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What Britons' willingness to accept budget cuts says about society.
LONDON, UK — For long-term expats like myself, the character of the countries where we end up living is something we usually take for granted. But every once in a while you’re reminded that the place you live in is "foreign."
I had one of those moments last week when the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne gave his autumn statement on the economy. Blithely informing parliament that all his predictions about economic growth for the last two years have been wrong, Britain’s treasurer announced that austerity measures including massive budget cuts and tax increases would be necessary until at least 2118 to achieve his deficit-reduction target.
Nothing happened. No protests, no demonstrations, no riots — Parliament Square didn't become Tahrir Square. That's what reminded me how, no matter how long I live here, there will always be something foreign about Britain — or England, to be specific.
I imagined a president, any president, going to Congress to present his State of the Union address and saying, "I will be sending a budget here next week. All my predictions about economic growth for the last two years have been wrong and in order to shrink the deficit as I promised in my election campaign, I will impose a program of spending cuts and tax increases that will effectively condemn everyone outside the top 10 percent of earners to lose wealth into the foreseeable future."
I can't imagine that being said because it would be an electoral death warrant for any such president and his party for a generation. Americans simply wouldn't take it.
Now I realize there are significant differences between the American and British political systems. But it’s still a comparison you can make. Britain’s economic structure is closest to the US economy, and with the language and cultural connections, it’s easy to look at this country as the 51st state. Except at moments like this.
The lack of response in the streets, or for that matter from the opposition Labour Party’s benches, took at least one commentator, the Observer's Nick Cohen, by surprise. He decided that the silence was a product of Margaret Thatcher's successful war on unions.
That's certainly part of it, but I think there’s something at work here that goes deeper into the British/English character that has formed over the last three centuries.
The reason British society is relatively passive is precisely that the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Canada’s are dynamic. For three hundred-plus years, when people in Britain couldn't bear their low economic status anymore, they went out to the colonies. Sometimes they went of their own free will, sometimes, as in the case of Australia, they were transported in chains.
American readers probably have never heard of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, but they should know a little bit about them. They are the paradigm of what I'm talking about.
The effect was the same everywhere: the creation of societies by people unwilling to accept the status quo. Meanwhile the mother country was unable to replace their rebellious spirit. Passivity became a part of the English character.
That’s not always negative. It means Britain is a very stable and calm society. During World War II, that calm was essential for keeping people on an even keel. "London Can Take It" is the title of a documentary about the Blitz. Produced in 1940, it’s one of the great propaganda documentaries of all time and served its two main purposes: getting American public opinion behind Britain when the United States wasn’t yet at war, and giving Britons a sense of pride in their ability to endure their hardships. The film was released around the country as "Britain Can Take It."
However, the downside of the ability to endure almost anything became apparent after the war. Austerity and wartime rationing continued not for just a year or two but well into the 1950s. Even though they'd won the war, most Brits just accepted it.
A bit of family lore: My late in-laws lived through the Blitz. Having grown tired of austerity and the lack of prospects in England by 1947, they boarded a ship bound for Australia. They got off in Mombasa, Kenya, ended up in Cape Town started a business that did well. But my mother-in-law said she missed home. So they sold up and returned to London in 1952.
Wartime rationing was still in place. The place was frigid and dreary. They quickly realized their mistake and moved on, this time to Canada.
They became Canadian in their minds if not their accents. But the Blitz remained the experience that shaped their lives. As it continues to shape Britain today, three generations later.
The Blitz spirit has been evoked relentlessly for 70 years. And there is something of "Britain can take it" in people's willingness to sit still for Osborne's extraordinary attempt to cut the deficit by robbing ordinary people of half a decade of their lives.
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By chance I was in Middlesbrough last week when the chancellor made his speech. Forty years ago, the town in northeast England was an industrial center at the heart of the third-wealthiest conurbation in Britain. Today, it’s one of the country’s poorest towns. Nevertheless, I heard no anger about the government's plan while I was there. I heard something else: a resignation. "You just have to get on with life."
It is admirable, the willingness to accept that "this is just the way things are, pull your socks up and get on with it." But sometimes as an outsider who is also an insider, I wish more people would quote Pete Townshend in Tommy and say, "We're not gonna take it/Never did and never will/We're not gonna take it/Gonna break it/gonna shake it/let's forget it better still."