We’ve all seen the pictures of Britain’s chancellor of the Exchequer holding a tattered briefcase as he proceeds to Parliament to present the budget. The rest of the world has watched the event with some bemusement. It’s a typically British spectacle, complete with funny titles (why isn’t he called finance minister like everyone else?) and lots of tradition. It’s very quaint, very old money. (The briefcase is in fact 150 years old and is so tattered that it was finally sent to a museum.) But no one has really cared much what was inside that budget box.
Until now. Three weeks ago the new chancellor, 39-year-old Tory George Osborne, presented a budget that promised to get Britain’s fiscal house in order with sharp cuts in spending, coupled with tax increases. It landed in the midst of a heated debate across the industrialized world about how to best get the economy back on track. Osborne and his boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, have come down firmly on one side of this debate, hoping that a major effort to reduce the deficit will reassure bond markets and investors that Britain is a safe and compelling place to put their money.
Leaving aside the economics of this, what struck me as I spent time in Britain last week was the politics of deficit reduction. Having announced major cuts in popular programs, plus hefty tax increases, the Cameron government might be expected to be losing popularity by the day. But in fact the budget was well received by the public—though attacked ferociously from the left—and the governing coalition has actually inched up a bit in the polls.
There are several possible reasons for this. Cameron has played the public role of prime minister exceedingly well, making a pitch-perfect apology for the British Army’s wrongful use of force in Northern Ireland in 1972, and handling himself on the global stage with grace and ease. It’s also true, of course, that the effect of the cuts and taxes have not yet been felt, and when that happens, the government’s poll ratings might plunge. But clearly the honesty of the budget has resonated with voters. It’s heartening to see a government do something that it must have thought would be deeply unpopular, and then be rewarded by the public.
Outside the country, Cameron is the victorious and, so far, successful prime minister of Britain, but inside, particularly in his own party, a debate continues about the election results. A Labour government had been in power for 13 years, Prime Minister Gordon Brown was deeply unpopular, and the economy was in shambles—yet the Tories could not eke out a majority. Without the alliance they formed with the Liberal Democrats, they would not have had a parliamentary majority. The Tory share of the total vote rose to only 36 percent, far below the levels under Margaret Thatcher.
After Thatcher, conservatism in Britain became radioactive. As Tony Blair moved the Labour Party to the center, the Tories moved right, became extreme and thus politically unviable. Their vote totals fell to historic lows, which partly explains why they have not become a majority despite the largest gain in parliamentary seats since the 1930s. Cameron has tried to return the party to the center on all kinds of issues—from the environment to gay rights—but he still has not earned all the public’s trust. Minorities and working women still find it hard to vote Tory (so do Scots, but that’s another matter).
The reaction to the budget, though, shows that he’s got the right idea—politically at least. Ever since the end of the Cold War, pundits have been eager to declare political realignments. When Bill Clinton and Blair won, observers hailed a liberal wave; victories by Newt Gingrich and George W. Bush were thought to herald new conservative majorities. In 2008 the U.S. moved left, and in 2010 the U.K. moved right. But the truth is, since the Cold War ended, most people haven’t voted based on deep ideological divides. The majority gravitate toward the center and search for a party or person who seems to reflect their sensibilities, attitudes, and feelings. They want a modern party that feels as though it understands the world we live in. That’s why they can vote for Clinton and then Bush, for Blair and then Cameron.
Cameron’s coalition with the Liberal Democrats might actually give him the cover he needs to modernize his party even further. When someone in the Tory right wing pushes a policy, he can explain that he simply can’t accept it because the coalition will fall apart. If he governs from the center—and unless the budget does put the economy in a tailspin—he might well succeed in making conservatism cool again.
Fareed Zakaria is editor of NEWSWEEK International and author of The Post-American World and The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.