In March the huge British car ferry Herald of FreeEnterprise turned turtle outside the harbor of Zeebrugge. More than a hundred passengers died as the dark waters rushed in and the vessel’s floor abruptly became its ceiling. The disaster was followed by the traditional disclaimers of fault or liability by the owners and by the government ministers responsible for transport. The usual stuffed-shirt inquiry was set up.
The inquiry proved more illuminating than is common ina country where secrecy blankets most of the operations of business and government. The good ship Free Enterprise was found to have been structurally unsound for some time. Its proprietors were found to have been well aware of the fact but unwilling to make the investment necessary to put matters right. Many warnings about the unseaworthiness of the Free Enterprise had been ignored. Efforts had been made to blame the catastrophe on the shortcomings of the crew.
No less fascinating was the testimony of the survivors. Asthe Free Enterprise was dramatically turned into a collective hell, there was little of the staunch reserve that distinguished the passengers on the Titanic. One man told of seeing his wife pushed away from a secure ledge by two younger men and drowning, disregarded, in the oily tide. Others had stories that were hardly less appalling. One man had, however, saved England’s honor. Seeing a five-foot gap over a hazardous drop that separated danger from safety, he had fallen across it like the span of a bridge and had called on people to walk across him. As many as half a dozen lives were saved by his incomparable act.
In the rather shabby election campaign that is currentlybeing fought in the United Kingdom, one of the few points of interest is the collision of values. According to the reigning orthodoxy that is so sedulously propagated by Margaret Thatcher, the human-bridge fellow was a sucker. In her ideal society, the only principle worth preaching or following is “Every man for himself.’ The harvest of this is plain for all to see, with more than 11 percent unemployment and the spread of a dismal underclass through the growing innercity wastelands. The gradual collapse of health care and higher education, as the Treasury ax falls on the softer parts of the society, is likely to be the Prime Minister’s most enduring monument. There are, of course, rivals for that distinction. One such might be the Trident missile system, a $15 billion project which would give Britain, on its own, the ability to strike Moscow with nuclear warheads. For this, the last of the imperial illusions, there is always money. The sweatshop rules of Friedmanite economics do not apply to subsidies for business and the military.
The map of social relations has altered in precisely theway one might expect, given such priorities. When Thatcher came to power, in 1979, the income share of the top 10 percent was six and a half times greater than that of the bottom 10 percent. Now it is eight time greater and climbing. Wealth statistics show the same tendency, with the top 1 percent now owning 175 times the average of the bottom 50 percent. In 1979 the number of British people who managed to live at or below the line at which they qualified for “relief’ was 6.1 million. Today, it has almost doubled. It’s not as if Britain was free of class differences before the advent of the brave new Toryism; all the same, it’s striking to see inequality and greed given such a ringing official endorsement.
The Conservatives have been able to get away with a gooddeal during their eight-year tenure because their term in office has coincided with the good fortune of Britain as an oil-producing nation. The oil deposits in the North Sea, brought on shore by a major effort of public investment, have provided a cushion for a declining manufacturing sector. But most of the revenues have been squandered on paying unemployment benefits to the millions in enforced idleness, thereby using the dole queue to bust trade union resistance. This is the background to the boasted low rate of inflation. You can fill in the “quality of life’ corollaries for yourself.
Visibly delighted at her own performance in office, andsurrounded by yes men and sycophants, Thatcher decided last month to call an early vote. Most of the initial auguries seemed good for her, with the Labor Party disabled by internal strife and the glitzy centrist Alliance moving off its peak of support among the undecided and the apolitical.
But almost as soon as she called for a fresh mandate,Thatcher was undone by her own hubris. She made the giant mistake of saying, in those grating tones that have been the excruciating background to the past eight years, that she would like a fourth term as well as the third one she was currently seeking. At those words a sort of shudder ran right through the nation. Strong men and women gagged on their glasses of stout, and even hardened Fleet Street hands blanched. Thatcher’s regime has already begun to take on a distinctly Gaullist tinge, with fainthearts ruthlessly hounded from the Cabinet, and police power employed without discrimination against those who dissent. There is an inchoate feeling that the mighty lady needs a reminder of her own mortality. If Labor can articulate this democratic and popular emotion, it could just confound the experts.
Things and be expected to get dirty before the Tories willeven consider giving ground. On May 24 an alarmist document was leaked to the Conservative press. Purporting to come from the desk of Gen. Bernard Rogers, the retiring head of NATO land forces, it threatened a complete cutoff of American military cooperation with Britain in the event of a Labor victory. The document has been disowned as a forgery by the Pentagon, and very probably it is one. But the happy timing of its release allowed Thatcher to announce over the radio that it was the sort of thing her friend Ronald Reagan might be contemplating if the British electorate ever dared to be ungrateful for the United States‘ “umbrella.’ This is the sort of thing that is dreamed up on the bridge of the Herald of Free Enterprise. The odds are still against it, but should Labor find the courage to call Thatcher’s bluff, it might be able to unite the passengers and stop them from fighting wretchedly among themselves.