Stella Creasy, 33, a Member of Parliament for Britain's opposition Labour Party, knows it can be tough to catch the eye of the Speaker, who chairs debates in the House of Commons. She once found herself sitting behind a colleague of such girth that the Speaker missed her. So during a debate on Oct. 20 on the deepest budget cuts Britain has seen in modern times, she did what an increasing number of politicians do these days to get their opinions out: she began tweeting real-time responses. "Wonder why it's fair to ask [the] next generation to grow up in poverty?" she messaged her followers as George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer or finance minister of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government announced new restrictions on a welfare benefit paid to families with children. "[It will be] harder for kids to do well if families [are] hit in [the] way Osborne proposes."
Tweeting is the sort of thing you might expect from the young guns now running Britain. Prime Minister David Cameron turned 44 on Oct. 9. His deputy, the Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, is 43, while Osborne, at just 39, is the youngest Chancellor since the 19th century. Across the floor of the Commons, they are challenged by Ed Miliband, just installed as the Labour Party's youngest leader ever, at 40, and proud of it. "I lead a new generation not bound by the fear or the ghosts of the past," he told his party's annual conference.
The Commons is full of rookie MPs: 233 of 650 MPs entered Parliament for the first time in the May elections, after an exodus of old hands triggered by a scandal over MPs' misuse of expenses and the ouster of Labour after 13 years. There's a sense of opportunity in all this change, as if the new generation might deliver a new kind of politics more closely matched to the informal, wired, fast-paced world they inhabit. (Cameron does not use Twitter, but he and his iPad are inseparable, and the number of tweeting MPs has risen to 225 from 145. Miliband tweets furiously.) But it will take more than youth, nimble fingers and shiny gadgets to overcome the ingrained habits of a political system that was almost designed to inhibit radical change.
And change is what the government intends. The British budget cuts are just the latest sign the demonstrations in France are another that the European democracies are tackling their economic problems with a zeal that startles many observers elsewhere. In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy is pressing ahead with legislation to delay retirement benefits, while street protests appear to be tailing off. Osborne has pledged to reduce Britain's budget deficit of £149 billion ($245 billion) to £37 billion by 2015, or 2.1% of GDP. That entails squeezing the spending of most government departments by 19%.
The Chancellor has avoided the sort of rhetoric that has inflamed passions in France. "We're all in this together," he said in the Commons, a phrase designed to evoke bygone World War II days of public-spirited sacrifice. Miliband argues the cuts will catapult the U.K. into a different era the 1980s while economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman suggested in his New York Times column that reducing demand in an economy that is still anemic risks steering Britain into an even scarier past: "The best guess is that Britain in 2011 will look like Britain in 1931 or the United States in 1937 or Japan in 1997," Krugman wrote.
A similar vision of the risks facing Britain helped push into coalition two parties that were at loggerheads during the election campaign. The odd beast that emerged has big ambitions. It won't be easy to realize them. The recent memoir of Tony Blair, Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007, is full of stories of the struggle to break through bureaucracy and entrenched interests to get the British system of government moving.
It can be done, though. five days after his birthday, Cameron hosted a reception in the Downing Street state rooms to mark Margaret Thatcher's. The once Iron Lady now 85 and in poor health was too ill to attend, but the party proceeded at her request, and Cameron read her message to the guests: "I am so disappointed not to be with you this evening. But I hope that you will appreciate that, on this particular occasion, I have had to accept that the lady is not for returning."
The line echoed a speech Thatcher gave in 1980, in the teeth of recession and just over a year into her first term of office, to delegates at her Conservative Party's annual conference. Her program of economic stringency, bitterly opposed by the British establishment, including many members of her own party, had led to calls for a U-turn in policies. "You turn if you want to," Thatcher said. "The lady's not for turning."