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

By Anthony Faiola
Thursday, August 19, 2010; A06

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."

Britain remains far more state-dominated than the United States, with a broad national health-care system and a balance sheet of nationalized banks as a legacy of the financial crisis. In addition, Cameron, 43, is a conservative whose politics on social issues -- he supports gay rights and green energy policy -- clash with the diehard Republican base in the United States.

But after only a short time in office, he is positioning his government as the global standard-bearer for fiscal conservatives and small government.

"For those in the United States who would like to see smaller government, you've got to believe that David Cameron is their kind of politician," said Tony Travers, a political analyst at the London School of Economics.

Yet his opponents in the Labor Party, ousted from power in May after 13 years at No. 10 Downing Street, call Cameron's Big Society nothing but a cover for draconian budget cuts. For instance, his government's push to enlist more volunteer firefighters and policemen comes as the cuts could slash the ranks of paid officers and first responders. At the same time as calling for more citizen volunteers, the new government is also slashing grants to the charities that organize and provide them.

"In the end, for Big Society, just read Small Government and fewer services," said Jim Knight, the Labor Party's point man on employment issues. "They want to bring the public sector to below what it was at the lowest point when Mrs. Thatcher was in power. If you believe as we do in public services, then what was bad under Mrs. Thatcher is now getting worse."

The parents' prerogatives

Many Big Society ideas are still in the draft legislation stage, and it remains unclear whether, and in what form, they will pass. Indeed, Cameron came to power as head of a ruling coalition that includes Liberal Democrats, a party with both left-wing and libertarian elements. Although the coalition has come together on several government-busting measures, it is facing a serious split on others -- such as the so-called free schools.

Cameron and his conservative education minister, Michael Gove, are pushing an idea that would allow the best-performing schools in the country to break away from national curriculums, set their own admissions policies and decide teacher pay. In addition, parents, teachers and charities could petition for funds to open schools where they -- not school board officials -- make the decisions.

Opponents -- including many Liberal Democrats in the coalition government -- insist the plan would create a two-tier school system leaving behind students in the poorest districts. But supporters such as Toby Young -- the author of "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People" and a former judge on the Bravo TV reality show "Top Chef" -- insist it is a novel way to empower parents.

Young and 700 parents and teachers are applying to set up a school in a middle-class neighborhood of west London, where they intend to make Latin compulsory and omit the cultural sensitivity classes common in British schools. Although a staunch conservative who says he sympathizes with the tea party movement in the United States, Young said his group also includes Labor and Liberal Democrat parents and teachers.

"I don't think this is about ideology," said Young, 46. "It's that in some areas, citizens can do better than government."

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