Britain: Turmoil Right and Left

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Thatcher purges, Labor fissions, and here come the Social Democrats The London Sun called it "Maggie's Monday Massacre," and it indeed turned out to be a purification rite more sweeping in its execution than the experts had anticipated. In a ruthless purge of her Cabinet last week. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cast aside dissenters from her strict monetarist economic policies and replaced them with unstinting loyalists to her stern anti-inflation credo. The action further split her already deeply divided Tory party and set the stage for a political season of unrivaled tumult and upheaval.

British politics as a whole was in a rich and rare state of disarray, only in part caused by the country's critical economic condition. Even as the Conservatives were digging in deeper on the right, the opposition Labor Party was in danger of being hijacked by its extreme left. Laborites were preparing for a bruising and perhaps fateful showdown this Sunday between the extremists and its old-line socialist faithful at the party conference in Brighton. Meanwhile the new Social Democratic Party, formed last March when a group of prominent Laborites broke away because of the party's leftward lurch, forged an alliance last week with the centrist Liberal Party. Object: to capture the moderate middle, Parliament and No. 10 Downing Street.

The next general election could still be as far as two years off, but the notion of an alliance victory no longer seems farfetched. The latest Market & Opinion Research International poll showed such a Social Democratic-Liberal coalition getting a 41% approval rating. By contrast, Labor trailed with only 31%, and the Conservatives received a mere 25%, the lowest rating registered for any ruling party since Labor hit its nadir during the 1976 monetary crisis.

The reasons for the Tory woes were obvious enough. The grim economic statistics showed no sign of the turnaround that was supposed to follow from Thatcher's austerity measures. Unemployment is now close to the 3 million mark, or 12.2% of the work force, the highest since the worst Depression years of the 1930s. Yet inflation, which last week jumped to 11.5%, has not yet been "wrung out" of the economy, and that was the chief aim of Thatcher's monetarism. North Sea oil revenues have suffered from the international oil glut, and much of the treasury's eroded bonanza has had to pay for unemployment benefits. The fiercest riots in Britain in a century exploded last summer in cities throughout the country, reflecting not only deep racial problems but the bitter resentment of the young who could not find work.

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