London — Amid increasing signs of economic gloom, a besieged British government has used all the trappings of regal ceremony to announce that it will stick fiercely to its controversial monetary policies.
Inside the House of Lords Nov. 20, Queen Elizabeth II, resplendent in white-and-gold robe and rarely worn crown, opened the new session of Parliament with the traditional "Queen's speech."
The message, prepared for her by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government, was brief, generalized, and oddly grim. Such little comforting news as it contained -- largely concerning a proposal to provide an estimated $:250 million ($600 million) of help for training the unemployed -- was overshadowed by the determined tone of the government's war against inflation, which, said the Queen, "remains the prime concern of my government."
Outside the packed chamber, the effects of what is widely billed as the worst recession since the war (and the worst currently among Western nations) continued to take its toll. With 8.4 percent unemployed -- and generally much higher percentages in the so-called "regions" outside the relatively prosperous south of England -- the public is apparently at odds with the government's priorities. A recent Gallup poll reveals that a majority of voters now sees unemployment, not inflation, as the problem that most needs to be controlled.
The poll, published Nov. 20 by the strongly Conservative newspaper, Daily Telegraph, gave the opposition Labour Party a 10.5 percent lead over the Tories, and found that 60 percent of the voters disapproved of the government's record to date.
The split in the public's thinking is apparently mirrored by a split in the Cabinet. In what some observers are describing as Mrs. Thatcher's most serious reversal to date, the Cabinet rejected the Treasury's push for further spending cuts of some $:2 billion ($4.8 billion).
Beginning with a tour d'horizonm of international affairs, the Queen's speech strongly reaffirmed Britain's commitment to the European Community and the North Atlantic Alliance, both of which are under attack from the opposition benches. It strongly criticized the Soviet Presence in Afghanistan, while expressing interest in arms control. And it supported the EC initiative on the Middle East , the US position on the hostages, and the United Nations plan for a settlement in Namibia.
On the domestic side, it promised further efforts to restrict public-sector pay claims, to help small businesses, and to reduce the scope of the nationalized industries. The government promised legislation to allow individual Britons to buy equity shares in the state-owned British National Oil Corporation and to increase the private sector share in the transportation industries.
The most controversial bill in this somewhat light schedule promises to be the one on nationality. Replacing legislation dating from 1948, it will provide three types of citizenship to determine which of the many British subjects from its former Commonwealth territories has a right to live in the mother country.
In the Commons debate following the speech, the new Labour leader, Michael Foot, opened with an improvised and witty attack on the government's narrow approach. "They think the only problem is inflation and the only remedy is her monetarism," he said, as he demanded more attention be given to combating unemployment and shrinking industries.
But Mrs. Thatcher, speaking from a prepared text, retorted that the British people are "fed up with phony palliatives." Criticizing the opposition for its "negative and profoundly destructive" attitudes toward Europe, defense, and trade protectionism, she focused strongly on the economy ("because all else depends on it," she said) and on defending her attack on inflation.
And there, she claimed some success: Although annual inflation is still running at 15.4 percent, over the last six months it has dropped to 4.3 percent.