Britain's David Cameron seeks smaller government, more citizen involvement

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
By Anthony Faiola
Thursday, August 19, 2010

LONDON -- The Obama administration might be reasserting the government's place in American life. But on this side of the Atlantic, the so-called Big Society vision of Britain's new Conservative prime minister is of a nation with minimal state interference.

David Cameron's 100-day-old ruling coalition is launching an effort to reduce the role of government, seeking to vest communities and individuals with fresh powers and peddling a new era of volunteerism to replace the state in running museums, parks and other public facilities. Supporters and opponents describe the campaign as the biggest assault on government here since the wave of privatizations by Conservative firebrand Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

The idea, one with distant echoes of the "tea party" movement in the United States, is to pluck decision making out of the hands of bureaucrats. Groups of like-minded parents and teachers, for instance, are being invited to open their own taxpayer-funded schools. The groups -- not government school boards -- will be able to determine the curriculum at these "free schools," using their own discretion to make some subjects compulsory while omitting others they find objectionable or unnecessary, such as lessons on multiculturalism.

But the government's push is also about pinching pennies in an age of austerity in Britain, which, like many nations including the United States, is heavily indebted and increasingly broke. Through the toughest budget cuts in generations, the new coalition is moving quickly to shrink the size of the state, with some estimates indicating as many as 600,000 public-sector job losses -- or one in 10 -- by 2015. At the same time, Cameron is backing legislation that would allow communities to take over, for instance, post office branches, staffing them with volunteers instead of paid workers.

"The Big Society is about a huge culture change, where people, in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighborhoods, in their workplace, don't always turn to officials, local authorities or central government for answers to the problems they face," Cameron said last month in a keynote speech on the issue.

In what it calls a "radical extension of direct democracy," the new government is moving to give citizens the right to veto property-tax increases above certain limits. In an effort to hold the public sector more accountable, it is also pressing forward with plans to have communities directly elect police commissioners while forcing the publication of more-detailed crime statistics to give residents a better picture of how local forces are doing.

The new coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats is set to present legislation to dissolve the government health boards that once determined needs at public hospitals, which would allow doctors to become the ultimate deciders.

Cameron's critics say the proposed cuts risk fueling more unemployment and triggering another recession. And public outrage has already forced the government to backpedal on some attempts to trim public spending, including a plan to scrap a government-funded free milk program for needy children under 5.

'Time to help yourselves'

Amid the deepest budget cuts since World War II, Cameron is pointing to villages such as Crosby Ravensworth as the future.

Inside the tiny hamlet in England's picturesque Lake District, residents have formed a nonprofit charity to invest in affordable housing for the neediest residents without using state aid. By buying materials locally and hiring residents to do construction, they are also giving their town a much-needed economic injection.

"Times are hard, and they are going to get harder," said David Graham, 53, chairman of the community trust in Crosby Ravensworth that is using the proceeds from land sales to defray the cost of offering affordable housing. "Now is the time to help yourselves."

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