When British Prime Minister John Major left his official residence a few minutes before noon last Wednesday, he paused to speak to a dozen schoolchildren waiting outside. One of them asked him how he liked living at 10 Downing Street. “I like it very much indeed,” Major said with a smile. “It’s a very nice place to live.” Then, the prime minister climbed into the backseat of his black Daimler limousine for a ritual trip to nearby Buckingham Palace that set in motion the machinery that will decide whether he will continue to enjoy living at No. 10—or must hand over the keys to his chief rival, Labour Leader Neil Kinnock. Major formally asked the Queen for permission to dissolve Parliament and do what almost every British political analyst had predicted for weeks: call an election for April 9.
The election date may have come as no surprise, but the outcome of the vote itself is the least predictable since the mid-1970s. In
Britain’s past three elections, Major’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Margaret Thatcher, led her party into battle with commanding leads over Labour—as much as 14 percentage points—and steamrollered her opponents. In sharp contrast, Major’s Tories are now handicapped by Britain’s deepest recession in decades. They entered the campaign virtually neck and neck with Kinnock’s Labour Party, which leads in most polls by a scant two or three percentage points. Said David Butler, a veteran political scientist at Oxford University who has analysed every British election since 1951: “There has never been an election which is so wide open.”
Traditionally, voting intentions do not change during British campaigns by more than a couple of points. As a result, Butler and many other experts say that a minority government—what the British call a “hung Parliament”—is the most probable outcome. That could lead to months of political instability and hand the balance of power to smaller parties, particularly the centrist Liberal Democrats led by onetime Royal Marine commando
Paddy Ashdown (page 24). Ashdown has said that his main price for supporting either of the major parties is a firm commitment to overhaul Britain’s electoral system by introducing proportional representation. Such a change was long dismissed by mainstream politicians as an esoteric cause with little popular appeal, but it has won increasing support in recent months.
The biggest winners under proportional representation would be parties like the Liberal Democrats, who have routinely polled close to 20 per cent of the vote but, under the current system, end up with a much smaller percentage of seats. It had 22 MPs in the last Parliament, in which the Conservatives held 369 seats and Labour 231. But, said Ashdown in an interview with Maclean ’s while campaigning in Edinburgh just before the election call, proportional representation would also help to prevent the kind of sharply polarized politics that divided Britain during the 1980s. “I think people want some kind of third-party insurance to ensure we have a government of sense rather than dogma,” he said. “Either of the other parties, with unfettered power to govern for the next five years, would be a disaster.”
The campaign will be sharply different from recent British elections in at least one other way. For the first time since 1979, it will not be dominated by the personality and politics of Thatcher herself, who is not seeking re-election after 33 years as an MP. Indeed, senior Tories are clearly anxious that their former standard-bearer play as modest a role as possible. Since her party’s MPs ousted her as leader in November, 1990, Major has dumped many of her radical policies and has moved the Tories decisively towards the political centre. Any high-profile campaigning by Thatcher would only serve to remind voters of her unpopular policies and abrasive personality. On the day he called the election, Major sent his onetime mentor a bouquet of flowers; she, in turn, issued a bland declaration of support for him. Thatcher will make only a handful of appearances on behalf of Tory candidates, and she plans to spend the short campaign’s final week on a speaking tour of the United States.
BRITAIN’S TORIES FACE A TOUGH FIGHT AGAINST LABOUR PARTY RIVALS IN AN APRIL ELECTION
But although Thatcher mouthed encouraging words for Major’s new-look Tories, there were further reminders last week of how far he has moved from her brand of radical conservatism. A day before the election call, Norman Lamont, Major’s chancellor of the exchequer (finance minister), brought down a budget that broke sharply with Thatcher’s policies of fiscal rectitude. One of Thatcher’s proudest boasts was that her government ran budget surpluses in its final few years and was actually reducing Britain’s national debt. Lamont’s budget, however, was a transparent attempt to woo undecided voters with modest income tax cuts, averaging $200 a year, at the cost of projecting a deficit of
about $57 billion, roughly twice the current level. Thatcher’s former economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters, left no doubt about the bitter feelings that the budget aroused among Thatcherite loyalists. “Thatcherism, alas, died in 1991, and these are the burial rites of Thatcherism,” Walters told a BBC television interviewer.
But if Major’s government has killed off Thatcherism, Major himself makes an unlikely gravedigger. Thatcher promoted him rapidly during her final two years in office, and he was her own choice during the contest to succeed her. But Major, who turns 49 on March 30, quickly ditched many of her most controversial policies, such as the reviled poll tax that sparked riots across Britain when it was introduced two years ago. And he attempted to steal Labour’s political clothes by cultivating a more caring, socially conscious image for the Tories through directing more money to shelters for the homeless and meeting representatives of homosexual groups. But Major has never shaken his grey, suburban banker’s image. One enduring story about him is that he tucks his shirt into his underpants. As political columnist Andrew Rawnsley of The Guardian wrote recently, no one knows the truth for sure except Major and his wife, Norma, but “he looks as though he would.”
Major’s chief rival for residency at 10 Downing Street is Kinnock, the 49-year-old Labour leader who has also moved his party towards the centre—although for different reasons, Kinnock was once a champion of Labour’s radical left wing, which advocated policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament, British withdrawal from the European Community and renationalization of state-owned industries sold off by Thatcher’s Tories. But the shock of three consecutive defeats forced Labour to abandon those policies and position themselves as responsible economic managers.
Skeptics question the sincerity of Kinnock’s new convictions. Others point to his lack of government experience; he has spent almost all of his career inside the Labour Party, and the only other thing he has ever managed is the Cardiff University Students Union. After eight years as opposition leader, the April election is almost certainly Kinnock’s last chance at power. His personal popularity ratings have always lagged behind those of his party, and most experts say that he would be replaced as leader within months should Labour lose.
The convergence of the two major parties has made the British campaign, in many ways, less vital to the nation’s future. In the past, Britain’s traditional class-based politics turned election contests into battles over the country’s fundamental course. Under Thatcher, in particular, elections assumed the role of apocalyptic showdowns between capitalism and socialism—at least on the rhetorical level. But Thatcher succeeded in shifting the entire spectrum of British politics to the right, forcing Labour to abandon most of its most cherished policies. Many analysts cite Kinnock’s newly moderate Labour Party as, paradoxically, one of Thatcher’s chief legacies.
At the same time, say other observers, the lowering of Britain’s political temperature reflects important changes in its social makeup. A generation ago, working-class voters clung steadfastly to Labour despite its leadership and policy changes. Meanwhile, middleand upperclass voters were similarly aligned with the Conservatives. But in recent years, class lines have blurred as wealth expanded and traditional blue-collar jobs declined—along with party loyalties. Anthony King, a professor of government at the University of Essex, says that voters who once cleaved to a political party with the dogged loyalty of soccer fans are now comparatively fickle. “The 1992 election,” King wrote last week, “will be decided by thousands of men and women who resemble puzzled shoppers rather than football-club supporters.”
As a result, the election will be fought mainly on immediate pocketbook issues. Chief among them are the Conservatives’ checkered economic record and the rival parties’ contrasting policies on taxation. Labour leaders argue that the much-vaunted Thatcher revolution of the 1980s, when Tories boasted that they had reversed decades of British economic decline, was a mirage. They point to rising unemployment, soaring bankruptcies and a 2.5-per-cent decrease in national output last year—the biggest single-year slump since the 1930s. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the recession has bitten hardest in southern England, its own electoral heartland. Plunging house prices, boarded-up stores and growing unemployment among white-collar workers have shaken the loyalty of the type of voters who gave Thatcher her three majority victories. Major decided against calling an election last year after Lamont advised him that economic recovery would be in full swing by now. But the recession has proven to be much more tenacious than government experts had predicted.
Because of that, Conservatives prefer to
contrast their modest tax cuts with Labour’s promise to raise taxes. Kinnock’s party has pledged to increase income taxes on higherpaid Britons from the current top rate of 40 per cent to an effective rate of 59 per cent in order to finance more generous public services. Tory party chairman Christopher Patten mocked Labour’s approach last week by calling it “Watch my lips—lots more taxes”—a parody of U.S. President George Bush’s famous 1988 “no new taxes” pledge.
As the parties fight over those issues, both are acutely conscious of the challenges they must overcome to win the 326 seats that
amount to a majority in the 651-seat House of Commons. If the Conservatives win a fourth majority, it will be the first time such a feat has been accomplished in the modern political era; no party has done so since the Tories led by Lord Liverpool in the 1820s. And for Labour to win a majority, it must win 95 new seats and benefit from the biggest swing of support from one party to another since the 1945 wartime general election that swept out Winston Churchill’s Conservatives. Either way, it would make British political history.
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