Margaret Thatcher finally came out of the political corner last week. After toying with inquiries about an early general election for weeks, the British prime minister succumbed and set June 9 as the date. Thatcher argued that the uncertainty had become “intolerable” and added,
“Investment decisions are being held up because people do not know who will be the government in a year’s time.” The timing of the call, however, indicated that Thatcher personally had no doubts: her party dominates the polls, and the official Opposition is in disarray. In the best parliamentary tradition, she went when the going was best.
On the eve of her announcement, senior ministers were unanimously in favor of the June date during a nine-hour session. They feared that by autumn—another possible election periodeconomic thunderclouds would be gathering, including a further rise in unemployment, currently 13.6 per cent (3.5 million), and a possible increase in inflation, now at a 15-year low of 4.6 per cent. On the positive side, Thatcher’s colleagues noted the Tories’ 21-point lead in the opinion polls and the infighting in the Opposition Labour Party. Any delay in calling the election, they pointed out, would give Labour a chance to replace its battle-scarred leader, Michael Foot, with his aggressive deputy, Denis Healey. Such a move, a recent poll revealed, could immediately bring the Tory lead down to five per cent. Not only that, but putting off the election would have given the SDP-Liberal alliance, the fledgling third force in British politics, a chance to revive its flagging fortunes.
Still, the election decision had its drawbacks. Important government legislation, including a controversial bill to give the police more power, had to be scrapped. And while the election date safely precedes important entries in the social calendar—such as the Wimbledon tennis championships and Royal Ascot races—it affected diplomacy. Thatcher was forced to cancel a tête-àtête with U.S. President Ronald Reagan, though she still intends to attend the seven-nation Williamsburg summit late this month.
The choice of date also had its political risks at home. For one thing, it stamped Thatcher as an opportunist, undermining the resolute reputation she earned in last year’s Falklands War. The general election call brought an im-
mediate taunt from Foot that the government had “cut and run.” Thatcher answered that the Labour jibe was predictable. If she had not called an election she would have been accused of “dithering.” But the Tories also still face the task of defending their record, answering critics’ charges that they have divided the “haves” more sharply than ever from the “have nots” and failed to honor election promises.
Indeed, Thatcher’s advice early in her term to her fellow countrymen to “fasten your seatbelts” has proved fully justified. In her four-year domination of political life nearly everyone, from trade unionists to cabinet critics, has felt the impact of her personalz ity and policies. In § a recent interview = Thatcher claimed credit for a “major change of direction” in British life. Few would I dispute that. Whether in privatizing such state-owned giants as the British National Oil Co. and Thomas Cook Travel or in ruthlessly combatting a labor movement that has become arrogant in the face of government compliance, Thatcher has altered the industrial and social map of Britain.
In recent weeks Thatcher lauded the “Victorian virtues” of thrift and selfreliance—an attitude embedded in the budgets fashioned over four years by her chancellor, soft-spoken Welsh lawyer Sir Geoffrey Howe. The policies have reduced direct taxation, shifting the emphasis instead to indirect taxes in a bid to persuade people to save or invest in new businesses. But critics charge that the tactics not only have largely failed but that the main beneficiaries have been the wealthy.
Other aspects of the Tory record are
Helped by North Sea oil, Britain’s exports stand at a record $270 billion. But manufacturing output has fallen 13.5 per cent since 1979. Interest rates, at 11 per cent, are only a point lower than when Thatcher took office. Since the lifting of exchange controls in October, 1979, billions of pounds have flowed out of the country. The Tories claim that the flood has benefitted companies with international links, helped consumers by making travel abroad easier and boosted the pound. But opponents charge again that the result has been to benefit the well-to-do.
Last week Foot signalled his early determination to fight the campaign on two main grounds: unemployment and the controversial personality of the prime minister. “We have a chance of outright victory,” he stated. But his claim was belied by opinion polls that gave the Tories their double-digit lead and bookmakers’ odds that made Thatcher a 2 to 9 favorite.
Certainly, Labour faces formidable hurdles. Recent riding boundary changes have given the Tories a built-in advantage of 21 new seats in the south and have taken away nine Labour strongholds. To achieve a majority of even one seat in the new Parliament, Labour would need a net gain of 66 seats; to get a working majority it would require a landslide comparable to Clement Attlee’s historic sweep in 1945. That is hardly likely. On the evidence of
local elections earlier this month, Tory support in the south is solid. In the north, Labour is holding its own. But in Scotland, where Thatcher opened her campaign at week’s end,the traditionally large Labour lead has narrowed dramatically to a mere three per cent. The crucial battleground will be in the industrial Midlands, which have borne the brunt of the recession and Thatcher’s “leaner but fitter” brand of economic Darwinism. But Labour can scarcely hope to win enough seats there to recoup its boundary-change losses.
Not only that, but the unemployment issue identified in recent polls as the chief concern of voters may turn out to be less of a vote winner than Foot hopes. Other recent opinion-sampling has suggested that Britons accept the lines of jobless as a fact of recessionary life, common to all industrialized countries.
Attacks on Thatcher’s personality, too, may fail. The underprivileged are bitter about her hectoring exhortations to them to better themselves. But that philosophy appeals to a new type of Tory— the skilled worker with aspirations to the good life.
Meanwhile, Labour itself is vulnerable. It hastily bridged the chasm between its right and militant left wings as expectations grew for an early election. But its free-spending, left-leaning manifesto still leaves it open to charges of extremism. Nowhere is Labour more vulnerable to attack than on defence, where its leadership is hopelessly divided. On the one hand, Foot favors unilateral nuclear disarmament. On the other, shadow defence minister Healey supports nuclear deterrence and is a loyal advocate of NATO.
For their part, the Tories are united behind Thatcher. At 57, she still visibly
thrives on the stress and turmoil of office. “She dominates contemporary politics. Everything is seen in terms of her victory or defeat,” says former Labour MP Brian Walden, now a respected television analyst. “It is Thatcher vs. the rest.” However, the Tories will be careful not to pin their campaign too firmly on the “Leaderene,” as former Conservative arts minister Norman St. John-Stevas once dubbed her. Those with long memories recall the lesson of Winston Churchill’s devastating defeat in 1945, when the much-loved war leader was toppled by an irresistible surge for social justice.
Instead, the government can be expected to fight its campaign mainly on inflation—its one big economic achievement—and on Labour’s costly plan to switch Britain sharply toward a statefinanced job creation program. The Tories are already playing the defence card, which they clearly see as a trump despite the growth of antinuclear feeling in the country. The Conservatives do not regard the peace vigil at Greenham Common, where U.S. cruise missiles are to be installed later this year, or the resurgence of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) as conclusive proof that the voters are ready to buy Labour’s ban-the-bomb package.
The wide gap between the ratings of the two major parties leaves the centre open to the two-year-old SDP-Liberal Alliance,
which won a notable byelection earlier this year in London’s dockland riding of Bermondsey, previously a Labour stronghold. The Alliance has had other startling byelection victories in its brief existence. But it has had disasters too. After riding high in Bermondsey, an inexperienced candidate placed an ignominious third in the northeastern riding of Darlington last March. Last week its poll ratings ranged between 18 and 24 per cent; and Alliance Leader Roy Jenkins said the party had “everything to play for.” But the Alliance also will be hurt by the boundary changes— and by Britain’s first -past-the-post electoral system,where, as in Canada, a winner can take office with a meagre plurality. Electoral analysts point out that the Alliance could pile up millions of votes yet fail to elect more than a handful of MPs. The Alliance’s campaign also is inhibited by the size of its war chest—a mere $1 million compared with Labour’s $3.8 million and the opulent Conservatives’ $17-million bankroll, drawn largely from business interests. Finally, but most important, the untried third force in British politics enters its first general election with its leadership divided between the SDP’s Jenkins and Liberal Leader David Steel, a more popular national figure, who is campaign chairman.
Whatever the postelection lineup, a number of well-known parliamentary faces will be missing from the Commons. Sir Harold Wilson, twice Labour prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s, is retiring. So is former Tory defence minister Sir John Nott, knighted after last year’s Falklands victory. Speaker George Thomas and former Liberal leader Jo Grimond, who launched the party’s recovery in the 1960s, are also not seeking re-election.
Labour had an unexpected bonus on the first day of the campaign in the House of Commons. It mustered all its parliamentary muscle to kill several recent budget measures aimed at adding to the wealth of the affluent, including tax relief on higher mortgages and the raising of tax thresholds for high-income earners. It was an ironic postscript to the Thatcher years. For all her desire to heal the nation’s divisions, her policies have polarized it more sharply than at any time since Labour introduced the postwar welfare state.
But the parliamentary coup seemed to be an unreliable pointer to the general election result. As the prestigious Guardian noted last week, Thatcher has “laid a spell” over the nation. Barring unhealthy hubris and too much complacency, the Conservatives apparently are poised to renew their mandate and complete the task of building what the paper called “Mrs. Thatcher’s Britain.”
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