In Britain, as in America, Economy Will Probably Decide Election British Election Could Foretell American Results

March 29, 1992|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

Next Thursday is a signal date for American politics this year. Not because of anything that will happen here, but because of an election across the Atlantic.

The British will vote that day for a new government in a ballot that could do for U.S. political pundits what old bones supposedly do for African witch doctors -- foretell the future.

The signs, ominous or not, will be there for all to see. The political parallels that straddle the Atlantic this election year are so striking that it would be folly to ignore them.

Just consider:

* In both countries conservative parties have been in leadership control for more than a decade, and the central question is "Is it time for a change?";

* In both countries a charismatic ideologue has been replaced by a comparatively gray administrator more practiced in the pursuit of power than projecting a political vision;

* In both countries the new leaders have softened the rhetoric, embracing a "kinder, gentler America" here and "caring Conservatism" there;

* In both countries the opposition parties have sought new centrist, pro-business definitions to reverse their electoral declines.

* In both countries the voters are recession-convulsed, even more so in Britain than here.

* In both countries there has been sexual scandal, here involving Democrat Bill Clinton, there involving Liberal-Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, who admitted to a dalliance some years ago with his then-secretary.

These are extraordinary confluences. One more: This is the first time since 1964 that the two countries have had their major national elections in the same year.

The point is that if British Prime Minister John Major is thrown out of Downing Street next week it will hardly augur well for President Bush's prospects of retaining the keys to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

There is a long history of trans-Atlantic coincidental political development. The two countries have long demonstrated that, if they are not exactly lock-stepped, they loosely march in rhythm.

This has helped the "special relationship" endure over the years, occasionally reaching a peak of personal rapport that goes far beyond mutually advantageous diplomacy to the niceties of human closeness.

Sir Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt formed a World War II camaraderie that was based as much on personal symbiosis as conflict survival. The unlikeliest of the really special relationships was the affection that the young John F. Kennedy and the patrician Harold McMillan displayed for each other.

But the most intense of all was that of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, personality opposites -- she a detailist, he a dreamer -- but political soul-mates. The British opposition even dubbed her the president's "poodle." In truth she was far from an obedient pet, sometimes becoming a bothersome and even bossy partner.

Both believed less government was good government. Both saw the Soviet empire as the embodiment of evil. Both believed in the primacy of military strength. Both were intense conservative ideologues.

He outlived his term limits. She outlived her welcome. Together they set the stage for this year's trans-Atlantic elections. The parallels should not be taken too far. The electorates are different. The systems are different. The timing is different.

As The Economist of London recently noted: "The similarities are eye-catching, and increasing; the distinctions are still wide."

British voters face a more radical choice. The differences between Mr. Major's Conservative party and the Labor Party, albeit in full retreat from its true socialist roots, are much more profound than those between the Republicans and Democrats here. The Brits also have a third party, the Liberal Democrats, which may yet hold the balance of power.

The Brits are much more receptive to government services and the taxes it takes to finance them. They expect the government to provide for their general welfare, their education, their medical treatment. Self-sufficiency is more admired in the abstract than the practice.

A British election is mercifully short. Mr. Major decided on March 11 to seek his own mandate. He will know next week -- after just 29 days -- whether he has got it. Mr. Bush, who started running for re-election four years ago, must wait until November to know his political fate.

British voters will not elect a prime minister. They will vote for their local member of parliament. The party which wins most seats in the House of Commons forms the government, and the leader of that party becomes the prime minister. The result this time could be so close that neither of the major parties commands a parliamentary majority. The political bargaining with the Liberal Democrats and other minority groups would then start with the prospect of government by coalition.

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