Chicago — From a British Cabinet minister's point of view, President Reagan's economic difficulties are nothing compared with what Margaret Thatcher faced in Britain when she ousted the Labour government two years ago.
So although he refuses to offer advice to Mr. Reagan, Britain's Industry Secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, can't help sounding as optimistic about the US economy as he is about Britain's prospects for a full recovery.
This senior Cabinet minister, despite a hectic itinerary of meetings with scores of businessmen from New York to San Francisco, was relaxed and confident when he explained that Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government will trim inflation to 8 percent within another year.
Arriving in Chicago carrying firm promises to bring Britain's inflation, interest rates, public spending, and taxation all under control, Sir Keith told the Monitor that he's not surprised to find that US industrialists are interested in investing in Britain and "welcome the change of direction of the Thatcher government."
Somewhat un-British in his brown suit and tan shirt, in place of the more ministerial pinstripes, Sir Keith's economic views also present surprises. He explained that Britain is emerging from a severe economic storm in better shape than it went in -- but now faces what may be the tougher test of surviving in far calmer waters.
Sir Keith admits that the British economy still has serious problems, centering around persistent high inflation. He largely attributes this to overmanning in industry and overspending by government. "The British government ," he said, "is trying to secure a remedy for the real economic decline over the past 15 or 20 years." During this period, he added, "Our governments have overspent and overborrowed and overregulated, all with the best of intentions."
He sees one particularly hopeful sign in the new spirit of understanding developing between management and labor -- or forced upon both sides by hard times. He expects unemployment to rise for months to come, though "at a decelerating pace." The best he can offer on this front is that by the time the Tories face another election in three years "we hope that unemployment will at least be stable if not falling."
The unemployment problem has affected the relations between labor and business. "Time and again with bankruptcies looming outside factory gates," Sir Keith said, "trade union members have refused to listen to trade union leaders and instead have cooperated with management to keep industry running. . . . The pressures on firms have been such that trade union members have perceived they could destroy their own jobs if they don't cooperate with management." He sees new "trade union understanding of where jobs come from, that they must come from customers, not from government."
Sir Keith believes that the British economy has been staggering for decades under the weight of "excessive overheads" imposed by social welfare programs not balanced by gains in other areas. His conclusion is that "the best friend of the afflicted, whether the elderly, the handicapped, or other groups, are the profits earned in the competitive market- place, because these profits are the direct and indirect sources of the tax revenues needed to pay for social programs."