Margaret Thatcher and the wolf

Margaret Thatcher faces a hard winter. She does so in a very much stronger political position than anybody imagined a year ago would be possible today. But for her the big question is: how is she going to keep the wolf from the door?

Her political strength derives in part from ''the Falklands effect'' but also in part from the collapse of several potentially serious strikes. Her resolution seems rewarded with success.

In spite of the bitter opposition of almost all trade union leaders (who see hers as ''the most reactionary government for half a century''), and in spite of more than 3 million unemployed, her policies have gained majority support, the Labour Party is engaged in fratricidal strife, and the Social Democratic Party's early enthusiastic support from the electorate has wasted away.

One suspects that it is very widely understood now that higher and higher wages cannot reasonably be paid in industries and firms that are close to bankruptcy, which is what the unions demand. Or that growth can be generated by making massive investments in loss-making concerns which have no hope of ever achieving profitability, which in brief is Labour's main policy. Or that an incomes policy can be imposed on unwilling trades unionists, which is part of the policy of the Liberal-SDP Alliance.

Considering what is happening in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, the appeal of Marxism to the voters of Britain is extremely limited, so that the threat posed for instance by Arthur Scargill, the Marxist miners' leader, is less disturbing than he makes it sound. The miners could bring the country close to total ruin this winter. But will they? And if they do, will voters blame Mrs. Thatcher or Mr. Scargill?

No, the threat to Margaret Thatcher does not come from the normal political sources. It comes from the wolf at the door.

Toward the end of last year it looked as if Britain economically really had begun to turn the famous corner. Possibly if the United States had been able to reduce its interest rates then the promise would have been fulfilled. As it is, the Confederation of British Industry reports a return of slump conditions.

In most areas business is not merely bumping along the bottom, it is threatening to go through the bottom. It seems likely, if the CBI is right, that unemployment will reach 4 million by 1983.

One does not wish to sound alarmist. The balance of payments is strong, and for the great majority, who are the ones in work, the standard of living is as high as ever. Thousands of Britons now take vacations in the US. Two wage-earning London printers with whom I played golf recently took their families to Hawaii last year.

But it is also a fact that the gap between those in work and those out of it, between those retired from the public services and those retired from commercial businesses, and between those with capital resources and those without, has grown disturbingly.

On average four out of five youngsters leaving school find good jobs almost immediately. Yet there are areas -- Liverpool and Glasgow, for example -- where the reverse is true and most young people see little hope of getting work this year or next year or as far ahead as they dare to look. It is reported that there are 10 million people in Britain now who can't afford to eat properly.

This is the sea of troubles against which Margaret Thatcher must now take up arms.

Her prime aim is to get the rate of inflation down to or below 5 percent per annum. In this she appears to be successful, too. That alone could bring a big change in the outlook for Britain provided a way can be found of making the much demanded ''massive investment'' in profitable businesses and industries. For these alone support the noncommercial sector where job creation is easiest.

This is a tall order in a time of slump. But it could be done. For instance, a major housing program -- up to half a million new homes a year -- could prime the pump of British industry successfully if the program produced accommodation that most people really liked and could really afford.

If scientists could produce a new type of automobile motor that was commercially viable, boom conditions might return to the English midlands. A self-financing road rebuilding program would also help.

Mrs. Thatcher long ago froze her own salary as prime minister and now takes only about half the pay she is entitled to. A general willingness on the part of the well-to-do to help reduce inequalities could set the right tone for recovery.

With inflation brought low; with intensive investment in success; with retraining, work-sharing, and wealth-sharing, the wolf would beat a hurried retreat. And he's the enemy. Not Marxism. Not strikes. Not riots. Simply the wolf at the door.

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