The British electorate will be going to the polls in May 1997 to elect a new government for the next five years. The result could change the status quo in a profound way. At stake is Britain's relationship with Europe as well as the weight of its defense contribution to the Alliance. A change of government could also alter Britain's constitutional arrangements and lead to devolution of power among the regions of the United Kingdom.
A change of government seems likely because polls indicate the electorate is disenchanted with the Conservative (Tory) party that has been in power for 18 years. Despite a fairly solid economic performance it is 25 points behind in the polls as of March March 16th. Labor's young and dynamic leader, Mr. Tony Blair, is trying to create a new Labor Party which is not controlled by the unions. But, despite some useful party reforms, some shadow cabinet members, MPs and union backers still express strong socialist views.
The British people are not feeling confident as they approach this election. The nation is working harder, but blue collar unions claim that their workers have lost too much financially. Polls show that the middle class is concerned by rising violent crime and British social commentators such as Will Hutton have drawn attention to the growth of an undereducated and unemployable underclass. The divorce rate has risen to the top of the European Union (EU). And, the burden of welfare on the public purse is becoming unbearableCexceeding the next four budget items (including defense) combined. The Confederation of British Industry fears that all the hard won advantages for the economy could be at risk, and there is a genuine public dilemma as to whether further European integration will be good for Britain. There is a public mood of self-doubt which has been reinforced by the recent embarrassments of mad cow disease, the collapse of Barings Bank, and the crisis in the Monarchy. Many things that the older generation regards as key components of its culture and self-respect seem to be weakening, and no sure way of improving things seems in prospect.
This introspective mood is encouraged by a media which has become much more aggressive since the 1980s when parliamentary opposition to the Conservatives was weak. Britain is still a very stable democracy, but public opinion is more volatile now, making government more difficult. Similarly, crisis, crime, and complaint--however minor or regional--are immediately national news in Britain, which is only as big as Wyoming in area, yet has a population of 58 million. This tends to encourage Britons to be pessimistic, even though Britain is still a remarkably safe country, with an average homicide rate which is third lowest in the world according to the U.S. Violence Research Group. Thus, the electorate seems rather doubtful of Britain's economic achievements, half expecting a new recession, even though the United Kingdom now attracts 40% of all Japanese and U.S. investments in the EU and the pound appears to be reversing its steady post-WWII decline.
The Election Issues
Relations with Europe
Europe is the key election issue. Disagreement as to how far Britain should give up sovereignty to European institutions has caused a wide split in the present Government. Skeptics in both main parties do not want Britain to join the European Monetary Union (EMU) because the country's monetary policy would be decided in Frankfurt, not London. The Tories do not want to see the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty applied in Britain, since it could become the means through which the kind of restrictive regulations which are making European labor so uncompetitive would be decided by majority vote in the EU Council. The cost of each employee in Britain is much less than on the Continent because of lower pension, social security contributions and other benefits. Unemployment in Britain has dropped steadily since 1993 and now stands at 6. …