British Conservatives tackle their fiscal crisis with 'real' magic

Prime Minister David Cameron at a Conservative Party conference last week.
Prime Minister David Cameron at a Conservative Party conference last week. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/associated Press)
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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, October 13, 2010

I'm not a witch.

But if I were, the first spell I'd cast would be to turn House Minority Leader John Boehner into British Prime Minister David Cameron. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell becomes -- poof! -- George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer.

You were hoping for toads?

Tempting, but this would be a better change. The difference between the British conservative leaders and the ones we're stuck with in the United States is the difference between rational conservatism and magic-wand conservatism.

I'm not a Tory. But listening to Cameron's speech at the Conservative Party's annual conference, I was bowled over.

First, instead of conjuring up sugarplum visions of pain-free change, the Conservatives are addressing their fiscal crisis with seriousness and specificity. Osborne is about to unveil an austere deficit-reduction plan that will cut most departmental budgets by 25 percent over several years. This is not some dead-on-arrival presidential budget; the parliamentary system means that these are for-real cuts.

You can argue whether this is the right approach in a wobbly economy or whether these cuts are too draconian, but it takes guts to spell them out. Compare this with House Republicans' laughable "Pledge to America," which could manage to summon up just two measly trims: cutting Congress's budget (all legislative branch spending totals less than $4 billion) and freezing the size of the federal workforce (it's smaller now than it was in 1967).

Second, the Conservatives call for shared sacrifice, starting in a place Republicans seem never to look: at the top. "It's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load," Cameron said.

As the conference opened, the Tories announced, to much howling from their own members, that higher earners -- those making more than about $70,000 a year -- would no longer be entitled to automatic child benefits, under which a family with three children receives close to $4,000 annually.

"Believe me, I understand that most higher rate taxpayers are not the super-rich," Osborne said. "These days we've really got to focus the resources where they are most needed." Here in the United States, when Democrats dare to propose higher taxes for households making more than $250,000 a year, Republicans shout "class warfare."

Third, the Conservatives do not embrace the Tea Party vision of government as malevolent force. "I don't believe in laissez-faire," Cameron said. "Government has a role not just to fire up ambition, but to help give it flight."

He ticked off examples: a Green Investment Bank, infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail and super-fast broadband, even "a New Enterprise Allowance that gives money and support to unemployed people who want to start their own business."

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