The Choice Facing Britain

April 07, 1992

It is time for a change, but can you trust the alternative? Americans know that feeling. The British will decide on Thursday between a Conservative government that has done great deeds but remained in power too long, and a Labor Party so long in the wilderness that nobody knows if it is responsible.

Prime Minister John Major is a nice man but a mild successor to his mentor, Margaret Thatcher. The upstart Labor leader who would be prime minister is Neil Kinnock, a fiery-tongued Welshman who easily beats Mr. Major in House of Commons debating games. How he would exercise authority is anyone's guess; he never has. Mr. Kinnock repudiates the left-wing and neutralist nostrums that he entered politics to achieve. As Americans may wonder about Jerry Brown's turn-abouts, so British voters may question his.

The Conservative and Labor parties were so opposed a decade ago that change of government meant revolution. Now their differences are of degree: Not whether Britain should disarm or rearm, but whether it should maintain three Trident missile submarines or four. Not whether to re-nationalize the privatized utilities, but whether to invest more tax money in education. Their differences are, as they were in the 1960s, not unlike those separating American Democrats and Republicans.

But which party to trust with the management of the country? The seemingly safe -- and probably worst -- choice is what the British call a hung Parliament. Neither major party would win a parliamentary majority but one would have to bargain with other parties for a coalition. The nearest American equivalent is to assign the White House to one party and Congress to the other, and then wonder at drift and paralysis.

The nationwide third party is the Liberal Democrats, heir of the great Liberal tradition. On many issues they talk sense. But after years of frustration winning 20 percent of the vote for 4 percent of the seats, they demand a basic change to proportional representation, which might deny any party a parliamentary majority, ever. The Conservatives refuse to hear of it; Labor flirts with the idea.

Two regional parties matter. The Scottish Nationalists may want to make a coalition with Labor, to create an elective state-like government for Scotland. Ulster Unionists might offer a deal with the Conservatives, but at the price of Anglo-Irish relations. The Conservatives, unfortunately, are intrigued. The opinion polls have been gyrating between a Labor victory and a hung Parliament. The decisive segment of the British electorate must choose which of those outcomes is preferable by Thursday.

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