A very British result

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2010

Much was made of the Americanization of British politics during the recent election campaign, which included, among other things, the country's first televised debates among the party leaders vying for 10 Downing Street. But in the end, the selection of Conservative David Cameron as prime minister was quintessentially British, with some election features the United States might admire. The six-week campaign was blissfully short, and whatever spending record might have been set didn't come near the cost of campaigns in the United States that leave politicians beholden to wealthy donors and interest groups. The transfer of power from Labor Prime Minister Gordon Brown to Cameron took less than two hours, compared with 2 ½ months in Washington. And most notably, Britain's new coalition government, the first since Winston Churchill's World War II Cabinet, is a victory for pragmatism over ideology.

Britain is deeply divided over issues such as immigration, its debt-laden economy and its relationship with Europe. Cameron's center-right Conservative Party did not win enough seats in Parliament to form a government on its own, so he has forged a coalition with the center-left Liberal Democrats led by Nick Clegg, who will be deputy prime minister. Together they hold 363 seats in the 650-seat Parliament, and together they have defined economic recovery as the country's No. 1 priority, agreeing that the deficit, now running at 11 percent of gross domestic product, will be reduced largely through cuts in spending rather than increased taxes. That's a cornerstone of the Conservatives' agenda.

In exchange, the Liberal Democrats extracted an agreement to hold a national referendum on reforming the winner-take-all voting system that has favored the two largest parties. They want a proportional representation system that they believe would give them their fair share of seats in Parliament; they won 23 percent of the vote but fewer than 9 percent of the seats.

The challenges before the coalition government are enormous, as Cameron acknowledged in taking office: "We have some deep and pressing problems - a huge deficit, deep social problems, a political system in need of reform." The budget cuts will be painful, and Cameron is seeking a cultural shift from what he calls a system of "entitlements" to one of individual responsibility - shifting burdens from the state to the people. Undoubtedly the coalition partners will clash over issues on which they remain at odds, but for now they have done an admirable job of putting the country's needs before their own interests.

This is the parliamentary system at its best. Britons were understandably concerned about having a coalition government. Power sharing can lead to weak or even gridlocked government, and that may yet come to pass. But there are also countries, such as Germany, that have learned to live with coalitions and have found that they sometimes help build consensus and encourage across-the-aisle politics. That's something that Americans, whose politics have in recent years grown increasingly bitter and partisan, could learn to admire.



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