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British parties move toward a blander middle


London--David Owen, foreign secretary in a Labor government, then a founder of the now-defunct Social Democrats, is considering becoming a member of the Conservative Party.

His mobility would be of marginal interest, except that it serves to illustrate the major political dynamic of the post-Thatcher era: consensus politics.

There is now less difference between the two major parties here than there has been for decades. The battle at the next election will be between the comparatively gray leaders of two moderate parties for the middle ground; the major issue will be which of them can best manage a free-market economy.

Gone is the radical left-right choice that has traditionally characterized post-World War II elections here, bedeviling the country with swings to and from central control and in and out of public ownership.

One of Margaret Thatcher's abiding aims was the creation of a United States-style electoral choice, between two parties broadly committed to personal freedom, free enterprise and minimal government interference.

It is some measure of the extent of her success that a politician of Dr. Owen's stature can contemplate moving from one end of the political spectrum to the other as no longer a forbidden ideological journey.

Under new Prime Minister John Major, the Tories have set about creating "caring Conservatism," shedding the "uncaring" image of Thatcherism and challenging Labor's claim to the politics of concern.

The first example came this month with the government's decision to compensate hemophiliacs infected with the AIDS virus through treatment administered by the National Health Service.

Mrs. Thatcher rejected any such gesture, arguing that the infections were accidental. Since there was no negligence, there was no financial liability she ruled.

Mr. Major decided otherwise, falling into line with Labor's demands for compensation.

Then, Health Secretary William Waldegrave signaled that the new government wanted to improve its relationship with the medical professions, soured by the previous confrontational style. Mrs. Thatcher viewed the medical and legal professions as two of the last bastions of vested interests and set about reforming them.

The current retreat from deliberate political strife and stridency is now most regularly on display in the House of Commons. The character of the twice-weekly Prime Minister's Question Time has undergone dramatic change since Mrs. Thatcher left the prime ministry.

The ritual parry and thrust, frequently vitriolic, between Mrs. Thatcher and Labor leader Neil Kinnock has given way to a more conciliatory exchange. For the first time in living memory one question this month time was so orderly and brisk that Mr. Major actually ran out of questions to answer.

As Matthew Parris, a writer for The Times, noted: "He has stumbled on a secret, lost for eleven years. You do not have to disagree with everything the opposition says."

The sea-change was not lost on Andrew Gimson, political commentator for The Independent, either. He wrote: "No wonder there is a sense of relief among many Conservative MPs.

"They are like pupils in a school which has long been run by an extremely strict headmistress. She has just been replaced by a headmaster who lets them say and do what they like. They are even encouraged to fraternize with pupils from the rival establishment across the way, who used to be considered a pack of dirty socialists."

For its part, the Conservatives' rival, the Labor Party, has spent the recent past moving from left wing toward the center. There is some residual socialist chest-beating, such as the assertion that it is the natural party to respond to enduring public dissatisfaction with the social services, particularly health and education.

It also espouses a limited return to public ownership of central services privatized by Mrs. Thatcher, but, more significantly, it rules out the sort of mass re-nationalization to which it was previously committed.

It is using the plight of the economy to bolster its claim to being better able than the Tories to manage the free-market economy. It is no keener on European federalism than was Mrs. Thatcher.

Labor has broadly modernized and moderated its policies to present itself as a credible alternative government, but it is now confronting a new situation where consensus is more politically fashionable than confrontation.

An increasingly unpopular Mrs. Thatcher was the opposition's best electoral asset, all but guaranteeing Labor's success at the next election. Her departure reversed the opinion polls overnight; Mr. Kinnock is again the underdog.

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