Britain's Politicians Turn Strangely Sensible


April 06, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS. — Britain goes to the polls Thursday to put a quiet end to 13 years of radical government. The election closes the astonishing epoch of Margaret Thatcher. It makes no great difference whether Prime Minister John Major or Neil Kinnock wins this election and forms the next government. The radical years are over.

Mrs. Thatcher's legacy has overshadowed Mr. Major's year at Downing Street, where he has been occupied chiefly in disengaging the Tory Party from the problems she left behind, such as the poll tax. The legacy is a mixed one, but far more positive than that of her friend Ronald Reagan.

Britain is still in recession today, but its unions are stripped of the power they misused, and its industry is competitive -- that industry which survives. The contrast with what Reaganism left behind is very striking, and to Mrs. Thatcher's credit. But then she was serious, while Mr. Reagan was not.

However, she also left behind high unemployment, high interest rates, thousands of homeless, class bitterness, a decayed industrial and transport infrastructure, poor education levels, a health service widely perceived as neglected, requiring long waits for treatment, inconceivable in the parallel national health systems of Germany or France. She privatized everything she could privatize, which had some eminently successful results, but in the case of natural monopolies tended to transfer the monopoly, and its abuse, to the private sector.

These are reasons why the Labor Party has been marginally ahead in most of the polls since the campaign began. The logical forecast is for a hung Parliament -- one in which neither party has a majority and must either attempt to form a minority government, unlikely to last for long, or look for a coalition with one of the minor parties, the Liberal Democrats or the Ulster Unionists (who usually vote with the Conservatives).

The Liberal Democrats are a merger of the old Liberal Party of Gladstone and Lloyd George, dominant in the 19th Century but fallen on hard times since the 1920s, with the Social Democratic Party, which was founded in 1981 by disaffected leaders of a Labor Party which then seemed hopelessly mired in left-wing factionalism and reactionary trade-unionism.

Today the Liberal Democrats might be thought without much political point, since the Labor Party has reformed itself under Neil Kinnock, stands for most of the Good Things the Liberal Democrats are for, and is electable.

But the Liberal Democrats have more than a tradition going for them. They have a leader called Paddy Ashdown, who is by far the most attractive party leader in this election. A former Marine commando officer and member of the Special Boat Service, he is very likely the only current party leader in the Western world trained to kill with his bare hands -- an ability one is tempted to wish exercised on other political stages than that of Britain.

The stated price of Mr. Ashdown's support for either of the major parties in a hung Parliament is investment in education and a referendum on installing proportional representation in Britain in place of the present winner-takes-all system. Voting by proportional representation is the only means by which the Liberal Democrats could expect to play a continuing serious role in British government. Hung Parliaments don't come along often. Mr. Ashdown might get such a commitment from Labor; but whether the British public would in fact endorse the change is open to question.

Both Tory and Labor leaders are broad-minded, sensible, and -- in the context of their respective traditions -- thoroughly conservative figures. Mr. Kinnock has moved Labor toward the center of the political spectrum. Mr. Major was elected leader of the Tory Party precisely because he embodied a maximum of non-Thatcherism.

Not anti-Thatcherism. The flamboyant Michael Heseltine, economic and industrial interventionist and pro-European, is the Tory Party's anti-Thatcherite (and will inherit the leadership if Mr. Major loses this election). Mr. Major stands more or less for what Mrs. Thatcher stood for, but in a non-abrasive, non-ideological, restful, and above all, nice, way.

You are confident that he could not, and above all would not, kill with his bare hands, whereas Margaret Thatcher was Paddy Ashdown's equal in that respect. She was a radical reformer with tunnel vision, out to change Britain at any cost, as she indeed did. A success for Mr. Kinnock could follow less from a rejection TTC of Mr. Major as from a continuing popular recoil from the grandeur and ordeal of Thatcherism.

If Labor wins, it may not really be Mr. Major's fault, nor Neil Kinnock's victory. It may simply be that the British electorate will have decided, understandably so, that after a dozen years of Thatcherism it is time for more of a change than Mr. Major can offer. The Tories may then regret they did not make Mr. Heseltine their leader. That would have been change enough for anyone.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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