Good morning, and good luck

Good sense has prevailed, the winners have taken office, and there’s a bit of rainbow-nation buoyancy to Britain that seems impervious, for now, to Greek hangovers. Let’s face it: After a season of furrowed brows youth is a tonic.

By Roger Cohen

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Published: Wed 19 May 2010, 9:48 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:27 AM

At 43, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have that. They’re new in every sense, at the head of the first coalition government since Churchill called Britain to arms seven decades ago. Today, the blitz is economic. The one clear message written into the election’s inconclusive numbers was that Britain demanded change. Collapsing banks, expense scandals, a fierce recession and spiraling personal debt have angered people. It was not that Gordon Brown was a bad guy; he was just a tired guy at the head of a weary Labour Party and a man with a tragic streak.

Politics is about timing and Brown, too long in Tony Blair’s shadow, missed his moment. History will record — an onerous legacy — that he led the country but never had its people’s mandate.

“Thank you and goodbye,” he said at the end of a gracious valedictory speech that could not quite hide the bitterness in that terse finale. It was not quite Edward R. Murrow’s “Good night, and good luck,” but almost.

What now? I think Cameron was right to follow Obama and weave the word “responsibility” into his every post-electoral statement. Like Obama in 2009, he’s taking over a battered, baffled nation. After seeing the tab for the past decade, learning of Icelandic illusions and digesting just how crazy the City’s antics and their own representatives’ spending had become, the British are ready for a dose of transparency and accountability. At least they think they are.

The rapid coalition-building was certainly an exercise in responsibility. It can’t have been easy for Clegg — with his strong European bent, Spanish wife and sons named Antonio, Alberto and Miguel — to agree to wording freighted with visceral Tory suspicion of the European Union, a body full of funny names to which “there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers over the course of the next Parliament.” It can’t have been easy, either, for Cameron to accept a referendum on electoral reform that could hurt his Conservative party; tax breaks for low-income earners rather than his wealthy classmates; and an awkward compromise on nuclear power that reflects the lentils-and-sandals, touchy-feely streak among Clegg’s Liberal Democrats, a party long free to dream because it did not have to govern.

Still, they got to agreement fast, with the best part devoted to civil liberties — scrapping Labour’s ID card scheme and promising to rein in the rampant camera surveillance that threatens to put Britain back in the USSR.

Now each leader has to deliver or succumb to the inevitable jibes, from the right in the case of Cameron, the left in the case of Clegg. Effectiveness can be their only answer to charges of opportunism and selling out. That should focus minds.

I like the balance in the cabinet, particularly the presence of the blunt Liberal Democrat Vince Cable overseeing business and banks. Youth is good, but Cable, two decades older than Clegg and Cameron, brings a dose of hard-nosed wisdom. It was he who, seven years ago, asked Brown if “consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt,” was not a recipe for economic disaster — and was ignored.Cable and the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, face an enormous challenge.

The agreement commits the coalition to an emergency deficit-reducing budget within 50 days even as it acknowledges the fragility of economic recovery: That’s a tough balancing act. It also calls for “robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial services sector,” and raises the possibility of separating retail and investment banking — measures the City will resist, and Britain depends more than America on its huge financial sector.

Britain’s numbers don’t look a whole lot better than Greece’s, with the budget deficit at 11.5 per cent of national output, compared to 13.6 per cent in Athens. But Britain has more flexibility, being outside the euro, and has already allowed sterling to depreciate sharply to regain competitiveness. Its debt maturities are also longer. And, well, the United Kingdom is not Greece.

Still, Cameron and Clegg are going to have to steer the country through very rough times. Europe, like it or not, is where Britain sits, as Churchill knew. Britain will not be immune to the south European blues. At home, interest rates will rise and the end to the current mortgage holiday for millions will cause anger.

But government is not just about numbers. When he took office 13 years ago, Blair lifted Britain from its navel-gazing. Cameron has the same energetic gifts, is a better listener and more instinctive seeker of middle ground. In a best case, he and Clegg will complement each other. Europe can’t afford a Britain of Tory prejudice. The world can’t afford a Britain of Liberal Democratic wobbliness. So, here’s to renewal in the spirit of the Downing Street fertility clinic, preparing to usher another Cameron into the unpredictable British fray.

Roger Cohen is Editor at Large of the International Herald Tribune

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