An 'alternative way' vs. Thatcher economics

There is little doubt here that the British economy has begun to turn that famous (or notorious) corner. But the question is whether or not it will leave Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher behind.

One judges it has turned the corner, because industrial production has begun to move upward again. At least in the private sector, wage-inflation has been held in check. Exports are stronger.

But whether the movement toward recovery is fast enough to save Mrs. Thatcher in her position as prime minister or the Conservative Party in its role as the party of government now is open to doubt.

Unemployment at around 3 million is at deep slump level and is unlikely to be much reduced this year or next. Interest rates are phenomenally high, thanks mainly to high rates in the United States but also to the continued high levels of government borrowing here. Index-linked Savings Bonds, once called ''Granny Bonds'' because they were offered only to the retired, now can be bought even by children, a sure indication of the Treasury's doubt that inflation will be reduced below about 12 percent.

And according to most economists here to whom I have spoken recently the Thatcher government has got itself into a Catch-22 situation with regard to its budget deficit. Every move it makes to cut its spending results in an increased need for jobless benefit and welfare payments while reducing its receipts from income tax and value added tax (VAT). Spending can thus be cut without the deficit being much reduced.

And there is another point made: what may have begun as a demand-inflation has become most definitely a cost-inflation. There now is a general dearth of spending money in the economy and at the same time a continued upward pressure on costs and prices. The Thatcher government, it is said, has added to this pressure on costs. One of its first actions was to increase VAT by some 50 percent and one of its last to push up the cost of natural gas and oil-based fuels.

Now the government may very well be right in asserting that all this is about to change, and its critics may be wrong. But that's not the critical question. The critical question is whether the turnaround will happen in time to save Mrs. Thatcher.

Former Prime Minister Edward Heath, backed unofficially by one of his ablest erstwhile lieutenants, Geoffrey Rippon, has moved into the attack, urging the defeat of the Tory right in the name of unity, as politicians will. Although Mrs. Thatcher's position is probably secure for the moment, Mr. Heath is only too aware that the Tories will ruthlessly dispense with leaders who seem unlikely to be winners. He took over when Sir Alec Douglas Home was dispensed with. And when he, Edward Heath, lost to the miners and to Sir Harold Wilson he was thrown out in his turn and replaced by Margaret Thatcher. If Thatcher goes in 1983 it seems unlikely that Ted Heath will take over again, but somebody else with his approach most certainly will.

This approach is shared by most members of the new Social Democratic Party whose alliance with the Liberals looks likely to shatter the century-old mold of modern British politics. Indeed the fact that a belief in ''an alternative way, '' Galbraithian rather than Friedmanite, is so widely shared between Liberals, the SDP, left-wing Tories, and right-wing Labourites is the most significant single development in British politics.

This alternative way is at present ill-defined, but it covers a reduction in VAT, an increase in top-level income taxes, a cut in interest rates, a massive investment program in roads, railways, the inner cities, housing, and new technology, and a more urgent research and development effort to find new energy sources. Some form of incomes policy and temporary price controls are also advocated.

It will take a very fast and a very impressive economic turnaround in 1983, using present policies, to challenge such a program in 1984 at a general election.

Or will the Tories now adopt a similar approach to save the party?

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