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The Return of the Stiff Upper Lip

LONDON – Normally, British politics is a ferocious sport. Its parliamentary debates are often pugilistic and personal. The British media have been described as “feral” (a word used by Tony Blair, among others). The questions asked of politicians by journalists are often so aggressive or implicitly insulting that one wonders why their recipients don’t walk out of interviews in a huff, or wither on the spot from humiliation.

But nothing has been normal in Britain of late. For one thing, there is the new coalition government – a rarity unseen since the end of World War II. Then, there are the reactions to the new government, which have been marked by a temperateness of tone that is highly unusual – and all the more surprising, given that David Cameron, the new prime minister, has not exactly been the bearer of good news.

Cameron’s central proposition is that Britain is in a state of “crisis,” and that getting through it will require fortitude and patience. In a major speech, he warned that there is “pain” ahead, and that it will be felt by everyone, as severe spending cuts will be required to bring down Britain’s massive fiscal deficit.

Ordinarily, such pronouncements would provoke outcries of dismay, and of real or pretended indignation. And, of course, there have been demurrals and criticisms. But, aside from former Labour ministers, protesting bitterly at being blamed for the state of the economy, the response has been remarkably civil and thoughtful. What has happened?