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Why British voters may lean right on June 9

By David K. WillisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 18, 1983


In a few short sentences, Jean S., a pleasant, middle-aged woman standing in her Surrey garden, summed up why Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is expected to win what analysts are calling the most significant election in Britain since 1945:

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''All this unemployment is really not just her fault,'' said Jean, mother of two now-adult children. ''It's all over the world, isn't it? Labour didn't do the job at the end of the 1970s. . . . She's the only politician who says what she thinks and then does it.

''One term in office is too short for what this country needs. We're in a mess and she deserves another term to keep trying to fix it up. . . .

''And these nuclear missiles (she meant the cruise as well as the independent British deterrent). I don't like them any more than anyone else does, and I wish we didn't have to have them, but what good would giving them up do? It would only encourage the Russians and make Britain's voice weaker in the world.''

This is the voice of pro-Thatcher, middle-class Britain, and specifically of southern England. Both are expected to give Mrs. Thatcher a handsome victory June 9.

The woman, and other voters contacted by this newspaper, spoke as Britain faces a watershed in its postwar history.

In 1945 voters had to decide: more Winston Churchill and his wartime style of leadership? Or a new peacetime era?

They switched Britain to a new track by choosing no-nonsense Clement Attlee and a Labour Cabinet that set in motion a postwar society of enhanced government powers, from welfare state to nationalized industries. That state has largely continued intact despite periods of opposition Tory (Conservative) rule.

Now, on June 9, voters must make a choice equally momentous in its own way: another term of Mrs. Thatcher and her rightist, monetarist, Reaganesque encouragement of industry self-reliance at a time of stiff international competition? Or a return to concerted state spending, state borrowing, and state-led ''reflation'' to bring down unemployment?

The economy seems to be the dominant issue here, though the United States has more interest in British foreign policy. Washington prefers a Tory victory that would retain US bases and medium-range cruise missiles as well as Britain's own nuclear deterrent, and membership in the European Community.

Labour has pledged to remove US bases, to ban cruise missiles, and to take Britain out of the EC in four to five years. These pledges may prove exceedingly difficult to carry out in office, and they have split Labour right from Labour left. But US officials say they would jar and disturb NATO at a time when the alliance ought to be united against the Soviet Union.

The election is about national mood and self-confidence. Is Thatcherite self-reliance the road to recovery - or is it Labour's answer as laid out in its election manifesto released Monday?

Labour would pump (STR)11 billion ($16.5 billion) into the economy in its first year and concentrate on creating jobs through building houses, repairing roads, and other public works.

In 1979, British industry - and national mood - were in decline. Mrs. Thatcher defeated the Labour government of James Callaghan with the force of a fervent, almost missionary campaign. She exuded confidence and certainty. She promised lower inflation, lower taxes, and more individual opportunity.

With inflation down but unemployment way up, she asks Britain for a second five-year term to complete the job. The prospect is that Labour cannot prevent her, even though it is expected to do better than its currently dismal standing in the polls would indicate.