Foreign Correspondent: Britain's Looming Choice


Kingston-on-Thames. At present, British politics are dominated by speculation over the date of the next general election. Legally, the present Parliament—which was elected in October, 1974—can run until October, 1979. But everybody expects the Labour Prime Minister, James Callaghan, to hold an election before then. Indeed, it is pretty certain that he would hold an election now if he thought he had a 50-50 chance of winning. His party no longer has a majority in the House of Commons. He can no longer hope to get controversial socialist legislation passed, and he is sustained in office by a pact with the 12 liberal MPs, who fear that they would be annihilated at the polls were an election held this year.

Callaghan's only hope of survival lies in the effect of North Sea oil on the balance of payments and on government revenue. Popular tax cuts and a feeling that Britain has "turned the corner," he reckons, might make Labour popular enough to win if the election could be held in October, 1978, or later.

At the moment Labour is intensely unpopular. Local government elections this spring, and Parliamentary by-elections caused by the death or retirement of sitting MPs, have been shattering for the Labour Party. Inflation is still running at over 17 percent and unemployment is well over the one million mark.

So the Conservative Party must be regarded as the firm favorite to form the next government. From the libertarian standpoint, this would be a change for the better—although that claim needs to be qualified in a number of ways. The Conservatives, or the Tories, do reduce personal taxation when they are in office. They have never done it to the extent of making Britain into a relatively low-taxed country, but some increase in the proportion of income that you are allowed to spend yourself is a normal feature of Tory rule. For small mercies one must be thankful.

Very well, but Labour may be cutting taxes too. The larger and more important question is to what extent the Tories would try to make a difference in the relationship between the individual and the State in Britain. Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, the Tory leader, has spoken privately with some force about the need to change the recent course of British history. Given the steady leftward drift in Labour policy—particularly as evidenced in party (as opposed to governmental) documents calling for further State takeovers of, for example, the big banks and insurance companies—it is possible to see Britain in a few years time as an East European-style socialist society in all important respects.

The next Tory government may be our last chance to change course. But the depressing thing about the Tory party is the absence of a positive, concrete program for doing so. Mrs. Thatcher is tough and vigorous, but she talks for the most part in abstract generalities. She is evasive when pushed onto specific issues.

The Tories are not proposing to take any industry—such as iron and steel—out of State control, which is already in that grip. Much could be achieved, in time, by leaving the present State sector as it is, provided that the industries and enterprises concerned were deprived of their monopoly status. The Tories are not proposing to do even that.

True, Mrs. Thatcher has talked privately about such an idea in a favorable way. But we get no sign of it in the official statements of the Tory party. Perhaps the Conservatives will learn. The books of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and even old Bastiat, are in favor in leading Tory circles in a way that they have never been before. No harm, and maybe some good, can come of that.

The public as a whole, nonetheless, is far from ready for the full libertarian message. But the British remain, in fact if not in effect, a profoundly anti-socialist nation. There never has been a recorded popular majority for Labour in any general election in this country.

On the practical day-to-day level one is bound to be pessimistic about the future. In the longer term I believe the British will get out of the grasp of collectivism. If challenged, however, I am obliged to admit that this is more a matter of faith than reason.

Be sure, though, that within a year of the Tories taking office we shall know whether Britain is fated for full collectivism, at least for a generation, or whether the issue remains open. The fact that the latter is the outer limit of rational optimism tells you much about the condition of Britain.