Britain, Making Tracks, Looks Set to Switch Drivers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Britain's last state-run passenger train whistled out of Euston station here one recent night, it evoked nostalgia and knowing smiles: Fifty years after a socialist government nationalized railroads, the farewell service of much-mocked British Rail left 24 minutes late.

Today, 25 profit-seeking franchise holders operate Britain's rail network across tracks, signals and stations owned by a 26th private company, making the privatized railroads a giant symbol of change in a country that has rewritten the rules of its social and economic contract.

If you haven't been paying attention, it's time to consign any "quaint Britain" notions to the trunk of Aunt Harriet's Edsel. Boring, stodgy Old Britain is history. In New Britain, the future's bright, and blue jeans are as cool as tweeds; the free market rules, and the outlook is keenly international.

"When I lived here 20 years ago, it all seemed so gray, dowdy and down at heel. I can't believe the changes," said returning American Brigette Kavanaugh, dazzled by a slick, up-market London and nonstop shops bursting with ethnic foods and fresh produce from around the world.

For the record, the busiest highway in Europe is a section of the 117-mile M25 beltway around London, which was finished in 1986. Only 155 of the 500 richest people in Britain inherited their wealth, according to wealth tracker Philip Beresford. That's 31%, compared with 57% on a similar list in 1989--evidence, he says, that "long-cherished hopes of developing an enterprise culture are at last being realized."

Now comes an election that will crystallize nearly two decades of transformation that Margaret Thatcher, the former prime minister, and her Conservative Party successors claim as their legacy.

The Labor Paradox

Welcome, paradox. The opposition Labor Party, rejected as radical spendthrifts in four consecutive elections since 1979, seems headed for a landslide victory May 1.

Stripping an old workers party of its socialist ethic and pushing it toward the fashionable free-market center, leader Tony Blair has made Labor modish and middle class. With just a week and a half to go, the biggest election question is not whether Labor will win, but by how much.

Is something wrong, then, with Britain's picture of progress? Why should voters shun the establishment Conservative Party and its promise of more of what Prime Minister John Major calls "wealth and welfare"?

One reason is that it is time for a change, voters tell pollsters. Class, historically the Conservatives' ace in the hole, counts for less than ever before. Today, performance--good management--counts most.

Under the beleaguered Major, the Conservatives are torn by internal dissent, especially over Britain's role in a united Europe, and by middling corruption and sexual peccadilloes among lawmakers. Labor, by contrast, seems united under squeaky-clean Blair, who, in a neat reversal of type, was born with a silver spoon and is a lawyer trained at Oxford, the temple of British elitism.

Disaffection with the status quo means that many people are more taken with the train of apparent progress than with its drivers.

"I've done better under the Tories than I could ever have imagined, and I hate change. But the Conservatives all seem tired--like their policies," said Jerl Le Hane, a small-business man in London.

If gains have been enormous for many, they have come at great social cost. And life is still far from equal on both sides of the track.

"Everything is worse--schools, housing, crime, transport," said Eden Braithwaite, a salaried London worker and disenchanted socialist whose parents emigrated from Barbados after World War II. "People are turning to Labor because they seem to be the only alternative, but I don't think they're telling the truth either."

According to official figures, about 90% of Britons are better off in real economic terms today than they were at the end of the '70s, when the weight of militant unions and state-owned rust-bucket industries--steelworks, mines, shipyards--mired the country in strike-bound nonproductiveness.

The 1979 election Thatcher won is sometimes depicted as a showdown between the power of the unions and the power of Parliament.

In office, the prime minister nicknamed the Iron Lady broke the unions' power and turned Britain more quickly and successfully away from a state-dominated economy than governments in Germany, France or Italy did their countries. Today, Britain is growing faster economically than any of its major partners in the European Union, even while it is, as ever, governed far more to the left on social issues than any government in Washington could contemplate.

State schools in Britain are free, including universities. Everyone has access, cradle to grave, to the free national health service. The government is quick to offer job training, unemployment benefits and subsidized housing.

Tellingly, in a country that prizes both the free market and the welfare state, the election debate is not about the wisdom of either but about how to make both work better.

Middle-aged family man Bob Wade is the sort of voter whom Major, Blair and Paddy Ashdown of the third-party Liberal Democrats are all wooing. Not long before Thatcher took office, Wade quit the police force in the city of Coventry after 10 years on the beat, despairing of making ends meet. His sister, in a test of conviction, stayed on the force.

Upward Mobility

Today, Wade lives in the thriving southern town of Reading and is technical operations manager for a computer company. His sister is near the top of the police hierarchy--a detective superintendent. Wade's wife, Anita, after long service as a teacher, completed her master's degree, part of an educational revolution that has seen the share of British students in higher education double in 18 years to about 30%, among the highest in the world.

Wade may savor the changes, but he wants no part of the Conservatives. Either Blair or Ashdown will get his vote. "The government has gone too far against the unions and with the privatizations. Unwilling to invest themselves, they want somebody else to take the blame for them," he said.

On a popular level, change has made Britain more like the United States, its transatlantic cousin.

Evolving lifestyles and an expanded worldview echo in everything from huge increases in foreign travel to the universalization of taste: in clothes, music, movies, TV programs, food. In 1979, there were 38 McDonald's restaurants in Britain. Today, there are 742.

Britain, repaying the compliment, is the largest foreign investor in the United States. It is also attracting 45% of all foreign investment in the 15-nation European Union. Thatcher, who left office in 1990, likes to joke that even she sometimes forgets what Britain was like when she arrived at 10 Downing St. in 1979.

"Inflation then, over 25%; now, under 3%. Top-rate income tax then, 83%; 40% now," she noted recently. "Nationalized industries then, losing 50 million pounds a week; privatized industries now, contributing nearly 60 million pounds a week to the Exchequer [Treasury]. Industrialized relations transformed, productivity transformed, reputation transformed."

Thatcher laments that many people today feel so confident about the British future that they think they can afford a change of government. "They feel that they can change the political faces but preserve the political direction," she said. "The whole of Mr. Blair's strategy in creating the boneless wonder that calls itself New Labor is to reassure the electorate in the illusion. But illusion it remains."

Bill Williamson, a sociologist at Durham University, is not so sure. A middle class solidified by Britain's economic brio is confident enough to vote strategically, he says. Old Labor tied personal goals to the collective welfare. New Labor is attractive to those who believe that the party will manage the market economy better and that Britons will reap the fruits of better health care and education.

'Quality of Hope'

"Those with jobs have never had it so good, thanks to the Thatcher revolution. But there is still a bad distribution of income and ever-greater social exclusion," Williamson said. "I think the quality of hope has declined. Many older people say they live in a less caring society with a diminished sense of community and declining standards of quality. Remember too that one British child in five is born under the poverty line."

At its most visceral, the Conservative message is one of warning to a prosperous New Britain: We're on a winning track, and Labor will derail us.

Blair, who claims the "radical center" of the political spectrum, is scornful. Organized labor is still a linchpin of his party, but Blair says that in a changed nation, there can be no return to the union-led tumult of the '70s.

"The Tories want to refight the election of 1979 rather than that of 1997," Blair said. "All they have left now is to try to scare people. . . . Our task at every turn is to make hope overcome fear. . . . New Labor was created to offer a different and fresh alternative."

In the New Britain, it is not the remaining miners and steelworkers who will elect a government but the middle class, particularly workers and managers in young, growing service and technological industries. The Conservative arias may sound off-key, but Labor is singing remarkably similar lyrics: efficient, honest, well-managed government and steady free-market economic growth with improved welfare programs.

The Conservatives are so far behind in the polls that some analysts have already written their epitaph, as the party that will be drummed from office by a modernist electorate its policies were instrumental in creating.

Major himself, however, never flags. In a campaign encounter emblematic of the New Britain, he came upon voter Alex Brandon one day recently at the airport in Southampton, where she was seeing off her son on a flight to Belgium for a school outing.

Brandon wore shorts and a T-shirt advertising a company she recently formed on the Internet. Cameras on all sides, she found herself explaining it all to the prime minister.

"I congratulate you on the company and wish you luck," Major said. "I myself will not need any."

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