Call it common sense,and the British will tolerate even radical change. That is the gamble being taken by David Cameron and his coalition,as they plan spending cuts that could reshape relations between Britains citizens and the state.
It will take time to learn if Mr Cameron really has the measure of his country. His coalition colleagues know they will test the limits of unpopularity over the next couple of years. Already,Mr Cameron is being tested as a front-man for what will amount,in areas,to a programme of wrenching reform. He has some tentative reasons for cheer.
Mr Cameron took the train north on August 10th,to answer questions from a hundred or so Manchester voters. It could have been a tough crowd: Manchester has received much public money over the years to recover from a post-industrial slump. It is still home to a lot of jobless households. The audience,picked by a local radio station,included many with a stake in the state: teachers,the boss of a youth arts project,parents anxious about cherished social services. Yet the mood was businesslike and on the whole respectful.
Part of that is the prime ministers manner. It is said that Mr Cameron an expensively educated sort with aristocratic in-laws acts as if born to rule. That is right,but potentially misleading. He is not a drawling toff. His is a brisk,self-confident form of poshness: think of a young officer in one of the smarter regiments,getting on with the job in some global hotspot. In Manchester he strode about in shirtsleeves,politely but firmly in charge,cutting wafflers short and kindly prompting the nervous. He has old-fashioned good manners and treats voters like adults,admitting when problems have no simple solution.
The recession also helps. From opposition,the Labour Party accuses the government of using Britains budgetary woes as cover for a long-held ambition to shrink the state. In the lefts telling,the Tory-led coalition (enabled by what Labour considers the snivelling cowardice of its Liberal Democrat members) is planning cuts of choice,not just of necessity. Sadly for Labour,this is an experimental proposition that cannot be tested: Mr Cameron inherited coffers that are empty,not full. In Manchester even voters asking about brutal cuts began by saying they understood the need to save money.
Arguably,voters have yet to wake up to just how much money. Officials talk of incredibly difficult cuts ahead,dwarfing in scale the economies made by Margaret Thatcher after she took power in 1979. This bad news is being broken to the public carefully. Mr Cameron used his Manchester visit to announce modern new ways to cut benefit fraud,such as paying private credit-rating agencies to spot high-spending welfare recipients. This vow to tackle something voters dislike was consciously intended as a change of tone,after much glum talk of austerity.
Mr Cameron talks of a country that has been living dangerously beyond its means. But his stated solutions stress pragmatism and necessity,ahead of ideological zeal. In Manchester he described a hierarchy of thrift. First,cut waste and fraud,then cut misguided spending (he mentioned the previous governments plans for national identity cards,now scrapped). Only then would his government look at efficiency savings. And only after that would the axe fall on some programmes which might be hugely worthwhile,but which could not be funded as hoped. The prime minister did not attack public spending in the abstract,or pledge to get the state off citizens backs. Mr Camerons radicalism is lower key. It lies in suggesting that although public money should provide a safety net for the most vulnerable the state has often proved poor at delivering such services.
The coalition likes to denounce the mess it inherited from Labour,but Mr Cameron was also willing to talk of tweaking and improving existing schemes,whether Sure Start centres for young children from deprived neighbourhoods or Blairite wheezes such as paying firms to find jobs for those out of work. As he declared,dropping briefly into the demotic: I dont want to slag off everything the last government did.
Now for some bad news
As Mr Cameron explains it,the knack of government lies in using limited public funds to nudge society towards better ways of doing things. Instead of setting planning targets centrally,why not offer communities incentives to accept new housing developments,he suggests,or let building firms insulate homes in exchange for a share of the savings on future energy bills?
Three decades after the first Thatcher government,such market-based solutions do not have to be argued from first principles,and this is another form of good fortune for Mr Cameron. The coalition has inherited voters willing (at least in England) to tolerate blurred lines between the private and public sectors. In much of western Europe the idea of private rating agencies policing welfare rolls would cause outrage. No voter in Manchester raised a murmur at the suggestion.
Yet trouble still looms. Earlier this month,a voter in Birmingham asked Mr Cameron to pledge that some cuts might be reversed once Britains books were balanced. Well no,the prime minister replied: the country needed sustainable public services for the long term. There will be more such moments of truth in coming months. In Manchester Mr Cameron talked of the public sector changing,so it can do more with less. Voters may prove surprisingly tolerant of that sort of radical reform. But he also talked about ensuring that public funds went to the most vulnerable in society. That sounded like code for the state doing less with less,full stop. Once that message is better understood,British pragmatism will be tested to its limits.
© The Economist Newspaper Limited 2010