Major win in Britain

April 13, 1992

Britain's Tories are on a roll. Their victory Thursday was their fourth straight since 1979. It is going to be harder and harder for the British electorate to bring itself to trust power to the Labor Party, which has been out of it so long there are few Labor members of Parliament whom anyone can imagine as a prime minister.

In a sporting sense, you have to applaud this outcome. The pundits and pollsters took a pasting. First, it looked like a "hung Parliament," making a fragile coalition likely. Then it looked like an outright Labor win. The one outcome that was not predicted happened.

Why? British voters are distressed at 9.4 percent unemployment and high interest rates. In special elections to fill vacated seats, they had been electing small party candidates left and right. The sample surveyed probably overstated its anger at Prime Minister John Major's government.

When voters went to mark up their ballots, however, more of them than the polls indicated did not trust Labor's conversion from a leftist to a moderate party, did not see Labor's Neil Kinnock as a "prime ministerial figure" and were not going to waste a vote on the centrist Liberal Democratic party that would let Mr. Kinnock in.

Scottish Nationalism saw its heyday in anger at former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's use of Scotland as a laboratory for local tax experiments that no one in Scotland supported. When voters had to decide who would rule all Britain, Scottish Nationalism collapsed.

The actress Glenda Jackson got elected to Parliament as a Socialist and the world-record miler Sebastian Coe as a Tory. The Scots love their nationalistic movie star, Sean Connery, but decided to keep him in movies and out of Parliament. In a marginal shift in Northern Ireland, Catholic voters dumped the IRA spokesman Gerry Adams, who had been elected twice and never taken his seat in a Parliament he would overthrow, to increase the representation of the mainstream Social Democratic and Labor Party, the party of democratic Irish nationalism.

John Major, the self-made Tory who grew up in poverty in South London, now gets to show his stuff as prime minister in his own right and not just as an emergency substitute for Margaret Thatcher. The Tory revolution she launched is over. It won on most issues, and the need now is to protect the gains.

Poor Neil Kinnock of the Labor Party, a three-time loser, will probably never be prime minister. But in driving the party to the center, he was on the right track. The only correct lesson for his party and successor is: try harder next time.

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