LONDON: Normally, British politics is a ferocious sport. Its parliamentary debates are often pugilistic and personal. The British media have been described as “feral” (a word used by Tony Blair, among others). The questions asked of politicians by journalists are often so aggressive or implicitly insulting that one wonders why their recipients don’t walk out of interviews in a huff, or wither on the spot from humiliation.
But nothing has been normal in Britain of late. For one thing, there is the new coalition government – a rarity unseen since the end of World War II. Then, there are the reactions to the new government, which have been marked by a temperateness of tone that is highly unusual – and all the more surprising, given that David Cameron, the new prime minister, has not exactly been the bearer of good news.
Cameron’s central proposition is that Britain is in a state of “crisis,” and that getting through it will require fortitude and patience. In a major speech, he warned that there is “pain” ahead, and that it will be felt by everyone, as severe spending cuts will be required to bring down Britain’s massive fiscal deficit.
Ordinarily, such pronouncements would provoke outcries of dismay, and of real or pretended indignation. And, of course, there have been demurrals and criticisms. But, aside from former Labour ministers, protesting bitterly at being blamed for the state of the economy, the response has been remarkably civil and thoughtful. What has happened?
Perhaps an alliance between Conservatives and Liberals – the two parties ostensibly farthest apart in their views – confounded everyone out of their certainties. This in itself may be no bad thing. But the “absence of war,” as the British playwright David Hare once called it, suggests that Britain’s political tectonic plates have shifted.
For one thing, the coalition exposes an undercurrent in British political life that has coexisted – almost furtively – with heated rhetoric: convergence among the main parties towards a kind of centrist synthesis on most of the big issues.
In a sense, the Conservative-Liberal coalition represents a culmination of this trend. The policies and positions articulated by the new government suggest not so much the once vaunted Third Way (a slogan for the age of prosperity) as a carefully calibrated Middle Way. It is clear, for example, that the sacred cows of public services and social benefits – among the most extensive in the world – will not remain untouched. Both will be subject to cuts.
In addition, Cameron is proposing other reforms, such as requiring people, after several years’ unemployment, to accept a job offer, even if it is not the applicant’s preference. This may help break the demoralizing cycle of unemployment and alienation. But, to be clear, no one is thinking of eliminating basic services, or dismantling the social safety net.
There will also be new restraints on immigration. These come, however, after a vast influx of legal and illegal immigrants. But no one is suggesting that Britain should become a mono-cultural country again.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, banking practices will – one hopes – be better regulated, following a prolonged period of stunning financial irresponsibility. Clearly, however, nationalization, or a state-managed economy, is not in the cards.
For all the discomforts that may lie ahead, Britain is not about to enter an age of brutal austerity. Instead, what the coalition seems to be proposing is a sort of correction, a retrenchment from various excesses and dysfunctions to something more restrained and disciplined. And it seems that this agenda has captured a deep, if mostly unspoken vein of popular feeling – a consensus that something has been amiss in “broken Britain,” and that something needs to be done about it.
Now that the problem has been articulated, one can sense not only general agreement, but almost palpable relief. Perhaps the age of irresponsibility is over; perhaps we no longer have to shop until we drop; perhaps the compact between the individual and the government, in which both are understood to have obligations as well as rights, can be restored; perhaps the state will cease to treat its citizens like maladjusted adolescents, of whom nothing much can be demanded and to whom everything is permitted.
Instead of polemical mudslinging, words like “realism,” “necessity,” and “practicality” have again entered the public domain. The ubiquitous sense of entitlement, accompanied by automatic skepticism about all things political, seems to have been replaced by a recognition that some problems are not susceptible to simple left-right explanations or solutions; that the government is neither omnipotent nor always ill-intentioned; and that there are limits to the prosperity that politics can provide.
The tone of stern warning has recently been adopted by other European leaders. But the coalition has one thing going for it: the Brits still love a crisis – and being told that they are in the middle of one has played very well. There is a challenge to meet, a reason to pull together.
It is difficult to know how long this sentiment of solidarity will last. Politics abhors equilibrium as much as nature abhors a vacuum; and undoubtedly, tensions within the coalition, as well as outside it, will surface. Still, possibly the British mood portends a wider change of climate for Western liberal democracies, and the onset of a new, less indulgent era.
For now, the British upper lip seems to have regained some of its stiffness. One hopes that this will last long enough for British society to regain its stability and its much-needed vigor.
Eva Hoffman is the author of seven books, including Lost in Translation and Time. She has written and lectured internationally on contemporary politics and culture, as well as exile, memory, and Eastern European history. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).