Britain: Embattled but Unbowed

As Britain reels from recession and political turmoil, Thatcher soldiers on

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As Britain reels from recession and political turmoil, Thatcher soldiers on

Even by the rowdy standards of the House of Commons' "cheer and jeer" debate, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was in for a bruising confrontation as she rose from the government front bench last week to answer hostile opposition challenges about the country's unemployment, the worst since the 1930s. Days earlier, when she wore a black dress, Labor M.P. William Hamilton had pointed a taunting finger at her and inquired derisively, "Is she dressed in black because of the unemployment figures?" Now she was meticulously turned out in a tailored gray suit, a soft white bow at her neck, to face another onslaught. In her coolly accented voice, she delivered a forceful and familiar message: only sound money and competitive industry can bring down inflation and eventually create new jobs for Britain.

From the Labor benches jumped M.P. Dennis Skinner, a militant leftist. Stabbing at the air, he roared, "Same old story!" Thatcher, coming alive, snapped back, "Of course, it's the same old story. Truth usually is the same old story." Almost menacingly, Skinner leaned toward her and charged, "We'll get you out—either in this place or outside it." The threat of going outside Parliament to bring down a government brought gasps from many M.P.s. Thatcher did not flinch. "Rubbish," she replied. Then she added, "Indeed, he is the face of the true new Labor Party—not of its democrats—but those who have moved further and further left, towards the East European type of economy." Again came a momentary hush, and then Tory M.P.s broke into cheers at this flash of their leader's steel knuckles.

But hardly had Thatcher faced down her parliamentary opponents than she was confronted by successive challenges on the industrial front. The leader of the gigantic Trades Union Congress and the head of the Confederation of British Industry both lodged urgent demands that she act promptly to reflate the economy or "there'll be nothing left to revive," as one unionist put it. Word came of an impending collision between the government and unions representing 32,000 waterworks employees, who had just turned down a proposed 10% pay boost. The chief union negotiator for 583,000 civil service workers furiously rejected a 6% pay raise offered by Thatcher's government bargainers. Said he: "I told them to get stuffed." Through it all, the Prime Minister stood fast last week. In a TV appearance from No. 10 Downing Street, she had scoffed at past governments that "have taken fright and cut and run" when the going got tough. Said she: "If I could only get this message over: I will not stagger from expedient to expedient."

Few other Britons were quite as unruffled. The country has been stumbling ever deeper into the throes of its worst recession since the soup kitchen days of the 1930s. Unemployment has climbed to its highest mark since the Great Depression: 2.4 million jobless, or 10% of the work force, and the grim predictions are that it could reach a watershed mark of 3 million before the end of the year. As the lines of the jobless have lengthened, businessmen as well as trade unionists have despaired. Interest rates have hit unprecedented levels, as

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