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British politicians hang hopes on comparisons to Canada

A 2008 photo of former prime minister Jean Chrétien, whose government's fiscal policy is all the rage in London.


British politicians, facing the prospect of a debt crisis and a minority government for the first time in a generation, have turned to tantalizing voters - and sometimes threatening them - with the spectre of Canada.

The Liberal Democrats, Britain's centrist third-place party and the likely kingmakers in this spring's election, pegged their electoral hopes this week on a promise to deliver debt-laden Britain the policies of Jean Chrétien's Liberals in 1993 - concepts that are completely unknown to British voters.

"I believe Britain must learn from the approach taken by the Liberal government in Canada in the 1990s," party leader Nick Clegg declared in a key London policy speech.

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"At that time, Canada had an annual budget deficit a 10th the size of its economy - almost as large as the U.K.'s is today… Liberal Democrats will follow Canada's lead."

He pledged to follow the program-review process the Liberals used to slash the size of Canada's public service during the 1990s, including the nationwide public consultations.

"You only have to look at the success of the fiscal contraction in Canada, where a purposeful attempt was made to engage the public, to see that it is possible to rally support for deficit reduction, and it makes it easier to achieve the necessary cuts," Mr. Clegg said.

The threat of a "hung Parliament," as a minority government is known here, has led to the "Canadian scenario" becoming a scare tactic, while the Chrétien deficit-cutting experience is now a promise.

On this, Mr. Clegg is far from a renegade position. Conservative Leader David Cameron, the leading candidate in an election that must take place by June 3 and will likely be held on May 6, has advocated both Canada's deficit-cutting approach and the bank and mortgage regulations that have helped Canada avoid a debt crisis.

The Chrétien message appears to be working for the Liberal Democrats: A poll of voting intentions taken by Angus Reid in the wake of the speech gave the party a 3-point boost to 21 per cent, with the Tories leading at 39 per cent and Labour at 26 per cent. The Conservatives would need at least 42 per cent to win a majority.

"The Liberal Democrats are helped by the story of Canada they tell because it involves consultation and taking the people with you, and that fits in well with the ideological position the party occupies - which is somehow to appear radical, but in a way that seems attractive to dissidents of either party," says Rodney Barker, an expert on British party politics and professor emeritus at the London School of Economics.

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But Canada is more often held aloft by the British these days as an ominous political threat.

The "nightmare scenario" of a "Canadian-style" minority government has become a recurring motif in the British press, as repeated polls show this spring's election delivering neither Gordon Brown's governing Labour Party nor the opposition Conservatives with 50 per cent of the vote.

Britain has not had a minority government since the 1970s, and the prospect is greeted with deep alarm.

Mr. Clegg once again stands at the centre of this tableau. His party would be required to support either a Labour or a Conservative minority government, or to end it in a confidence vote that would trigger an unpopular second election.

The solution, experts on the party said, would most likely be a Canadian-style agreement in which the larger party supports some legislation friendly to the Liberal Democrats, rather than a formal coalition.

But the prospect, familiar to Canadians, of a coalition of the second-place and third-place parties presenting itself to the Queen as the official government has become a campaign-trail threat uttered by Tories.

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"I do think that in the middle of an acute national crisis a hung parliament would be one of the biggest disasters we could suffer - a bigger danger than a Labour victory," Kenneth Clarke, a prominent Conservative, told the press.

That is in part because Labour could still try to form a government event if it wins fewer seats than the Conservatives.

The Tories, still surprised by their weak standing, are warning party activists to campaign hard to prevent such a "Canadian" scenario.

Nevertheless, British voters do not seem to have been frightened off by the Canadian nightmare. A poll taken this week by ICM for the Daily Telegraph showed that a surprising 34 per cent of voters think a hung Parliament would be "in Britain's best interests," versus 56 per cent wanting a clear majority.

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About the Author
International-Affairs Columnist

Doug Saunders writes the Globe and Mail's international-affairs column, and also serves as the paper's online opinion and debate editor. He has been a writer with the Globe since 1995, and has extensive experience as a foreign correspondent, having run the Globe's foreign bureaus in Los Angeles and London.He was born in Hamilton, Ontario, and educated in Toronto. More

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