The United States wants its own David Cameron
Published 09/08/2010 | 00:02
Scarcely a day passes, it seems, without a new foreign policy clanger from our esteemed Prime Minister.
One moment it's Israel or Pakistan. The next, he's suggesting that in Britain's "finest hour" of 1940, we were junior partners to the United States (which at that moment was doing all it could to stay out of the European conflagration). Now he's said that Iran actually has a nuclear weapon. But fear not. One important foreign country at least is looking enviously on David Cameron and his policies. I refer to that same United States.
What follows is not intended as a paean to the "special relationship". It is simply to point out that – rightly or wrongly – many people here, conservatives and moderates alike, see the tough deficit therapy of the Cameron Government as a model for dealing with the deepening fiscal mess on this side of the Atlantic.
For moderates, the appeal lies as much in the nature of the Government as in the policies it has adopted. Politics in Washington these days has reached a level of partisan nastiness that often defies common sense, even allowing for the overheated atmosphere ahead of November's mid-term elections. Why oh why, wonder the men of reason who inhabit America's ever-shrinking political centre, cannot people put their differences aside and do what's good for the country? In other words, why can't they get together, like those sensible Conservatives and Liberals in the UK?
For American conservatives, the Cameron prescriptions are of even more specific interest. The Republicans right now have a very big problem. To their own private amazement, one suspects, the party is heading for a massive victory in November. Quite possibly, it will regain control not only of the House of Representatives but of the Senate as well. Which is fine – except that Republicans have got to where they are purely by saying no, by riding the coat-tails of public disenchantment with President Obama and of a widespread sense that interventionist government was out of control. Of coherent policies of their own, there's not a trace.
It's tempting to liken 2010 to 1994, the last time Republicans achieved a comparable mid-term sweep. For Barack Obama now read Bill Clinton then; another young Democratic president who had tried to do too much, amid Congressional scandals involving prominent Democrats, just like now.
The difference, though, is that 16 years ago, the Republicans were united behind a brash House leader called Newt Gingrich, brandishing his Contract with America. The "contract" was pretty loosely worded. But Gingrich offered a cogent alternative and Americans bought it. This time all we have are the inanities of Sarah Palin, the frustrations of the anti-big, anti-deficit Tea Party movement and the spewing invective of right-wing talk radio and TV.
At which point enter Cameronomics. For conservatives it has one charm in particular: its prescription that, to balance the budget, £4 will be cut from public spending for each £1 raised in new taxes. In other words, hack government down to size, and your problem is solved. If all goes well, George Osborne could soon be the patron saint of the Tea Party. At first glance, at least, Cameronomics looks like the answer to Republican prayers.
Alas, similarities can be deceptive. The present-day politics and economics of Britain and the US have affinities, but we must not push them too far. First and foremost, the financial situation Cameron faced was far more precarious. America's deficit as a proportion of GDP is about the same as Britain's. However, the dollar is still the world's main reserve currency; as long as that remains so, America can print money to pay its debts, and for the time being, the global appetite for American government bonds is as robust as ever. Britain didn't have that luxury. It had to bring down its deficit fast – and be seen to be doing so.
This American advantage may not last. Contrary to earlier assurances, next year's deficit will be as bad as, or worse than, this year, and conservative economists are starting to use the US in the same sentence as Greece. But diehard liberals can still urge more deficit spending to shore up the economy, without fear that the roof will fall in – at least not yet.
Second, while politics in both countries is shifting to the right, the starting points are very different. Britain is a far more egalitarian place than the US. By almost any yardstick, the Tories are to the left of the Republicans. This Prime Minister is no Margaret Thatcher (with whom the lady from Alaska is said to crave an audience).
By American standards, Cameron is a centrist who would comfortably fit in as a conservative, nay mainstream, Democrat here. Take healthcare. Obama's health reform is denounced by Republicans (and not only by those of a Tea Party persuasion) as crypto-socialism and government run amok. Cameron, though, is so wedded to the NHS, which US conservatives regard as downright communism, that he has ring-fenced it from the impending cuts.
Taxes are another example. Rates for the rich in particular have been increased but for most other people as well – in Britain – and nothing seems more normal. Not in the US. The great political fight this autumn will be over the fate of the massive Bush tax cuts of 2001, which, if nothing is done, will lapse automatically at the end of the year. Obama has pledged to preserve them, except for the very wealthy.
For Republicans, however, that is not enough. Indifferent to the obscene shift in wealth to the already rich that occurred during the Bush years, they insist billionaires must benefit as well. Had Cameron tried such a stunt in Britain, people would have been out in the streets. Of course, they may yet be, when the announced public spending cuts start to bite.
But Republicans are missing the true lesson of Cameronomics. The experiment may come to grief. But if it succeeds, it will be because the Tories have moved back to the centre and told voters the truth. Right now, Republicans seem incapable of doing either.