courage to stick to it.”

    The idea that David Cameron can be counted in the same league as Tony Blair is ridiculous. The idea that his name can be mentioned in the same breath as the names Churchill’s and Thatcher is phantasmagorical.

    Has Professor Mead reflected on how Churchill, Thatcher and even Blair worked to put the “Great” back in Great Britain?

    Most prominently they projected strength and they insisted that the country they led needed to play a much bigger role in the world than might be expected if one looked only at the geographical size or population of the nation.

    All of these British Prime Ministers understood the importance of an assertive foreign policy and a well-funded and respected military.

    When Great Britain was in the mood to appease the Nazis and when Chamberlain came back from his meeting with Hitler to rapturous applause by a British public still exhausted from World War I, it was Churchill who counseled them to be steadfast. It’s not even necessary to comment on his role during the Second World War; it’s the stuff of legends. Can anyone picture the whiny little David Cameron leading Britain through that conflict? Despite the fact that Great Britain was economically crippled by the First World War, Churchill somehow found the resources needed to successfully prosecute the Second World War.

    Margaret Thatcher, even more than Reagan, insisted that the West utilize a muscular, resolute and unyielding strategy against the Soviet Union. When Reagan was ready to falter, Thatcher was always there to help him find his strength. At the same time she led an austerity program of her own, Thatcher never allowed the British military to grow weaker or to decline in size and in its ability to project force. When the Argentines invaded the Falklands, Thatcher insisted “this will not stand.” One can imagine how David Cameron would react in a similar situation. Actually we don’t have to imagine it; he was all for overthrowing Kaddafi; that is, as long as the United States did all of the heavy lifting.

    The British military was stronger and more well-funded when Thatcher left office than when she arrived. David Cameron reminds me nothing of Margaret Thatcher; I think he more closely resembles Thatcher’s pusillanimous replacement, John Major (they even look a little alike).

    Whatever one thought of Tony Blair, the man had the character to do what he thought was right. Despite the absolute outrage of most of his political allies on the left, Blair was steadfast in sticking by George Bush when it came to the Iraq War. People of good will can disagree about whether or not waging the War in Iraq was a good idea, but there can be no argument that it was enormously unpopular amongst Blair’s allies. It took an act of political courage almost unprecedented in modern times for Blair to send British forces to Iraq and to prosecute the war in partnership with an American President that many citizens of his nation reviled. Blair was called all kinds of names including being referred to as George Bush’s poodle. He took on political blow after political blow but still did what he thought was right. Like Thatcher, Blair also ensured that the British military was well funded and had all of the resources that it needed.

    Here’s how David Cameron is putting the “Great” back in Great Britain. Since moving into Downing Street last year he’s:

    1) Slashed the army by 7,000 troops (a significant number for Great Brittan)
    2) He’s cut the Royal Air Force by 5,000 men.
    3) He’s reduced the Navy by 5,000 men. For the first time in modern history, the nation that once ruled the waves will have little to no navy to speak of; Under Cameron, the nation’s last air craft carrier was eliminated; for the first time since the Second World War, Britain will have no aircraft carriers.
    4) The number of British frigates and destroyers will drop from 23 to 19 and Britain’s plan to launch a new Trident nuclear submarine has been scrapped.
    5) Cameron retired the entire British fleet of Harrier Jets.
    6) Britain has cut the funds it spends on heavy artillery by 40 percent and it has eliminated plans to deploy Nimrod reconnaissance aircraft.

    7) In addition to cuts in military personnel, Cameron eliminated 25,000 civilian jobs in the defense ministry including experts in logistics and procurement and more ominously, experts in intelligence analysis.

    The gory details can be found here,

    Unsurprisingly, the British military reacted with fury to these cuts and it is widely understood that military leaders in Great Britain view the current British Prime Minister as a buffoon who is well over his head.

    The Prime Minister was laughed at in Parliament when he claimed that despite the cuts “Britain has traditionally punched above its weight in the world and we should have no less ambition for our country in the years to come…”

    A few months down from this one, Professor Mead commented on the crisis that NATO is facing because our allies refuse to do their fair share. When Secretary Panetta and before him Secretary Gates complains about our NATO partners cutting their military budgets to the bone, who does Professor Mead think they are talking about.

    Professor Mead has also written quite a bit about the attack on Libya. Weren’t the British and the French the maid advocates for the bombing campaign against Libya? Weren’t both the British and the French literally incapable from a military point of view of running the initial bombing campaign that eliminated Kaddafi’s anti-aircraft weapons? Later on, weren’t their numerous news reports that they couldn’t prosecute the campaign with the help of the United States because they were literally running out of ordinance?

    How many other places is Great Britain prepared to talk the talk, but thanks to David Cameron, unable to walk the walk? Afghanistan comes to mind. For goodness sakes, the British and their European allies can’t even field a force strong enough to separate the Muslim and Orthodox Kosovars without help from the United States.

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Professor Mead thinks David Cameron is putting the “Great” back in Great Britain. Unless of course Professor Mead thinks that there is something “great” about embracing decline.

  • Kenny

    It seems to me, wigWag, that Cameron is focusing on putting GB’s domestic house in order instead of trying to be a world military power — and his priorities are right in doing so.

  • Toni


    I don’t know enough to have an informed opinion of Cameron. I know that to try to return Britain to its cultural roots is no small thing. For too long, the country has tried to cope with its growing Muslim population and its heavily welfare-dependent poorer classes (which overlap) by diminishing its own historic independent-minded culture.

    Besides the usual PC and multiculti nonsense, Britain has felt its less successful citizens’ pain and expected little of them. Anthony Daniels aka Theodore Dalrymple, who worked as a doctor in Africa and then for 15 years as a psychiatrist who worked in a British prison and hospital, has documented the ways in which “poor” Britons’ over-subsidized lives lead to nihilism, violence and despair.

    In his essay “What Is Poverty?,” Daniels wrote, “The welfare state…[creates] a miasma of subsidized apathy that blights the lives of its supposed beneficiaries…. The wealth that enables everyone effortlessly to have enough food should be liberating, not imprisoning. Instead, it has created a large caste of people for whom life is, in effect, a limbo in which they have nothing to hope for and nothing to fear, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. It is a life emptied of meaning.”

    Whether Cameron can uproot this culture of dependence and despair, and revive the pluck and industry that made Britain Great — of course I can’t know. But it’s a supremely worthy ambition. I daresay the world will be better off if Brits do “become more like us. The real us. Hardworking, pioneering, independent, creative, adaptable, optimistic, can-do.”

    Come to think of it, I wonder whether Americans are now spontaneously recovering those same traits.

  • Jim.

    One small comment: WigWag is right. WRM should have found an alternative to the phrase “sticking to his guns” to describe Cameron’s actions.

    Random thoughts:

    In much of England’s history, the military *was* a social program — at least an employer of last resort. The life-and-death seriousness of military life is a cure for the lotus-eating nihilism that is the curse of the useless classes today.

    The problem has ever been, how to harness this without falling prey to militarism. As much as I admire 19th-century European dynamism (and cheer Cameron’s evocation of it) keeping military efforts honorable and constructive is not easy.

    America historically managed it (pre-1945) by our bipolar relationship with isolationism. Unfortunately, we stumbled badly on the Generation Gap, as the Greatest Generation’s life(-and-death) experiences differed so widely from the Boomers. And there is much to be said for the art of living in a peaceful world (as the Boomers’ experience and aspirations reflect). That was supposed to be the goal of the World Wars, after all. Be careful what you wish for? Seeds of its own destruction? Better problems to have, in most ways.

    Which brings us back to our unwholesome dinner of lotuses. Conflict is deprecated. Rightly so? Even Man-against-Nature is not an easy solution, here on Earth. Man doles out such crushing defeats these days.

    Wired ran an article the other day about moving asteroids for planetary defense and to establish a new raw materials frontier. “Brave the unknown, Lead the way, Clutch the prize,” certainly. A new promised land, like from Kipling’s “The Whisper”? Looks more like a hardship work site, although Bigelow may be able to change that. O’Neill’s dreams certainly sound a lot more achievable these days.

    Anyway. Sorry for the free-association. WigWag and Toni have very worthy comments, and WRM’s article is tremendously hopeful, for me at any rate.

    Best of luck to Cameron. We’re rooting for him! (Just make finding new funds for that carrier a priority, eh?)

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