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The conscience of a budget-cutter

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Michael Gerson
June 3, 2011
— British Prime Minister David Cameron has emerged as the most admirable of anomalies: the budget-cutter as leader of conscience.

If relocated to America, Cameron’s program of austerity would make him an unrivaled tea party darling. What serious American has made detailed proposals to cut spending in each government department by an average of nearly 20 percent during the next four years? Who would choose to simultaneously slash government jobs, social services and military spending?


The extremity of Britain’s fiscal crisis, of course, left few alternatives to budget-cutting ambition. Yet, many British politicians have opted for less-responsible approaches. Cameron campaigned, won and generally has governed on a platform of fiscal discipline.


Still, Cameronism is defined not only by austerity but by a few notable exceptions to austerity. The prime minister has protected some categories of spending from reductions, erecting what’s called a “ring-fence” around health programs and foreign assistance.


Later this month, Cameron and Bill Gates will host a conference in London to encourage contributions to GAVI—the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. Britain will expand its commitment, and the country’s development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, has been twisting arms to convince other governments to do the same. The increase that Cameron and Gates propose would vaccinate about 250 million children over the next four years, saving at least 4 million lives.


When I caught up with Mitchell by phone, he was visiting a GAVI immunization center outside Islamabad, Pakistan.


“For the price of a Starbucks cup of coffee,” he said, “you can vaccinate nine kids. It is absolutely awesome.”


Asked about opposition to foreign assistance increases while other spending is cut, he mirrors words used by Cameron: “We’re not going to balance the books on the backs of the poorest people in the world. Charity begins at home, but it does not end there.”


Reflecting on 25 years as a Conservative member of Parliament, he says of Cameron’s commitment: “I’ve never been so proud of anything.”


Cameron is equally passionate. At a recent news conference, he bristled at criticism of aid spending.


“Of course it is difficult when we’re having to make difficult decisions at home. But I think that 0.7 percent of our gross national income, I don’t believe that is too high a price to pay for trying to save lives.”


This effort to expand vaccine coverage is important in itself. It also provides broader lessons for American politics.


Cameron is demonstrating to the Obama administration that it remains possible to set creative policy priorities even in a time of austerity. Increased support for GAVI came after an extensive internal aid review by the British government, which rated programs according to importance and effectiveness. GAVI and UNICEF came out well. Four others fared so poorly they were dropped from core funding entirely, including United Nations programs on development and labor rights. The case for aid effectiveness requires the recognition that some aid is ineffective. Budget constraints demand focus and measured outcomes. A systematic review and rating of American aid programs, similar to the one Cameron has conducted, would make it harder for Congress to refuse needed spending.


Yet Cameron, as the leader of a conservative party, also offers lessons to American conservatives. Responsible budgets are essential—inseparable from a commitment to limited government. But conservatism also involves a suspicion of abstract ideology and a concern for real-world consequences. The belief that some spending is wasteful while other spending is useful is not the evidence of inconsistency; it is the definition of political prudence. The refusal to draw such distinctions reveals a kind of ideological inebriation, making it impossible to display the fine motor skills of governing. Across-the-board spending cuts are as much an abdication of political judgment as across-the-board spending increases. Both are politics flying blind.


Cameron’s predecessor by a century and a half, Benjamin Disraeli, specialized in the politics of sophisticated distinctions.


“I am a conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution,” he said, “a radical to remove all that is bad.”


He was a conservative reformer, who helped mitigate the suffering of the poor in a newly industrialized society.


Cameron is now forced to limit the most expansive, unsustainable commitments of the British welfare state. But he is showing Disraeli’s talent for making the distinctions that define a statesman.


In coming American elections, Republicans will require budget-cutting ambition. They will also need to show some judgment—and a humanity that could make all of us proud.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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