As British voters prepared this past week for a June 11 general election, political analysts with long memories could not recall a British campaign that gave the voters so much choice. The choices were apparent in the sharply differing tone and substance of the three parties' election manifestos - the policy documents issued at the outset of the struggle.
The Tories produced a statement 77 pages long, written in near-revivalist style, and offering voters the prospect of changing the very basis of society. It promises a new and decisive chapter in a ``Tory Revolution,'' with inflation and income tax tumbling, and the nation gearing up to greater individual freedom and capitalist initiative. In its introduction, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared: ``We have discovered a new strength and pride. Together we are building One Nation of free, prosperous, and responsible families and people. A Conservative dream is at last becoming a reality.''
Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock - who is fighting an uphill battle (opinion polls show Labour trailing by some 12 percent) - is convinced that Thatcherism is not only a set of policies that have failed, but a tonic that the nation will swallow further at its peril. As an alternative to this, he is offering a draught of ``Labour realism.''
In a tersely-written manifesto of only 17 pages, Labour proposes a massive 12 billion program of state spending to get the country back to work. It accuses Mrs. Thatcher of having destroyed huge sections of British industry and of studied insensitivity to the plight of 3 million unemployed. The Labour manifesto goes on to promise a major redistribution of wealth, including a special wealth tax on the most prosperous 1 percent of Britain's population.
Thatcher supporters argue that her big lead in opinion polls already indicates which of the two visions of the future voters will embrace. One backroom party strategist said: ``The Tories have curbed inflation, tamed rampant trade unionism, and begun to take the lid off individual initiative. The people will support Mrs. Thatcher's wish to be given another term in which to complete her revolution.''
Kinnock insists that the pollsters are not reading the mood accurately. In his opening campaign speech he accused Thatcher of using misleading statistics to suggest that economic growth is now vigorous and that, having languished for decades, the nation is pulling itself out of torpor.
Labour's campaign coordinator, Brian Gould said: ``The Tories are citing figures from 1981. They are trying to make us forget that Mrs. Thatcher took office two years earlier and presided over an immediate economic disaster.'' Gould condemned Thatcher for letting the welfare state decay and for failing to reverse industrial decline in places like the Midlands, England's North East, and Scotland.
Labour faces a potentially serious problem in the widespread public perception that it is divided between a moderate wing and a group of left-wingers who, if their party were elected, would work hard to restore the power of the trade unions.
Labour knows also that many voters object to its defense policies, which would abolish the independent nuclear deterrent and require the US to remove its nuclear warheads from British soil. Perhaps for this reason, Labour's general election manifesto sounds a less determined to carry through defense policy changes than it does to come to grips with economic and social problems. It stresses that Labour would keep Britain in NATO.
While the two long-established parties try to tempt the electorate with their radically differing political philosophies, the Alliance, jointly led by ``the Two Davids'' (Steel and Owen), is at pains to stress that it offers a carefully formulated alternative.
Steel and Owen opened their campaigning four or five days ahead of Thatcher and Kinnock with a tour of the provinces. Officially, they are arguing that the Alliance could win the election. More realistically, they concede in private that their best hope is to gain enough seats to give them the balance of power in a hung parliament.
To help achieve this aim, they have produced a party manifesto that says, in essence, ``a plague on both your houses.'' It argues to Britons that their society is still weakened by class divisions and faced by the Tories and Labour with ``false alternatives.''
The Alliance wants to cut unemployment by 1 million through ``controlled expansion'' of public spending. It favors the retention of a ``minimum deterrent.'' Its spending programs on welfare, education, defense, and industrial growth were handed to a firm of public accountants and carefully costed before release to the public.
Thatcher has started out as the pollsters' favorite. But both opposition parties hope that the public opinion soundings are missing the true mood of the people.
Do they want Alliance caution, Labour's austere recipe for righting Tory ``wrongs,'' or Thatcherite dreams?
We have three weeks to wait for an answer.