Britain's Conservatives chart course into 1990s

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Will the Iron Lady's social agenda be as practical as her economic policies? Can British Conservatives rest on their laurels as their opposition shifts to the political center?

Will high interest rates alone contain inflation?

Britain's ruling Conservative Party faces these questions at its annual conference this week. The answers could set the direction for the country through the early 1990s.

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Braving the scene of a terrorist attack four years ago, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her party have returned to the seaside resort of Brighton for their meeting which opened yesterday under intensive security measures.

Five people lost their lives in 1984 when an bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army exploded in the city's Grand Hotel where Conservative leaders are again staying. This year police are everywhere and the government has taken massive precautions at a cost of more than $2 million.

For a party which enjoys extraordinary popular support after nine years in power, the gathering is as much a celebration as an opportunity to defy terrorists.

This week's sessions in Brighton will be less raucous than last week'sLabour Party conference in Blackpool where party leaders and trade unionists argued, sometimes bitterly, about the need for a change in policies to boost their prospects at the polls. Labour leader Neil Kinnock returned home satisfied he had a mandate to ``modernize'' the party by endorsing the ideals of the free market and economic competitiveness. But a strong backlash from powerful trade union leaders sent a confused signal about how far he can stray from an attachment to socialist ideals and support for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

The Conservatives are more united, although on the eve of their conference there was a rumble of disagreement about the party's handling of the economy. Inflation is creeping upward and some analysts predict it could reach an annual rate of 7 percent by year's end.

Public support for a Conservative government rests largely on its economic competence. Any faltering by Nigel Lawson, who presides over economic policy as Chancellor of the Exchequer, will bring anxiety to party ranks.

Former treasury secretaries, Leon Brittan and John Biffen, have disagreed publicly with Mr. Lawson's exclusive reliance on interest rates to cool down consumer demand and lower inflation. They have also questioned Lawson's commitment to tax cuts which contribute to increased consumer spending. Curbing inflation is the government's highest economic priority, they said this week.

Mr. Biffen warned his fellow Tories not to write off the Labour Party, saying that Labour leader Kinnock was leading the opposition back toward the political center. He said that Conservative economic and tax policies, which have been criticized as favoring the rich, could give the party a ``fat cat image.''

In a speech which amplified that criticism and was arguably the most persuasive in his political career, Kinnock last week denounced the ``grub of greed'' and the ``loads-a-money ethic'' which he said were the results of Conservative policies in the 1980s. His description of British life under Mrs. Thatcher's government struck a theme popular with Labour supporters.

``No obligation to the community, no sense of solidarity ... no number other than one, no person other than me, no time other than now, no such thing as society - just `me' and `now.' That's Margaret Thatcher's society.''

The prime minister is expected to answer such criticism in a key political address on Friday. She is expected to give her vision of a prosperous Britain in the 1990s. She first hinted at her social agenda in a series of talks last summer when she emphasized the importance of individual responsibility and strengthening family and community values. How these will be translated into government policy remains to be seen.

Some sympathizers are concerned that, while Thatcher's decision to turn her attention from economics to society is sound, her ideas on citizenship and the community will not strike a responsive cord with the public.

One theme that will, however, hit home is the prime minister's new-found interest in ``green'' politics. She announced for the first time recently that protecting nature from the ravages of modern technology was one of the great challenges facing mankind at the end of the 20th century. The greenhouse effect, the depletion of the ozone layer, and acid rain were the three main dangers to the planet, she said.

Environmentalists were surprised and pleased at her conversion to environmental protection since Britain has been slow in its efforts to enact legislation on the subject. They want to hear more.

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