After five years of uphill heaving, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher is beginning to convince Britain's long-established professions that they should open their ranks to healthy competition.
Mrs. Thatcher came to office in 1979 promising that under her stewardship the country's solicitors, barristers, architects, and accountants should move into the 20th century by accepting the need for promotional advertising and competing in fees.
But, as with so much else in Britain, the prime minister's ideas hit the hard rock of tradition and settled habits. A qualified lawyer herself, Mrs. Thatcher was told that the artificial distinction between barristers and solicitors could not be broken down.
Architects said that to allow competition in fees would lower standards to the public. Far better, they argued, to stick to the old system under which architects charge a fixed percentage (usually 12 to 14 percent) of a total building contract.
The nation's accountants insisted that advertising in newspapers would be unseemly, and that picking up business by the personal recommendation of existing clients was the best system.
But Thatcher is a determined woman, and appointed a minister for competition with a brief to challenge the stick-in-the-mud attitudes of professions whose total annual turnover has been put at (STR)4 billion ($5.28 billion).
Alex Fletcher's task has been to cajole the professions into adopting a more modern outlook. From Oct. 1 the 7,500 solicitors' firms in England and Wales will be allowed to advertise their services to the public. Accountants are expected to follow their example by year's end.
Mr. Fletcher's tactics have included a threat to bring in new competition in the professions if voluntary moves were not made by their governing bodies.
At the same time, the government aligned itself with moves to break solicitors' monopoly on property conveyancing. In future, people will be able to buy and sell houses with the help of licensed conveyancers whose fees are expected to be much lower than those of solicitors.
Under the old rules, solicitors charge a client as much as (STR)1,000 for handling the purchase or sale of a modestly priced house. The new conveyancers say it can be done for half that price or less.
Accountants have begun to suffer a similar competitive squeeze as the government encouraged banks to offer taxation and accountancy services. The accountants have begun to rethink their earlier resistance to going out into the marketplace, looking for business.
Competition Minister Fletcher recognizes the risks he would be running if he let the genie of competition out of the bottle too quickly. But he has no doubts about the advantages of the policy he is pushing.
''We hope to encourage the professional bodies to look after the consumer better. In the past they have tended to look after the interests of their own members.''
Fletcher says that, by advertising their wares, the professions will expand the total market for their services.
For many generations, the use of accountants, architects, and lawyers was largely a middle-class phenomenon. Fletcher thinks that when the range of their services is better known and fees begin to come down, a broader cross-section of society will seek the advice of the professions.
One area where the government is having to proceed cautiously is in the legal profession. In England, only barristers can plead in the higher courts, and a client cannot be introduced to a barrister without the professional help of a solicitor.
Solicitors are starting to ask the government for support in letting them take on barristers' work. Thatcher, aware that many of her fellow Conservative members of Parliament are barristers of high distinction, is thought unlikely to heed the solicitors' plea for a year or two.