Why are the British so excited about spending cuts and austerity measures?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Sept. 13 2010 8:00 PM

Less, Please

Why are the British so excited about spending cuts and austerity measures?

Nick Clegg.
Nick Clegg 

LONDON—"Vicious cuts." "Savage cuts." "Swingeing cuts." The language that the British use to describe their new government's spending-reduction policy is apocalyptic in the extreme. The ministers in charge of the country's finances are known as "axe-wielders" who will be "hacking" away at the budget. Articles about the nation's finances are filled with talk of blood, knives, and amputation.

And the British love it. Not only is austerity being touted as the solution to Britain's economic woes; it is also being described as the answer to the country's moral failings. On Oct. 20, the government will announce $128 billion worth of spending cuts, and many seem positively excited about it. OK, the trade unions are not so excited, butNick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats—the smaller party in the governing coalition—is overjoyed. Recently, he gave a speech in which he explained that tough choices had to be made, so that "we will be able to look our children and grandchildren in the eye and say we did the best for them."

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Clegg went on to explain that his own generation, born in the 1960s, had gotten things wrong: "We have run up debts, despoiled the planet, and allowed too many of our institutions to wither." By contrast, his government's forthcoming austerity budget will value "long-termism" over "short-termism" and eliminate "the dead weight of our debt, and our failings" so that future generations can flourish. "I think it was a Hollywood actress," Clegg quipped, "who said that nowadays instant gratification isn't quick enough for some people."

Actually Meryl Streep said that, in a 1990 movie ( Postcards From the Edge, if you must know). But she wasn't talking about the earnest Brits who voted for Clegg and for David Cameron, his Tory coalition partner. For these voters, the very idea of instant gratification is anathema, in theory if not in practice. And they elected this government because they've convinced themselves they've had enough of it.

Austerity, by contrast, has a deep appeal. Austerity is what made Britain great. Austerity is what won the war. It cannot be an accident that several British TV channels are running programs this year on themes like "The Spirit of 1940," all dedicated to the 70th anniversary of that "remarkable year" of rationing, air-raid sirens, and hardship. One series, Ration Book Britain, is devoted to that era's parsimonious cooking. "With bacon, eggs and sugar rationed, wartime cooks had to be jolly resourceful," explains an ad for the show. Its host promises to "re-create the recipes that kept the country fighting fit."

Sometimes the depth of the Anglo-American cultural divide reveals itself in unexpected ways, and this is one of those moments: No cooking show featuring corned beef hash and powdered eggs would stand a chance of making it to air in the United States. Perhaps for similar reasons, nobody is talking about austerity in America. On the contrary, Republicans are still gunning for tax cuts, and Democrats are still advocating higher spending. Almost nobody—not Paul Krugman, not Newt Gingrich—talks enthusiastically about budget cuts. Instead, our politicians use euphemisms about "eliminating waste" or "making government more efficient," as if no one had ever thought of doing that before.

Despite the deep shock the nation supposedly experienced during the banking crisis of 2008 and the recession of 2008-09, we are, in other words, still far away from Clegg's "long-termism." I don't hear anyone in America talking about cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, or Social Security, the biggest budgetary items (even though "private" pensions now look a lot safer—even when taking stock market fluctuations into account—than those that will depend entirely on a bankrupt federal budget 20 years hence). In Britain, by contrast, everything is on the table: pensions, housing benefit, disability payments, tax breaks.

Politics explain some of this difference, but I reckon history explains even more. The last period of real national hardship Americans might remember is the 1930s, too long ago for almost everyone alive today. But rationing in Britain lasted well into the 1950s, long enough to color the childhoods of many politicians now in power. Nostalgic Brits, longing to re-create their country's finest hour, remember postwar scrimping and saving. Nostalgic Americans in search of their own country's finest hour remember postwar abundance, the long consumer boom—and, yes, a time when even instant gratification wasn't fast enough.

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