Thatcher keeps tight rein on British leadership

Fact: Last month British unemployment figures rose to an all-time high - 3.28 million or 13.6 percent of the work force - with no sign of the problem abating. Fact: This year Britain is experiencing its worst-ever industrial dispute and no settlement of the seven-month-old coal strike is in sight.

Fact, and irony: The Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, under whose rule these developments have taken place, is as firmly entrenched in power as it has ever been.

Result: The Conservative Party has been in good heart for its annual party conference here in Brighton this week.

The party's standing in the opinion polls is roughly at the level where it won a landslide victory in the 1983 general election. Admittedly the Conservatives lost ground to the Labour Party in the European Parliament elections earlier this year, but its losses were the least of Europe's ruling parties. This has underscored Mrs. Thatcher's image as the politically strongest and most durable of West European leaders.

Political commentators are hard-pressed to think of a comparable situation where, after five successive years in office, a British prime minister has been so firmly in the saddle.

The clear message, they say, is that Mrs. Thatcher has grabbed the political initiative in Britain and held it with such powerful slogans as ''Thatcherism'' and ''privatization.'' Such code words may not be universally welcomed in Britain, but the public quickly associates them with the Conservatives. Labourites at the Blackpool conference last week concede they have no comparable buzzwords to capture the public's imagination.

Whatever misgivings there are about Tory policy within the party are firmly subordinated to the traditional feeling at Conservative Party conferences that unity prevails. One delegate described the Conservatives in their conference as the ''slapping-each-other-on-the-back group.''

To Thom Robinson of the South Hackney & Shoreditch Conservative Party, there was no paradox in the fact that the Conservatives with the highest unemployment rate were the most popular party in Britain today.

''People realize it's an honest government. It doesn't say it has all the answers. It is not promising soft options. People respect that,'' Mr. Robinson said.

Thatcher who is said to scorn weakness in whatever form, disdains softness or ''wetness'' as it's frequently called in Tory Party circles.

Even the usual sobriquets for Thatcher such as the Iron Lady, the Nation's Nanny or Headmistress, Big Sister, as distinct from Big Brother, and Attila the Hen - are used to her own political advantage. They convey strength and determination at a time when the Conservatives are exploiting what they perceive is the weakness and vacillation of Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock over the miners' strike. In that respect there seems to be no weakening of her resolve to live up to her own classic comment made a few years ago at the Conservative Party: ''The lady is not for turning.''

Even calls for more compassion and a spirit of conciliation on the miners' dispute from leading members of the Church of England, once dubbed the Tory Party at Prayer, have been rebuffed by the Conservative Party conference.

In a veiled reference to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Robert Runcie, Conservative Party Chairman John Selwyn Gummer, said ''soft answers'' to the mining dispute would only put in risk the whole mining industry.

To a loudly applauding audience, he said: ''This is not caring for communities, this is not compassion for hardship. It's a refusal to think through your argument to a logical conclusion.''

If there persists considerable dissatisfaction with the way Thatcher has handled the miners' strike even though she appears to benefit from it politically an opposition now divided between Labour and the Liberal-Social Democratic alliance has also tended to exaggerate the amount of popular support she is receiving from the country as a whole.

At the same time, her mix of Victorian and middle-class values has had the effect of shifting the political balance away from the state to the individual.

One of her most cherished (and shrewdest) assumptions is that everybody either wants, or should have the opportunity, to be a property owner. The result has been the sale of 750,000 council houses out of a total of some 6 million units since the Conservatives gained power in 1979. Significantly, the sale has been a powerful boost to the Tory vote from many former Labour supporters.

At the last election, Labour received only 40 percent of the working-class vote. The remainder divided its allegiance between the Conservatives and the Alliance.

The degree to which the Conservatives have seized the political initiative is borne out by the acceptance of private ownership of council houses by the Labour Party at its Blackpool conference without the party feeling that this conflicted in any way with Socialist principles.

Yet despite this political fluidity, an assessment of those party conferences suggests that the gap between the two parties has widened enormously in recent years.

As the Conservatives have moved further to the right, so Labour has moved further to the left. Each party accuses the other of extremism.

Conservatives say the Labour Party is no longer the party it was under Clement Attlee, Hugh Gaitskell, and James Callahan. Labourites, in turn, say that under the Thatcher influence they now view Harold MacMillan as a liberal and regard Edward Heath almost with nostalgia.

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