Before trying to interpret this election we might notice what happened at it. Mrs. Thatcher’s victory was unusually decisive in two senses. She won by a bigger margin than any other Opposition leader since the Second World War, and she overcame the general tendency of the British electorate to give only cautious support to a potential prime minister they haven’t seen in office before. The personal polls (“Which leader do you think is most likely to govern the country well?”) had shown Mr. Callaghan well ahead, but an incumbent prime minister always is ahead during an election campaign, especially when, again, the other contender is a newcomer.
Anyway, who saw to it that Mrs. Thatcher got in? Only British middle-class intellectuals—and any American chums they might have—thought her middle-class ways would put the working class off her. In the event, while middle-class Labour support held pretty firm, it was the working-class swing that won the election for the Tories. (The New Statesman was still, after the election, pathetically trying to suggest that Mrs. Thatcher was born to the purple; her father was a small shopkeeper but he left no less than $15,000, the bloody plutocrat!)
The picture begins to clear when we observe that the Labour MPs who lost their seats were mostly left-wing and the survivors mostly social democrats committed to maintain a mixed economy.1 All we need after that is the result of a poll that asked, “Which do you prefer, capitalism or socialism?” Eighty percent preferred capitalism. The essential fact is that quite recently we in this country, unlike you in the United States, have had some socialism along with its inevitable adjuncts, bureaucracy and inefficiency. The British people have seen the future, found it doesn’t work, and want to go somewhere else.
The consequences of the Conservative victory are unlikely to be very marked. Mrs. Thatcher and her ministers haven’t much elbow-room, what with the pitifully, scandalously low productivity of British industry and inflation on the climb again. Inch-by-inch progress and a second term seem their best hope. They can however take great political satisfaction in having inflicted a crushing defeat on Labour, its heaviest since the war and at a time when that always fissile party was nearer than ever before to an actual split. Mr. Callaghan has suffered a grave setback in his attempt to go on getting everyone to behave as if the divide between the left wing and the social democrats were not the most fundamental one in modern British politics. What separates a social democrat from a Liberal or a left-wing Tory is an irrigation ditch in comparison.
Some things the new government can do at once, others it must do. For the first time, education was a major issue in the election. Mrs. Thatcher picked up a lot of votes from parents wanting to be able to…
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