The battle for Britain

ROSS LAVER June 15 1987

The battle for Britain

ROSS LAVER June 15 1987

The battle for Britain


To campaigning British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, London’s once-derelict docklands are a showcase of her efforts to revive Britain’s

economy—“a classic example of free enterprise and Toryism at work,” as she recently put it. The area, only six kilometres east of Westminster, was once a barren landscape of empty warehouses and vacant lots. But now, spurred on by a government-backed redevelopment program, the docklands are being transformed. “A lot of young, upwardly mobile people are moving into the area,” said John Pannell, 35, a beer importer who recently bought a $350,000 home in Clipper’s Quay, a fashionable townhouse community near the Thames. Like many of his neighbors, Pannell says that he intends to vote Conservative in this week’s general election. Added Pannell: “You have to give Maggie credit for restoring a mood of confidence in

this country. She’s made me proud to be British.”

But only a few blocks from Pannell’s home is another side of Thatcher’s Britain. There, more than 1,000 lowpaid and unemployed people live in a government-subsidized housing project, surrounded by spray-painted graffiti and heaps of rotting garbage. Said Barbara Harrison, 62, a longtime resident who lost her job as a cleaner in 1980 and now lives on a weekly old-age pension: “I said when she first got in that Thatcher would make a mess of this country. It’s all right for the rich folks, I suppose, but what about us? There’s no work and no future.”

For many voters, that contrast between prosperity and deprivation is the central issue in the June 11 election. During her eight years in office, Thatcher, 61, has cut taxes, tamed the unions and fostered a new spirit of enterprise and initiative, reversing decades of economic decline. In the past

year Britain’s economy has expanded by 3.6 per cent—the fastest growth rate of any Western industrialized nation. But Thatcher’s war on inflation, inefficiency and government spending has also tripled unemployment, leaving three million Britons—or 10.9 per cent of the workforce—out of a job. Many of the unemployed live in decaying inner-city neighborhoods or in the crippled industrial areas of northern England, Scotland and Wales, to which Thatcher’s tough economic policies have brought mainly despair.

Despite her mixed record, Tory strategists appeared confident last week that Thatcher would emerge from the 24-day campaign with a third successive term. That is something no other British prime minister has done since Lord Liverpool, who led the country from 1812 1827. According to a Marplan poll week’s end in London’s Today newspaper, 43 per cent of decided voters said that they were planning to support the

Conservatives. The same poll showed that 35 per cent of voters favored the Labour Party and 21 per cent supported the Liberal-Social Democratic Party Alliance. Based on those figures, analysts predicted that the Tories would win 350 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons, down from a landslide total of 397 in the 1983 election. Several other polls produced similar results, although a survey taken earlier for the pro-Tory Daily Telegraph, owned by Canadian financier Conrad Black, suggested that labour was narrowing the gap and that Thatcher’s majority could be as slim as 14 seats.

In a last-ditch effort to narrow the gap, both opposition parties launched fierce attacks last week on Thatcher’s authoritarian style of leadership. Labour Leader Neil Kinnock, 45, accused

the Tory leader of surrounding herself with “spineless sycophants” who lacked the nerve to challenge her rigid emphasis on free enterprise and individual responsibility. And Liberal Leader David Steel, 49, said that Thatcher was using her “cabinet boot boys” to destroy the welfare state. Characteristically, Thatcher shrugged off the attacks on her personal style. At a news conference in London she accused the opposition of trying to deflect attention from the “real issues,” including defence, economic growth, education and housing. Added Thatcher: “What they are really accusing us of is having the guts and the spine to put our policies through. To that paraphrase we would plead guilty.”

Still, Thatcher’s campaign strategists were clearly worried that the prime minister’s unbending image might alienate the uncommitted. Several recent opinion polls have shown that, although Thatcher is the most respected of the main party leaders, she

is also the least liked. As well, Thatcher unwittingly supplied ammunition to her critics when she told a television interviewer at the outset of the campaign that she hoped “to go on and on,” winning not only a third term but also a fourth. Steel immediately seized on the remark as evidence of Thatcher’s “arrogance and lust for power.”

To avoid further slipups, Tory strategists have limited the number of public appearances by Thatcher and scheduled only seven major campaign speeches for her in addition to regular news conferences. As a result, some Conservative supporters complained last week that the prime minister had failed to generate much enthusiasm among voters. The Telegraph criticized the Conservative campaign as “lack-

lustre,” adding that Thatcher was behaving like an overcautious cricketer— “clinging to the wicket, batting doggedly away in pursuit of a high score, yet risking nothing, caring nothing for the crowd out there, which is hungry for showmanship and fireworks.”

By contrast, Kinnock’s aggressive campaign style appeared to have rescued his party from a prolonged slump. In the 1983 election, under then-leader Michael Foot, Labour collected only 27 per cent of the vote— two percentage points more than the Alliance. Since then, Labour has been riven by disputes between its moderate mainstream and a faction of Marxist ideologues known as the Militant Tendency. At one point earlier this year the party appeared to be in such disarray that it actually fell below the Alliance in the opinion polls—prompting some analysts to predict that the Alliance might soon replace Labour as the main opposition.

Far from collapsing, however, La-

bour’s support has remained firm throughout the campaign. To a large extent, that is a reflection of Kinnock’s formidable skills as a campaigner. A seasoned orator from Wales known to his opponents as the “Welsh windbag,” Kinnock has crisscrossed the country in a chartered Vickers Viscount aircraft, concentrating his efforts on carefully targeted provincial constituencies while trying to avoid a largely hostile press corps. His goal, as one suitably impressed senior Tory put it, has been to establish his credentials as a “man of passion, vigor and feeling for the poor”—qualities that many voters find lacking in Thatcher.

Kinnock’s other major task is to dispel a widepread suspicion that Labour has swung too far to the left and is now dominated by extremists. As part of its strategy, the party hired film director Hugh Hudson and scriptwriter Colin Welland—the creative forces behind the Oscar-winning movie Chariots of Fire—to produce a polished five-minute television commercial for Labour that showed Kinnock and his wife strolling arm in arm along a scenic stretch of Welsh coastline. Last week the Tories responded with a commercial that included dozens of clips of Thatcher meeting world leaders—designed to reinforce her image as a stateswoman. The ad was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, composer of such musicals as Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar. Said Tory Chief of Staff Michael Dobbs: “We wanted an uplifting piece of forward-looking music.”

Labour’s newfound attention to image has also extended to its election manifesto. Entitled Britain Will Win, the 17-page document is slimmer and more glossy—and, critics say, less substantial—than the party’s 1983 manifesto, which one senior party official described at the time as “the longest suicide note in history” because of its controversial policies. To the dismay of many committed socialists, the new manifesto makes no mention of some of the party’s most contentious policies, including pledges to abolish the House of Lords, nationalize large segments of industry and consider leaving the 12-nation European Community.

In response, Tory and Alliance officials have accused Kinnock of trying to deceive voters about his party’s intentions. Former Tory cabinet minister Michael Heseltine, for one, condemned the Labour manifesto as “a wall-towall whitewash.” He added, “Never has so much been hidden from so many by so few.” Steel, however, predicted that Labour’s efforts would fail to win over many voters. “Labour may hope that bouquets of roses will hide the reality from view,” he said, “but the British public does not go to the

polls with rose-tinted spectacles.” And Owen gibed that Kinnock was being “packaged, deodorized and sold like soft tissue paper.”

Labour’s biggest liability may be its defence policy. Kinnock has promised that if he wins, he will scrap Britain’s four outmoded nuclear-armed Polaris submarines, cancel a $22-billion order for new U.S.-designed Trident submarines and order the removal of all U.S.

nuclear weapons from British soil. That policy holds strong appeal among Labour supporters, many of whom belong to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. But recent opinion polls have shown that more than 60 per cent of British voters as a whole disagree with Labour’s stance.

For the most part, Kinnock succeeded in avoiding the nuclear issue during the early stages of the campaign. But it leapt to prominence after he told a television interviewer that a

Labour government would hope to deter any future aggressor by making a military occupation of Britain “utterly untenable.” Paraphrasing the Labour leader’s remarks, the Telegraph later ran a front-page story which reported that Kinnock had pledged to set up “a resistance movement” to wage a “guerrilla war” in the event of a Soviet invasion. In the ensuing controversy,

Steel mocked the Labour leader as “Cpl.

Kinnock” and said that a Labour government would turn Britain into

a “toothless, shorn and neutered lion.” And Thatcher derided Labour’s defence policy as “a policy of defeat, surrender, occupation and, finally, prolonged guerrilla war.”

The Tories soon stepped up the pressure by unveiling a series of newspaper advertisements and billboards with the caption “Labour’s policy on arms” over a photograph of a soldier with his hands up in surrender. And in

Washington, President Ronald Reagan broke silence on the British election campaign by telling a group of European journalists that he strongly disagreed with Labour’s defence policy and would “try with all my might” to persuade a future Labour government “not to make those grievous errors.” While Kinnock fought to improve his party’s standing in the polls, the two Alliance leaders were struggling to stay in the race. Their avowed goal is to gain enough seats in the next

Parliament to hold the balance of power, forcing the party with the most seats to consider forming a coalition. Although the scenario may seem farfetched, party strategists point out that in the 1983 election, Alliance candidates finished in second place in 310 constituencies and are therefore wellpositioned to pick up extra seats if Tory support drops off in the final few days of the campaign.

So far, the signs for the Alliance have not been encouraging. For one thing, many voters remain uncertain about the Alliance’s policies, which lie somewhere between the socialist tendencies of Labour and Thatcher’s freemarket conservatism. For another, there have been persistent rumors during the campaign of friction between Steel and Owen—whom most Britons refer to as “the two Davids.” Late last month Steel announced that he and Owen planned to take part in fewer

joint television interviews. The reason, he said, was that when they appeared together on camera they looked like “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

Whatever happened in the last few days of the campaign, the election was likely to see an important change in British voting patterns. For most of this century the Labour party commanded the support of an overwhelming majority of working-class voters while the middle and upper classes leaned heavily toward the Tories. But in recent years

those traditional allegiances have started to break down. Labour in particular has been hurt by a decline in the proportion of voters who now belong to unions—22 per cent compared to 30 per cent in 1979. Moreover, a recent survey by Market & Opinion Research International, a London-based polling firm, showed that only 41 per cent of unionists planned to vote Labour.

Thatcher has tried to accelerate that trend by encouraging ordinary Britons to become property owners and shareholders—a policy she terms “popular capitalism.” Since 1979 her government has sold off more than one million publicly owned council houses and flats. The Tories have also privatized 19 large companies that were previous-

ly state-owned, including British Gas, British Telecom, Rolls-Royce Motors and British Airways. The result is that 19 per cent of all voters now own shares, compared to only seven per cent in 1983. Tory strategists claim that such people will be more likely to vote Tory than Labour—especially if they believe that a future Labour government would seek to reclaim ownership in some of the companies in which they hold stock. Said Thatcher: “This Conservative government has been engaged in a crusade to bring property within the reach of every family in the land. Our dream is that what was once a privilege of the few should be the daily experience of the many, and it is a dream that is coming true.”

In business circles, Thatcher’s emphasis on self-reliance and free enterprise earns wide approval. Her admirers say that by cutting the top rate of income tax to 60 per cent from 83 per cent and curbing the power of the unions, the Tories have unleashed a

wave of new investment. “The entrepreneurial spirit in this country is reawakening,” said Sir Bernard Audley, 63, chairman of AGB Research PLC, a rapidly expanding marketing and publishing conglomerate. “There is a great mood of optimism, a general climate of confidence. Businessmen no longer feel that they are going to be disadvantaged by overstrong unions.”

But although some companies have prospered under the Tories, others have gone into bankruptcy. More than two million jobs in manufacturing have disappeared since Thatcher came to power, and total manufacturing output is still five per cent less than in 1979. Still, supporters of the government insist that companies that survived the rigors of the early 1980s are

now leaner and more competitive. “We had a choice,” said David Boole, a director of Jaguar Cars Ltd., which Thatcher privatized in 1984. “We could either become more efficient or we could go out of business.”

Jaguar itself is one of the undisputed success stories of the Thatcher revolution. Less than a decade ago the company suffered from all the symptoms of the so-called “British disease”: frequent strikes, poor management and low productivity. But in 1980 its new chairman, John Egan, launched a program to improve both quality and productivity. Since then the company has turned an annual loss of $110 million into a $266-million profit. The number of cars sold annually has risen to 47,000 from 14,000, and car output per employee has more than tripled.

The two Davids agree that British industry is getting back on its feet, but they claim that the price paid in unemployment is too high. Said Steel: “The economic miracle is a myth. If

you are unemployed or poor or struggling on the breadline, then God help you.” Indeed, in many areas of Britain conditions are noticeably worse than they were in 1979. A 1986 government report described as “frighteningly bleak” the prospects for job seekers in the West Midlands and in the north of England. Meanwhile, more than six million men, women and children across the country live on government assistance, which for a single person comes to $65 per week plus medical expenses.

The South Wales coal-mining village of Llanharan typifies the “other” Britain, where unemployment and poverty are widespread. Alan Carr, 33, lost his job as a miner last year when the government shut down a nearby colliery because it was unprofitable. Seated in his two-storey brick house, he described the current state of the economy as “an absolute catastrophe.” Added Carr: “We are going back to the 18th century, to the feudal system where a tiny percentage of the population controls the wealth of the nation.” If Thatcher is re-elected, he said, “I think you might as well drop the bomb on this country. It will be finished.”

A similar mood of hopelessness pervades the huge, graffiti-scarred public housing projects that dominate many of Britain’s inner cities. In the Scotswood estate on the southern edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 264 km north of London, unemployment is running at between 80 and 90 per cent. “A person in this area who has got a job is the odd man out—it’s that far gone,” said Frank Quinn, 35, who was laid off from his job as a steel cleaner in the Newcastle shipyards two years ago. Said Barry Clark, 37, a community worker on the Bierley housing estate in Bradford, West Yorkshire: “For a lot of families here, it’s been four or five years since someone has had a proper job.”

Such scenes of misery have convinced many Britons that Thatcher is insensitive to the plight of the poor and the unemployed. It is a criticism that the prime minister herself flatly rejects. And she points out that since 1979 average incomes in Britain have risen 15 per cent faster than inflation. Still, as newspaper columnist Peter Jenkins of The Independent noted recently, Thatcher’s own career provides ample proof that “a politician can go a long way without being loved.” If she wins this week’s election, Thatcher will have five more years to continue—and perhaps even complete—her revolution.