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Non-lessons of the Thatcher victory

By Robert J. LieberRobert J. Lieber, professor of government at Georgetown University, is co-author of ''Eagle Defiant: US Foreign Policy in the 1980s'' and author of the forthcoming ''The Oil Decade: Conflict and Cooperation in the West.'' / June 28, 1983



We have just witnessed a British election with unparalleled American media coverage. Not since the Battle of Britain has London been such a focus of American attention. Why?

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One assumption is that the British experience offers lessons for the United States. A more studied analysis suggests why Ronald Reagan ought not to take pleasure (or a glimpse of his future) from the episode.

At a time of major uncertainties in domestic and foreign policy, a mistaken view finds in Britain the window to the future that California was once thought to provide. Thus, just as the West Coast foreshadowed the introduction not only of Toyotas, hot tubs, and the student revolt, but also of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Jerry Brown, so the triumph of Margaret Thatcher and the debacle of the Labour Party are possible portents for our November 1984 presidential election.

In the new conventional wisdom, the lessons from Britain are said to be these:

* Unemployment doesn't matter (after all, if 10 percent of Americans are out of work, the other 90 percent do have jobs);

* Voters will support a national leader who is firm and unyielding in defense of old economic truths of hard work and free enterprise, and who challenges the remedies of the welfare state and government intervention for modern social and economic ills;

* Old-fashioned patriotism, nationalism, and a strong defense win votes, especially when pursued despite reverses or qualms which drive lesser men (literally) to shelter;

* Simple truths, coupled with an unyielding sense of purpose, will win in the end.

Based on these lessons, we would anticipate a 1984 American election drama in which Ronald Reagan plays Margaret Thatcher and Alan Cranston or Walter Mondale assumes the part of Michael Foot (with John Glenn in the wings as Hugh Gaitskell). In this adaptation, the nuclear freeze is equated with unilateral disarmament (never mind that the former is to be mutual, balanced, and verifiable - after all, we're seeking simple truths), and - who knows? - El Salvador becomes the Falkland Islands.

This new conventional wisdom is simple, seductive - and irrelevant. Confirmation, once again, that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

In essence, Margaret Thatcher owes her June 1983 victory to three specific causes, each unique to the United Kingdom and none directly applicable across the Atlantic.

First, she had as her opponent Michael Foot, the most singularly inept leader of a major Western political party in memory.

Second, the opposition Labour Party undertook to destroy itself, initially by alienating its moderate wing (many of whose most talented members departed to form the Social Democratic Party) and then by adopting a disastrous election platform (including commitments to economic autarchy and unilateral nuclear disarmament).

Third, although her government stumbled into war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands, Britain emerged victorious after a short, sharp struggle. (Long and inconclusive wars may be highly unpopular, but brief and winning ones are another matter.)

Without all three of these events, Thatcher might well have lost. Prior to the Falklands war, opinion polls showed her popular approval at a record low level; and on the eve of the election campaign, polls suggested that she would run no better than even against Denis Healey, had he been Labour Party leader. In the end, she won with 42 percent of the vote - an impressive plurality against a divided opposition, but by no means a majority of the votes cast.

The US presidential election lies some 16 months in the future. Ronald Reagan's chances for reelection (if he runs) depend on factors which can already be glimpsed. He will be aided by his own personal style, by major Republican advantages in campaign financing, by a unified party, and - in the very uncertain event that either occurs - by a sustained economic recovery or a major arms control agreement with the Soviet Union.

Conversely, his reelection prospects are likely to be damaged by a hefty rise in black voter registration, and by the loss of votes among blue-collar voters, union members, the unemployed, women, Jews, Roman Catholics, and Southerners (current opinion polls show Reagan running no better or worse in the South than in the other three regions). The questions of fairness in economic policy, continuation of high real interest rates, high deficits, an abortive recovery, public concern over nuclear war dangers, and the possibility of messy entanglements in Central America will also - if they are at issue in 1984 - work against Reagan's reelection.

On balance, then, the portents for November 1984 are by no means clear-cut. They will depend on the above issues, on the nature of the Democratic nominee, and on intervening events and surprises. Lessons will be drawn from all of these factors, as well as from the four-year record of the Reagan administration. What is reasonably clear, however, is that the outcome will not be foretold by the reelection of Thatcher.