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Britain's economic divide keeps Scots in Labour camp

By David WinderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 1987

Airdrie, Scotland

Forget that Neil Kinnock, the opposition Labour Party leader, comes from Wales. Or that Labour's two previous leaders, Michael Foot and James Callaghan, also represented Welsh constituences. The bedrock of Labour's support is north, not west, of the border with England. Although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won a runaway victory at the last general election, in 1983, she was unable to take Scotland with her.

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Scotland is the weakest political link in the Conservative government. In the last election, the Conservatives could muster only 21 of the 72 seats for Scotland - a country noted for its education, its egalitarianism, and its strong sense of social justice.

To many voters in Scotland, it is English voters who put Mrs. Thatcher into power and who deprive them of their democratic right to have a Labour government.

Such a scenario could be repeated next Thursday in the national election. The Conservative Party is ahead across Britain in the opinion polls, but trailing far behind in Scotland. The so-called north-south divide - in which an economically declining north feels it has been neglected by a booming south - is intense in areas where Labour is strong, like Airdrie, which forms part of the Monkland East constituency, 12 miles east of Glasgow.

The town was once famous for its iron and steel industry, but this has declined almost to the point of nonexistence. Unemployment runs about 19 percent, well above the national average.

Much of the hostility at Airdrie's change in fortunes is directed personally at Thatcher. Reaction among labour voters in Scotland is almost stereotypical. They see her as uncaring and uncompassionate.

According to Eddie Cairns, provost (mayor) of the local council and Labour's local campaign manager, Thatcher is ``seen as a very hard, unsympathetic, and uncaring woman who puts profitability before personal problems.''

James Edie, a spray painter, said, ``The country is getting poorer and poorer. She's trying to start the class system again.''

Isa MacGregor, wheeling a shopping cart through an open-air market, accuses Thatcher of destroying practically everything she touches. ``She's crippling Scotland, closing down all the factories, and putting men out of work.''

Not all Airdrie's industry has closed down. A steel factory, an electronics plant, and a garment factory that produces both dress shirts and uniform shirts are still operating.

But other former industrial sites have become open spaces. Gone in the last few years: Martin and Black wire ropes, Calder tubeworks, Victoria steelworks, Bain construction, Weir construction, and GKN nuts and bolts.

Since 1979, when the Tories were returned to power in place of Labour, Scotland has lost one-third of its jobs.

Ask John Smith, the sitting Labour member of Parliament for Airdrie and a prominent national political figure, what he thinks are the areas where the Thatcher government is most vulnerable, and he replies: ``Jobs ... because we feel they [the Conservatives] don't care.'' The task of reducing unemployment, he further notes, is ``not even mentioned in their [election] manifesto, and the record is deplorable.''

Mr. Smith charges the Thatcher government with running down Britain's manufacturing industry and with leaving Britain worse off than it was in 1979.

Thatcher, meanwhile, maintains that Britain's economy is booming again. But Smith, who was interviewed in London after a press conference in which he shared the platform with Labour's Mr. Kinnock, sees quite a different picture. For him, the country has ``gone backwards'' after eight years of government by the Tories. ``They've doubled the number in poverty. They've accentuated the economic and social division of the country between north and south, and rich and poor.''