In Britain, as in America, Economy Will Probably Decide Election British Politicians Ride to 'Battle'

March 29, 1992|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,Richard O'Mara is The Baltimore Sun's London correspondent.

LONDON — London.-- The British are animated by martial things, the beat and blare of drums and brass, the clop, clop, clop of the marching Horse Guards, the sight of unfurled battle flags.

So it is not surprising their elections are conducted like wars without the blood; politicians, reporters and pundits alike are steeped in the language of siege. John Major, the Prime Minister, rides to his campaign rallies in a "battle bus."

Last week, having suffered reverses in the first engagements of the electoral campaign, the Conservative Party leaders turned to Margaret Thatcher, their erstwhile chief. They had been avoiding her for months. But John Major needed help.

Stiffen the spines of this dispirited Tory army against Labor, she was asked, and she did. She breathed her fire over the assembled party workers. Wrote one reporter for The Independent who was there: "There was not a single sinew unstiffened by the time she finished. The troops had 'no surrender' ringing in their ears."

Of the resort to Mrs. Thatcher, thrown out of office by these same party leaders about 17 months ago because they thought she was unelectable, Joe Rogaly, of the Financial Times, wrote: "They have unleashed the Dogs of Yore."

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It is probable this election will be won or lost on the basis of the economy. People are hurting. Tens of thousands have lost their homes to the banks as a consequence of rising interest rates and unemployment. Industrial production is down. Businesses are going under, by the thousands. Britain is in the longest recession since the 1930s.

This works against the Tories, in power since 1979. Efforts by Mr. Major to blame Britain's slump on some kind of global turndown are accepted by some, but it is uncertain how many. Some detect a feeling across the land that 13 years might be just enough time for one party to govern. The Labor Party, led by the loquacious Welshman, Neil Kinnock, has been playing on this theme relentlessly: "It's time for a change. It's time for Labor."

The polls suggest it is having its effect; they have consistently favored Labor, if only slightly.

But Labor has its problems, too. A lot of people just don't trust the party, nor do they like Mr. Kinnock very much. Older voters remember Labor's last years in office, in the 1970s. Back then the country was held hostage by militant unions. They crippled industries and sent production levels tumbling.

Marxist-syndicalists, Trotskyists, various loons of the left achieved high levels of influence in and over the government. The class war was real then, and people were scared. Mrs. Thatcher swept to power on a wave of reaction. Now, it is possible that force is spent.

Whether sentiment is indeed shifting in the other direction is a question only the April 9 election will answer. But there is this to consider: Mr. Kinnock, who has purged extremists from the party and softened its image, may not be widely liked as John Major is, but in Britain, people tend not to vote for individuals to the same degree they do in the United States. They do not have the same weakness for charisma.

Also, if there are many who can recall Labor's years of aberrational politics, there are also many who can't because they were too young. About 3 million first-time voters are on the rolls this year, and they tend to go to Labor.

Right now things seem to be moving in Labor's direction, but that could change if the Tories can persuade the electorate that Labor's changes are superficial and Mr. Kinnock is not fit to run the country.

This they have been trying mightily to do. A televised dramatization by Labor last week which purported to show the difference in treatment given in the National Health Service to two little girls with the same ear affliction (the poor girl had to wait in pain 11 months for an operation; the wealthier one had hers done quickly because her family paid) elicited furious personal attacks on Mr. Kinnock by the Tory leaders, and all the Tory national newspapers, which are about all the newspapers there are.

The deterioration of the health service is thought to be Labor's strongest argument against the Conservatives. The film and the response to it flooded the campaign with venom.

*

Some people here fear the long campaign might have dulled people's appetites for politics to the point that not only are they not listening to all that is being said and promised, but might even be too sated by it to bother to vote. The campaign began officially March 11, but had been going on unofficially since the late fall.

And there are complaints that the two parties have become too much alike. Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee are trotted out for comparison.

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