Political extremes eat away at British 'genius for compromise'

The year ahead in British politics is likely to be a troubled and stormy one. Its course is all the more uncertain because of the nearly indecisive outcome this week of the struggle for the deputy leadership of the opposition Labour Party.

In that struggle, in which much more was at stake than this relatively unimportant job, left-winger Tony Benn came within .85 percent of the vote of ousting the incumbent of the center right, Denis Healey.

Having reached the very brink of victory after nearly a decade of tireless effort, it is hard to imagine that Mr. Benn would not now redouble his commitment to win control of the party for himself and the forces he represents.

It might have been different had Mr. Healey been a younger man and the fight had been for the party's No. 1 job instead of the No. 2 job. But the top job is in the hands of the ineffectual Michael Foot, who is ideologically closer to Mr. Benn than to Mr. Healey. Mr. Foot chose to abstain in the Sept. 27 voting -- ostensibly in the name of impartiality.

After that voting, Mr. Healey remains a battle-scarred party elder statesman unlikely to inherit the No. 1 job, whereas the younger Mr. Benn could say defiantly after his narrow defeat: "This is only the beginning."

This points to 12 months of public wrangling and maneuvering within the Labour Party before a possible rematch.

Does that mean 12 months of smooth sailing for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government while Labour's main energy goes into self-destructive internal feuding? Far from it.

Mrs. Thatcher's Cabinet changes earlier this month and the policies announced or confirmed in association with them, mean she is "going for broke" with her right-wing monetarist strategy between now and the next general election, likely in two years' time. This is despite the fact that, after 28 months in office, Mrs. Thatcher still cannot point convincingly to any evidence that her approach is the answer to Britain's chronic economic and social problems.

Rather, there are many indications of the tough, if not rough road immediately ahead for the Conservative government. Unemployment is on the edge of 3 million -- higher than at any other time since World War II. Inflation, down to 10.9 percent in July, was up to 11.5 percent in August. The banks just increased their base lending rates by 2 percent to 14 percent, and the Stock Exchange in London, despite an upturn Sept. 29, has this week seen the biggest fall in years.

Thatcher critics say these gloomy statistics are the direct result of her mistaken dogmatic right-wing monetarist policies.And even the open-minded recognize that unemployment, which stood at 1.24 million when she took office but is now close to 3 million, could be her undoing unless she can soon prove that the human cost of her program is worthwhile.

Yet she forges ahead undeterred. Her new tough employment secretary, Norman Tebbit, is committed to a 4 percent cash limit on wage increases in the public services for the year ahead. Trade union leaders are anti-Thatcher to the core, and it remains to be seen how the 4 percent ceiling can be maintained without disruptive strikes.

An earlier Conservative prime minister, Edward Heath, and Mrs. Thatcher's immediate Labour predecessor in the premiership, James Callaghan, were both brought down by trying to enforce wage restraint on a labor force that had decided that it could not and would not be squeezed further.

The British genius has long been marked by pragmatism and compromise. Thus there is irony in the fact that today's political turmoil is in one sense the result of an incumbent Conservative government's effort to enforce a dogmatic right-wing economic policy and of an opposition Labour Party in public disarray because of a threatened takeover by the dogmatic left. (Mr. Benn would impose on Britain a government-controlled "siege economy" and, in foreign affairs, would go down the path of unilateral nuclear disarmament, ousting US bases from Britain, refusing cruise missiles, and withdrawing Britain from the European Community.)

The dogmatists are having their day on both sides, because the middle-of-the-road policies pursued by pragmatic Conservative and Labour governments alike until the 1970s failed to solve Britain's chronic postwar economic problems.

The roots of these problems can be summed up under a number of headings: loss of empire; too many people left crowded in too small an island with no prospect of self-sufficiency, particularly in food; outmoded industrial, labor, and management systems incapable of adapting to rapid change or straitened circumstances; a turning inward; and an adamant class consciousness, all the harder to recognize because of the overall civility and decency of British society and the British legal and parliamentary systems.

Over the years, there has been wide agreement that the social revolution peacefully legislated by the immediate postwar Labour government spared Britain social and civil strife. The initial blueprints for many of the reforms were, in fact, first drafted under the aegis of the wartime premiership of Conservative Winston Churchill.

When Mr. Churchill returned to the premiership in 1951, both parties accepted by and large the main outline of the changed face of britain -- welfare state and all.

For two decades, both parties pursued centrist policies, committed to what they saw as showing compassion toward the less fortunate and to keeping wage and price controls within certain limits.

The approach was popularly called "Butskellism" -- a coined hybrid made up from the names of two of the most civilized men to hold the chancellorship of the exchequer in Consevative and Labour governments, R. A. Butler and Hugh Gaitskell, respectively.

But a worsening world economic situation overwhelmed Butskellism in Britain. Butskellism today is anathema to Margaret Thatcher and Tony Benn alike. Vested interests on both sides -- particularly management and labor -- took fright. The game became every man or every group for himself, with a "we" and "they" approach having a divisive effect on society as a whole.

If neither right-wing conservatism nor left-wing Labour policies can restore Britain's well-being, it remains to be seen whether the third option being prepared in the wings by the new Liberal-Social Democratic Party alliance will be given an opportunity by the voters to tackle the problems -- and whether that option has the key to success.

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