Parliament opens to fairy tale glitter and 20th-century economic challenges
The world's fascination with the British royal family endures, says a Buckingham Palace official, because it is a fairy tale in a harsh world. At the state opening of the new session of Parliament on Nov. 6 by Queen Elizabeth II, fairy tale and harsh world became one.Skip to next paragraph
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The Queen, resplendent in a glittering crown from which dazzles a 1,000 -year-old sapphire plucked from the ring of William the Confessor, alights from a Cinderella-like carriage at the Houses of Parliament. She solemnly walks across a brilliant blue silk carpet as four pages hold her 18-foot train and sits on the ornate throne that was embroidered during the reign of Queen Victoria.
At this point, fairy tale illusion fades, and the real world with its 20 th-century challenges for modern-day Britain rushes in, for the speech that the Queen is about to give is not written in her own hand but in the hand of her prime minister, Margaret Thatcher.
It is in short, the announcement of the government's legislative program for this coming session of Parliament. In sharp contrast to the rich, ennobling surroundings of the House of Lords where the Queen is now enthroned, the speech is spare, only about eight minutes long, workmanlike, and void of any fine rhetorical flourishes. It is little more than a list of government objectives in which the Queen said no fewer than eight times: ''A bill will be introduced to....''
The assembled lords and ladies could be forgiven for turning their heads and gazing more intently at the Princess of Wales' new ''classic chignon'' hairstyle. The more sophisticated look, wearing her hair brushed up from the back which showed off her long elegant neck, captivated Fleet Street's fashion writers and news editors.
Yet as mundane as the government's legislative program may have sounded, it was full of important coded messages that show how far this Conservative government is trying to reshape this nation which was the first country to adopt the welfare state after World War II.
Seated erect in a long, flowing white gown, the Queen announced: ''In order to promote efficiency and growth, my government will continue their policies of exposing state-owned businesses to competition and, where appropriate, returning them to the private sector.''
To that end the National Bus Company will be denationalized. That terse announcement reveals very little of the far-reaching changes already under way, and which will continue for some time to come, to free the economy from state control.
To the Thatcher government the argument is unassailable. What made Britain great during the 19th century was free enterprise. What makes the United States great today is a free enterprise system shorn of monopolistic practices. And what will restore Britain today, says the government, is free enterprise and a climate of competition.
As a result the Conservatives have systematically set out to ensure that Britain has one of the smallest state sectors in the world. For the Conservatives the economy must as far as possible be liberated from state control if it is to be productive and efficient. Hence the denationalizing or ''privatizing'' - to use the government's own words - of five major enterprises last year. This makes 13 since the Thatcher government came to power in 1979.
Just around the corner comes easily the biggest prize of all: the privatization of British Telecom, a huge (STR)8 billion ($9.6 billion) enterprise carrying 16 million telephone calls a day.
This month's flotation of British Telecom shares will be the largest stock market flotation in history. The Tories hope this will double the number of private shareowners in the country from 3 million to 6 million.
The government likes that idea not just for economic reasons. It also fits neatly into the larger Tory philosophy that Britain should not only be a property-owning democracy (which is why the sale of Council Houses has been encouraged), but also an equity-owning democracy.
As David Selves, a delegate to the recent Tory conference in Brighton saw it: ''It is the equity-owning democracy that is the new frontier.'' Such enthusiasm was echoed by Mrs. Thatcher's own credo that under the Conservatives she wants ''every owner to be an earner and every earner be an owner.''
Tory plans to privatize significant areas of the public sector (gas and electricity could follow) has outraged the Trades Union Congress which feels the government has no right to sell off what it considers a national asset.
They have fought back with the slogan ''Public, it's yours. Private, it's theirs.''
Is total privatization the objective of the Thatcher government?
Many Conservatives believe that it is the party's ultimate objective. More cautious Conservatives point out that some privatization moves, such as the floatation of Britoil and Amersham, turned out to be financial flops.
Some public sector operations are so unwieldy and unprofitable that no hard-headed businessman would touch them with a 10-ft. barge pole. And there are instances such as BL (formerly British Leyland) which failed as privatized concerns and had to be rescued by the state.