Thatcher's ambitious agenda seeks lasting reform
Margaret Thatcher is revving up to keep Britain on a course of conservative reform so radical and lasting that the opposition Labour Party can never reverse her policies. This message is clear from the Conservative Party's annual conference in the seaside resort of Blackpool. There, the latest phase of Thatcherite reform is being unveiled and scrutinized.
Labour Party supporters had spent the previous week at Brighton, trying to chart a course to end their long run of electoral defeats. They likely felt a twinge of envy knowing that Mrs. Thatcher was embarking on a clear-cut program of wide-ranging reforms in the fields of education, health care, the mass media, local government, and inner-city renewal.
Britain's prime minister is in near-total command of her rank and file - and extremely clear about her objectives. She commands a majority of about 100 in Parliament. Although there will inevitably be some ``drift'' in her support over the next three or four years, her opponents are faced with a formidable administration headed by the most powerful peacetime prime minister to lead Britain this century.
And, barring an unforeseen political catastrophe, the bulk of Thatcher's third-term program will likely get through.
Conservative Party conferences are usually triumphal affairs, and as ministers at Blackpool outline broad policy for the next three or four years it is clear they are determined to contrast their confidence in the changes now on the agenda with the soul-searching of the Labour opposition.
Thatcher hopes both to improve the teaching in schools and to give parents greater choice in the education of their children. The ailing national health service will be given a thorough examination, with the aim of making it more cost-effective. Violence on television will be more tightly controlled. Law and order will be promoted. Yesterday, the Conservatives pledged tough new measures to fight crime and promised an early parliamentary debate on restoring the death penalty.
A new ``poll tax'' requiring most wage and salary earners to pay for local services will replace the old-fashioned ``rates'' (Rates are local taxes based on property value; they take into account such matters as the size of a property and the amenities it has.) In cities such as London, Manchester, and Liverpool, the Tories are planning a massive assault on urban decay.
As the party debates these policies at Blackpool, Thatcher said her third term would, in its radicalism, at least equal her first and second terms. In the past eight years she has forced through major trade union reforms, insisted on the need for tight monetary control, tolerated unemployment running at about 3 million, and transferred a number of large publicly owned corporations into the hands of private shareholders.
The Tories plan to privatize water supplies in Britain. And there are even long-term plans, as yet unveiled, to return coal mines and parts of the steel industry to the private sector.
The Blackpool conference contrasts sharply with the Labour Party meeting. The Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, knows he heads a party reeling from its third heavy electoral defeat in a row.
Despite the forward-thrusting dynamism exhibited by the Tories at Blackpool, it is clear Thatcher and the Conservatives are not entirely without their problems. Some delegates traveled to the conference concerned the prime minister might be unable to push through the next phase of her program as easily as she expects.
One sign of the problem came when ministers commended the poll tax plan to delegates. Thatcher wanted the program to be introduced gradually over four years. But the conference decided this would very likely mean the program was incomplete by the time of the next general election.
If the poll tax turned out to be unpopular with voters, delegates reasoned, the Tories would fight the election under a handicap. So it is now virtually certain the new tax will be introduced over two years, leaving time for its promised benefits to be felt by voters.
On the eve of Blackpool, the chancellor of the exchequer, Nigel Lawson, warned that the Conservative Party needed to broaden its electoral appeal. Some of his colleagues expressed private fears that in the coming legislative session the government might find opposition in the very areas where Mrs. Thatcher seems confident.
There is concern among some Tory MPs and prospective candidates that Thatcher's health and welfare policies, which will likely entail further cuts in services, will be unpopular.
The spirit of the Blackpool conference was perhaps best captured by the party chairman, Norman Tebbit, who said the Tories could be in power for the next 10 years, ``because there is no other party fit to govern.'' The implication was that with or without Margaret Thatcher, Conservative values will likely remain in place for some time.
And on the floor of the conference there were no dissenting voices.