Britain's economic divide keeps Scots in Labour camp

Forget that Neil Kinnock, the opposition Labour Party leader, comes from Wales. Or that Labour's two previous leaders, Michael Foot and James Callaghan, also represented Welsh constituences. The bedrock of Labour's support is north, not west, of the border with England. Although Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won a runaway victory at the last general election, in 1983, she was unable to take Scotland with her.

Scotland is the weakest political link in the Conservative government. In the last election, the Conservatives could muster only 21 of the 72 seats for Scotland - a country noted for its education, its egalitarianism, and its strong sense of social justice.

To many voters in Scotland, it is English voters who put Mrs. Thatcher into power and who deprive them of their democratic right to have a Labour government.

Such a scenario could be repeated next Thursday in the national election. The Conservative Party is ahead across Britain in the opinion polls, but trailing far behind in Scotland. The so-called north-south divide - in which an economically declining north feels it has been neglected by a booming south - is intense in areas where Labour is strong, like Airdrie, which forms part of the Monkland East constituency, 12 miles east of Glasgow.

The town was once famous for its iron and steel industry, but this has declined almost to the point of nonexistence. Unemployment runs about 19 percent, well above the national average.

Much of the hostility at Airdrie's change in fortunes is directed personally at Thatcher. Reaction among labour voters in Scotland is almost stereotypical. They see her as uncaring and uncompassionate.

According to Eddie Cairns, provost (mayor) of the local council and Labour's local campaign manager, Thatcher is ``seen as a very hard, unsympathetic, and uncaring woman who puts profitability before personal problems.''

James Edie, a spray painter, said, ``The country is getting poorer and poorer. She's trying to start the class system again.''

Isa MacGregor, wheeling a shopping cart through an open-air market, accuses Thatcher of destroying practically everything she touches. ``She's crippling Scotland, closing down all the factories, and putting men out of work.''

Not all Airdrie's industry has closed down. A steel factory, an electronics plant, and a garment factory that produces both dress shirts and uniform shirts are still operating.

But other former industrial sites have become open spaces. Gone in the last few years: Martin and Black wire ropes, Calder tubeworks, Victoria steelworks, Bain construction, Weir construction, and GKN nuts and bolts.

Since 1979, when the Tories were returned to power in place of Labour, Scotland has lost one-third of its jobs.

Ask John Smith, the sitting Labour member of Parliament for Airdrie and a prominent national political figure, what he thinks are the areas where the Thatcher government is most vulnerable, and he replies: ``Jobs ... because we feel they [the Conservatives] don't care.'' The task of reducing unemployment, he further notes, is ``not even mentioned in their [election] manifesto, and the record is deplorable.''

Mr. Smith charges the Thatcher government with running down Britain's manufacturing industry and with leaving Britain worse off than it was in 1979.

Thatcher, meanwhile, maintains that Britain's economy is booming again. But Smith, who was interviewed in London after a press conference in which he shared the platform with Labour's Mr. Kinnock, sees quite a different picture. For him, the country has ``gone backwards'' after eight years of government by the Tories. ``They've doubled the number in poverty. They've accentuated the economic and social division of the country between north and south, and rich and poor.''

He also sees Thatcher as a divisive influence. A call by the prime minister to ``bury socialism'' brought an instant rebuke by Smith at a small breakfast session earlier this year. Smith told American correspondents that her remark revealed a ``deeply unattractive and fundamentally undemocratic sentiment.'' He said that as a man who likes to see Labour as a pragmatic, common sense, social democratic party, he didn't go around saying he wanted ``to bury capitalism.''

Despite his unexciting name, the burly Labour MP with one of the nimblest minds on the front benches of his party carries a powerful political punch. More than just the area parliamentarian, who fills the local townspeople with pride and sends youngsters scampering after him for his autograph, Smith is the Labour Party's trade and industry spokesman. He carries the somewhat august title of the Right Honourable John Smith. He takes after his name the initials QC for Queen's counsel, which in Scottish parlance means advocate, while to his counterparts down south in England he would be known as a barrister.

His professional brief is to argue legal cases in the High Court, but he is far better known for arguing the Labour's trade and industry case in the House of Commons. His searing questions during the critical time for the Conservatives of the planned American takeover of the Austin Rover automobile group, later withdrawn under political pressure, were said by a commentator in a leading Conservative paper to have ``terrified'' Trade and Industry Secretary Paul Channon, his opposite in the Conservative Cabinet.

As his party's spokesman on trade and industry, Smith has been a principal strategist in Labour's call to reduce unemployment by 1 million over two years (it is now about 3 million); intensify research and development; and expand training programs to remedy Britain's lack of skills, which he thinks explains why a German worker's productivity is twice that of his British counterpart.

What Smith would like Labour to do on assuming office after an eight-year absence is to ``wage war on unemployment and capture the vision of a fully employed society that we had right after the war.''

The second goal is to see Britain go through an ``industrial renaissance'' in which manufacturing would be at the center stage of an industrial strategy.

``And, thirdly,'' he says, ``we want Britain to become a leading power of the second rank playing a vigorous role on the European scene.''

But it would be a policy advocating a nonnuclear defense stance, a position that leaves many Labour supporters distinctly uncomfortable. Hugh Byrne, who is the co-owner of a repair garage in Airdrie, said he sincerely hopes Labour will win the election. He thinks John Smith comes over well on television, and he warms to Neil Kinnock as a leader. But, he adds, ``his policy on defense is taking him down.'' Kenneth MacDonald, his partner, chimed in, ``I don't think the Labour Party has got it right. It's like fighting with bows and arrows.'' Mr. Byrne, nodding his head vigorously, came back, ``That's a statement and a half.''

This correspondent heard echoes of this conversation not only in Scotland but also in the north of England among other Labour supporters.

As in 1983, defense could again be the Achilles' heel of the Labour Party, even while its supporters are fully behind it on jobs, education, health and welfare, and their common opposition to Mrs. Thatcher.

Next: The Social Democrats.

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