LONDON, UK — David Cameron’s remarks last week that post-recession Britain must learn to “do more with less” were his clearest indication that the massive spending cuts his government introduced to tackle the economic crisis are no temporary balm, as first promised, but a new template for the country.
Dressed in white tie and tails at the extravagant annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London’s Guildhall, where he addressed some of city’s most rich and powerful, the prime minister said getting the nation’s debts under control “means something more profound” than temporarily re-jiggering public spending.
“It means building a leaner, more efficient state,” he said.
To some of his critics, those words appear to confirm that he’s exploited the crisis to carry out a conservative transformation possibly more radical than that of his model Margaret Thatcher.
They include patrons of the Nicholas Nickleby, a pub in north London’s gritty Finsbury Park neighborhood, where glasses are set down heavily when Cameron’s name comes up.
“Kids are going to wake up homeless on Christmas. And David Cameron is telling us to do more with less?” said John McMenemie, a chef and trainee cab driver. “F**k off. You do more with less.”
The pub’s carpet is stained and a sign behind the bar reads “We Have a Happy Hour in This Pub — When You Have All Gone Home.”
There have never been so many young people out of work in this area, says a gray-haired patron before stamping outside to smoke a hand-rolled cigarette.
Cameron moved into No. 10 Downing Street in 2010 as the economy was slowly recovering from the global economic collapse but facing its own debt crisis.
His Conservative Party promised the “Big Society,” a country that would substitute volunteer and community-led initiatives for government-funded services, accompanied by the biggest spending cuts since World War II.
“I didn’t come into politics to make cuts,” he told Britons in his New Year’s address that year. “We're tackling the deficit because we have to — not out of some ideological zeal.”
Now that the UK leads the European Union in economic growth, that no longer appears to be the case.
In another sign the Conservatives are distancing themselves from earlier suggestions the cuts would be temporary, the party recently deleted 10 years of speeches leading up to 2010 from its online archives.
Some corners support the vision of a permanently leaner state, and not just in London’s financial district the City.
They include Northern Ireland, the UK’s most heavily government-subsidized country.
“A controlled diet is the only way to prevent economic waistlines from bursting,” said Alan Meban, a political commentator in Belfast. “Oh, and if Northern Ireland needs tough love, there are plenty of other regions not far behind us that need to redress their public/private balance, too.”
Others feel Cameron’s statements are out of touch with those who’ve borne the brunt of state cuts.
Ruth Hardy, a waitress at the Lord Mayor’s dinner, was moved to write an angry letter to the Guardian newspaper in which she compared Cameron to “a modern-day, white-tie clad sheriff of Nottingham.”
“Perhaps he forgot about those of us, disabled or unemployed or on the minimum wage, for whom austerity has had a catastrophic and wounding effect,” she wrote.
Comparisons to Thatcher have come from admirers and critics alike.
In 2011, Conservative politician Michael Fallon proclaimed that Cameron’s reforms were “setting Britain back on the course our party first embarked on more than 30 years ago.”
Thatcher’s “wider mission of really handing back power to the people is only now getting fully under way,” he said.
Some argue that Cameron’s privatization of the Royal Mail service, nationwide cap on benefits and wide-ranging reforms to the National Health Service have gone further than the late Tory icon’s reforms.
“Cameron is as destructively right-wing and in some areas, especially the NHS, he wrecks what even she feared to destroy,” Kevin Maguire, an editor of the left-wing Daily Mirror, said after Thatcher’s death in April.
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At the Nicholas Nickleby, regular McMenemie argued that Cameron was “totally and absolutely” continuing the state-slashing work Thatcher started.
He blamed the influence of heavy media coverage of American elections, which he says has confused young people in Britain who now vote for the party with the most charismatic leader and ignore its larger aims.
“You’re all voting Conservative when you don’t remember what life was like under the last Conservative government,” he said of young people. “We remember very well when the school didn’t have enough paper.”
Rolling a cigarette at a nearby table, Eric MacKinonn agreed: “You don’t see any poor politicians.”