UK’s Cameron warns austerity drive will bring hardship, demands wartime spirit to handle cuts

By David Stringer, AP
Wednesday, October 6, 2010

UK leader seeks wartime spirit in austerity drive

LONDON — Prime Minister David Cameron appealed for a wartime spirit from the British public Wednesday, urging them to show restraint amid the hardship of sharp spending cuts and respond with new ideas to spur the economy to future prosperity.

In a major address to his Conservative Party’s annual convention, Cameron insisted that record national debts — racked up during the financial crisis and costly bank bailouts — mean his government has no option but to ax expensive programs, trim welfare payments and hold down departmental budgets.

“I wish there was another way. I wish there was an easier way. But I tell you: There is no other responsible way,” Cameron said, making the closing speech to a rally which has been short on celebrations.

The 43-year-old, the youngest U.K. leader in almost 200 years, ordered activists to shun champagne as they mingled at the four-day event — despite the party’s return to power for the first time since it was ousted by Tony Blair’s Labour in 1997.

Recalling a famous World War I recruitment poster, Cameron told the public they had a key role in spurring Britain’s return to growth. “Your country needs you,” he said, stealing a line from wartime military chief Lord Kitchener.

Cameron also told the rally British troops would quit combat in Afghanistan by 2015, and said Britain’s reputation had been stained by the release from a Scottish jail of the Pan-Am bomber Abdel Baset al-Megrahi last year.

Opinion polls show public anxiety over looming cuts have already dented Cameron’s ratings, and about 7,000 protesters marched outside the party’s convention Sunday to demonstrate against the spending plans.

Seeking to explain his government’s plans, Cameron promised they would deliver future growth. “I promise you that if we pull together to deal with these debts today, then just a few years down the line the rewards will be felt by everyone in our country,” he insisted.

Already, the coalition has frozen most public sector pay, put on halt on increases to Queen Elizabeth II’s government-funded budget and announced a levy on the balances of U.K. banks and foreign banks’ U.K. operations. Child welfare payments have been scrapped for wealthier families and Cameron plans an overall cap on benefit checks.

Cameron insisted the measures had helped prevent Britain’s slide into a Greece-style economic crisis.

In two weeks, Treasury chief George Osborne will set out a five-year program of cuts — slashing budgets for almost all government departments — as he seeks to clear Britain’s 109 billion pounds (US$174 billion) structural deficit.

Britain’s opposition Labour Party proposes a slower, less severe package of cuts. Cameron said Labour was in denial about the scale of the country’s financial crisis.

Cameron insists that — alongside clearing Britain’s debts — the mission in Afghanistan is his key priority. He said U.K troops would leave by 2015, and urged caution over the prospects for progress there.

Cameron confirmed a planned 20-billion-pound ($32 billion) upgrade to Britain’s nuclear weapons capability would go ahead, despite the cuts.

He used the speech to criticize the release from a Scottish jail last year of Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi — which stirred anger in the U.S. from families of the victims.

Al-Megrahi is the only person ever convicted over the 1988 Lockerbie attack, which killed all 259 people onboard — most of them American — and 11 others on the ground in Scotland.

“It was wrong, it undermined our standing in the world,” Cameron said.

Cameron won his loudest applause when he announced iconic Conservative Party chief Margaret Thatcher will celebrate her 85th birthday next week at the prime minister’s residence in Downing Street.


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