British voters go to the polls this Thursday, June 11, in a general election of almost unprecedented historic importance. Whatever the outcome, the results will have a significant bearing on the future of British society in a way probably not equalled since the Labour Party introduced nationalization and socialized medicine in 1945.
A third election victory for Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher will mean that she will have ruled longer than any other prime minister since the late days of the Napoleonic era, when Lord Liverpool served continuously from 1812 to 1827.
Mrs. Thatcher would see a Conservative victory - which is now being less boldly forecast than it was at the start of the election campaign - as a mandate ``to bury socialism.'' She has already rolled back the frontiers of the state by privatizing 40 percent of the public sector. She intends to privatize all the public sector except the Royal Mail postal services.
If Neil Kinnock - the young and vigorous opposition Labour leader who has surprised commentators with his bonhomie and flair on the campaign trail - makes it to 10 Downing Street, he will be the first Prime Minister since Ramsay MacDonald in the 1920s to have had no prior government experience.
The return of a Labour government after eight years in the political wilderness would spell the end of a bipartisan defense policy that has united the country for 40 years. Labour has gone unilaterally non-nuclear. The prospect of a unilateralist Britain within a NATO nuclear-based alliance fills the United States and its European NATO allies with anxiety.
If neither Mrs. Thatcher nor Mr. Kinnock achieve absolute majorities they will have to fall back on the Social Democratic/Liberal Alliance to govern, despite protestations from both the bigger parties they won't do a deal.
An electoral development that puts the Alliance in the position of holding the balance of power would dramatically underline the point the Alliance is making - i.e. that Britain is in the process of a major political realignment. Such a shift, Alliance leaders say, would smash the traditional two-party system that they believe has perpetuated the class divide in Britain.
The election offers the starkest of political choices: between a Conservative Party farther right than former Tory Prime Ministers Edward Heath and Harold Macmillan and a Labour Party farther left than former Labour Prime Ministers Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. But despite the stark nature of this choice, the election's outcome has become less certain as polling day draws nearer.
In Cambridge, Social Democrat President Shirley Williams says that what's going to happen is ``a mystery.''
In the southwest, Liberal member of Parliament Paddy Ashdown says he's ``surprised frankly and a bit bewildered'' that there is a mismatch between what opinion polls are saying (they are generally down on the Alliance) and the feedback he gets, which makes his own candidacy ``better than 1979'' and ``better than 1983.''
The polls' inconclusiveness suggests that the British political mood is somewhat schizophrenic. In traveling through the country - from Scotland in the north, to Cornwall in the southwest corner of England - this correspondent noted a fragmentation in people's political views.
Unlike the two previous elections, no single issue dominates the campaign this year.
In 1979, the Tories were swept to power by the ``trade union factor.'' It was a bitter public reaction to the ``winter of discontent,'' when the trade union grip on the Labour government left mountains of uncollected refuse, and even the grave diggers refused to bury the dead.
In 1983, Thatcher rode the crest of the Falkland factor; the fervor of patriotism insured she would win a second time.
This year, apart from unemployment (which is falling), no major issue occupies the public's mind in quite the same way as in the two previous elections.
Increasingly, the public finds fault with each of the parties.
Scottish workers near Glasgow, who back Labour and personally like Kinnock, thought his non-nuclear defense policy would bring him down.
In the northeast of England, George Allison of Gateshead, who collects cash at a service station, says: ``I used to be very hard left [and] militant. ... One day I wised up to what I was doing.'' He calls Thatcher ``brilliant. Really good. She's so cool.''
Yet Derek Robson of Newcastle in the north of England says he's switching from Conservative to Labour ``because I think they'll put people to work.'' The government's Youth Training Scheme, he says, doesn't lead anywhere. He charged that the butchery chain he worked for was deliberately letting go workers, and then exploiting YTS by taking on young trainees at much lower salaries.
Further south in the university town of Cambridge - where, despite high tech affluence, roughly a third of all residents live in council housing - the Conservatives feel sure they can pick up some Labour votes.
Robert Rhodes James, Cambridge's sitting Conservative member of Parliament, says Thatcher has brought about a social revolution by letting council tenants and blue-collar workers (traditionally Labour supporters) purchase their own homes, and buy into shares of newly privatized state industries. The result, he says, is the ``new Conservative voter.''
A critical development in this election will be just how successful Labour is in stopping the erosion of its support. If Labour continues to drop, then the Alliance will be ready to realize its aim of becoming the main opposition party. But the campaign has so far shown that writing Labour's political epitaph has been premature.