BRITAIN'S Conservative Party leadership would be well served to heed advice from one top British energy official, who contends that this is no time for gloating and recrimination from the government in the wake of the collapse of the year-long coal miner strike. Rather, order should be restored in the pits -- and within labor circles -- as quickly as possible. The end of the strike -- without the miners and government reaching an accord -- represents a victory for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose government has sought to close uneconomic mines in particular and reduce the clout of labor unions within the British economy in general. But the ``victory'' must also be considered a costly one, both for Mrs. Thatcher and her Tory party, as well as for the British economy.
The strike has cost Britain an estimated $3 billion in higher interest rates, having to use more costly alternative fuels, lost tax receipts, and special law-enforcement requirements. And the social and human costs cannot be easily calculated. Large numbers of mine families find themselves in dire financial straits. Some families have been broken up. Acrimony remains intense between striking miners who held out to the end -- a minority by this past weekend -- and those who gradually trundled back to work over the course of the year.
Moreover, the long dispute over the mines has helped to nudge public support away from the Thatcher government, which has taken a particularly tough stance toward the striking miners. Public-opinion polls show the Labour Party drawing even with the Conservatives.
Yet, all that said, the government's larger policy position -- namely, that it is vital to bring economic efficiency to state-run enterprises such as mining -- remains sound. Mrs. Thatcher is hardly alone in seeking such efficiencies. In the United States, the process, while not exactly the same, began under the Ford and Carter administrations and continues under the current Reagan White House. President Carter, for example, deregulated federally supervised (although not federally owned) transportation systems. In France, meanwhile, there is a somewhat closer parallel to what is happening in Britain. Socialist Prime Minister Franois Mitterrand has thrown his support behind the reform of large, state-owned enterprises, such as mines. He too has sought to close out inefficient or unprofitable state-owned enterprises, curb red tape, and increase market incentives to spur economic competition and growth.
Britain's economic progress continues to lag behind growth rates in many of Britain's European trading partners. Part of the reason has been the political clout of powerful trade unions, which have resisted economic change. In that regard, the collapse of the coal strike is an important gain for the authority of the British government. In fact, other powerful unions, such as rail and steel unions, failed to come to the aid of the striking miners, thus virtually ensuring the eventual capitulation of the miners.
The primary task for Mrs. Thatcher's government seems clear enough: In a spirit of genuine reconciliation, London must forgive and forget the excesses of as many fired strikers as possible (except, of course, for those who committed actual crimes). Such an attitude of fairness and cooperation will be essential to get the mines back to the highest possible efficiency.