Thatcher's test: reaching Britons who feel left out

The unassailable position British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher occupies in British politics as a result of her stunning third successive election victory leaves little room for political compromise. But after the Conservatives notched the second-largest majority since World War II in the June 11 poll, the nation is more politically divided than ever.

The south of England is clinging harder than ever to the Conservative Party, which won a victory that exceeded the party's wildest dreams.

Many Conservative members of Parliament, like just-returned Cambridge MP Robert Rhodes James, feel the effect of 8 years of Thatcher rule has been to restore Britain's national pride.

But the perception that Mrs. Thatcher is a uniformly popular leader is contradicted by the results from Wales, Scotland, and the north of England. It shows these less-prosperous areas more entrenched in their support for the opposition Labour Party.

More than geographically divided, the nation is split in cultural attitudes between a more affluent south, which can take advantage of Thatcher's free-enterprise society, and a north in which large numbers of unemployed people don't have the resources to become part of her vision of a property, share-owning democracy.

Nowhere is the political divide more apparent than in Scotland, where Conservatives lost the most number of seats. Labour's John Smith, returned to Parliament with a hefty majority, says the Scots feel Thatcher has written them off.

The post-election landscape, moreover, shows that the forces of moderation have largely been silenced. This is apparent right across the political spectrum:


Thatcher sees her 102 seat majority in Parliament as a mandate for her existing policies. She has wasted no time in ousting, or pushing to the sidelines, members of her last Cabinet who don't share her convictionist policies.

Prominent among the ``wets'' (the Conservative's liberal wing) who have urged a more moderate line are John Biffen and Peter Walker.

Mr. Biffen, former leader of the House of Commons, was dropped from the Cabinet altogether. Mr. Walker, former energy secretary, has been relegated to being Secretary of Wales, a minor Cabinet posting.

The Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance:

The middle ground of British politics has virtually collapsed. The Alliance ended up with fewer votes and fewer seats.

The Social Democratic Party, hailed at its formation in 1981 as the force that would break the mould of the two-party system in this country, suffered the ignominy of seeing three of its four founding members - Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers - go down to defeat.

The Alliance cannot go forward unless it merges into a single party. But Liberal leader David Steel shows no stomach for soldiering on and is expected to stand down. Liberal MP Paddy Ashdown, who was returned to Parliament with an increased majority, has been mentioned as a possible successor.

David Owen, the popular Social Democratic Party leader, has a weak hand as a result of leading a very tiny party. He cannot assume he could lead the Alliance as a single leader when the movement is made up mostly of Liberals who don't warm to his pro-Tory tendencies.


Despite the landslide Conservative win, Labour leader Neil Kinnock is expected to survive. He re-established Labour as the major political opposition, improved its overall vote from 28 to 32 percent, and has successfully reunited a divided party.

But as a reflection of the wider polarization in the country, he will head a party with a far-larger intake of hard-left MPs. These left-wingers will not be so easily squashed by Thatcher and they will be a thorn in the side of Mr. Kinnock's efforts to project a moderate image.

Opposing Thatcher on the Labour benches now will be three blacks MPs (including lawyer Paul Boateng) and one Asian MP in a House that has not seen any black representation in more than half a century.

Demographically, though, Thatcher can take comfort from the fact that her policies are expanding the middle class and turning the Conservative Party potentially into the ``natural'' party of government.

The rise of the British middle class during the Thatcher era from 1-in-3 voters to 2-in-5 has disturbing implications for a Labour Party rooted in trade unions.

Only 23 percent of voters today are trade union members, and less than half of the trade unions now vote Labour.

Although many Britons feel they are better off under Thatcher, the test of her third term, say many commentators, will be in what she can do to reach out to those who have felt that her policies have left them out.

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