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Mrs. Thatcher's task: leading Britain through new revolution

By David K. WillisStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 1983


Margaret Thatcher, who at time of writing seemed assured of a triumphant election victory, faces what would be a daunting challenge for any British prime minister:

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Presiding over a divided society which is entering an era of change comparable to the early days of the Industrial Revolution a century and a half ago.

The decline of the steel mill, coal mine, textile plant, and other old industries in the north of Britain is accompanied by unemployment and a measure of disillusion - but also, in part, by a growth of the microchip, computer, television, and other high-tech industries in the already prosperous south.

The result is social and economic imbalance, thoughtful observers here say - but opportunity as well.

The government's immediate tasks are generating jobs (13.3 percent of workers are unemployed, including 1,226,000 under 25); managing the economy (retail sales are up, inflation is way down, but manufacturing is low and the money supply is expanding faster than predicted); and keeping a credible defense (and an affordable one).

Underlying these, however, is another fundamental task: turning the impact of the microchip era from difficult transition to expanding possibilities.

''I'm not pessimistic,'' says one close analyst of the British scene for the past two decades, author and columnist Anthony Sampson. In an interview in his basement office in London's Notting Hill Gate, Mr. Sampson said he thought Britons were suited to the new wave of computer technology sweeping the Western world and Japan.

''We're good at language and at communications in general - writing, radio, television, and so on,'' remarked the author of the widely recognized book, ''The Changing Anatomy of Britain.''

''The microchip could turn out to be a good opportunity for us. It requires sophisticated minds. We may be rather good at that. Of course, it will need application and capital, as well - and it does mean changes in the way people think and live.''

For the moment, Britain remains one of the lower-wage, lower-producing countries of Western Europe.

And a wide variety of people with whom this correspondent talked in many parts of the country agreed that, despite some notable exceptions, the country is still divided by social class, mired in old ways, reluctant to make radical change, and too indifferent to the art and skills of business management.

In the Midlands, in the north of England, in Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland, the lines of the jobless are long and unhappiness with London is high. The new factories of South Korea, Brazil, Taiwan, and other growing third-world countries have taken over steel and textiles. The Americans and the Japanese are the high-tech, consumer-item leaders.

So what is left for a country like Britain?

Decline in the same way that Spain and Portgual and Italy declined once their empires had gone?

Or vigorous renewal from within?

For all its problems, this country still has much with which to work. It has the pride and experience of an imperial past. It has a unique record of political stability, global financial skills in the City of London, and scientific invention.

In this country and elsewhere, changes being generated by the microchip are so profound that they are being compared to the coming of the steam engine and the spread of the railroads, which helped alter the way Britons thought about themselves and the world 150 years ago.

The outlines of the future are still dim. There are those who heartily dislike what they see, just as the Duke of Wellington a century and a half ago said that no good would come of railroads allowing working people to leave their homes and travel where they pleased.

But according to Andrew Neil, British editor of The Economist magazine, the post-industrial age is dawning, and nothing can hold it back.

This age has its pitfalls as well as its advantages. Most of the new factories and industries are opening up in the south of England (except for ''Silicon Glen,'' a concentration of high-technology plants in Scotland).

''This is helping to show even more clearly the gap between the north and the south of Britain,'' Mr. Sampson says. ''The area 50 miles from Heathrow Airport, down the M3 and M4 motorways, is becoming something like Boston's Route 128.

''Towns like Basingstoke, Swindon, Reading, have new high-technology factories going up all the time. People are moving there. It's a different country from the older cities of the north - Birmingham, Liverpool, and so on. Those cities are in decline, while the south grows.''

At the same time, more positive changes could be involved. Traditional ways of thinking are being shaken. Old forms of trade unionism will have to change.

Computers and word processors mean that people don't necessarily need to commute to a central location to work. Mr. Neil says that already a new breed of ''housewife programmers'' is springing up along the M4 motorway.