Changing the guard at Downing Street Labor victory: Fresh faces in British cabinet will promise modest shifts in policy.


AFTER 18 YEARS of Conservative Party curtailment of the welfare state, the British electorate has thrown the rascals out, .. but not for a change in direction. The British were tired of the corruption that creeps in when any political party rules too long. A broad consensus exists about the social and economic system. The Labor Party's triumph, this time, means no ideological revolution but a change in management.

Tony Blair has won a splendid victory. To get to the prime minister's house at 10 Downing Street, he benefited from years of struggle to remake the Labor Party to command the support of nearly half the British people and the acquiescence of the rest. The Tories are through for now, but resilient. Their campaign established that Prime Minister John Major was not the Conservative Party's hapless liability but its great asset. Nonetheless, he and it are consigned to the wilderness.

Labor underwent a change of substance more than of image. It now appeals to people of any station. While trying to show a marginally more humane face on social issues, it proclaims as its own the former Tory virtues of the free market, lower taxes, privatized industry and reduced welfare. This election is a reversal of 1951, when the British threw out the Labor government that established the welfare state for a 13-year rule nTC by four Conservative prime ministers (Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home) they trusted to run it better.

Americans can expect to see continuity in the Anglo-American shared view of world affairs, in the Anglo-Irish search for peace and consent in Northern Ireland, and in European economic integration pursued with less enthusiasm than is shown in Bonn and Paris.

Mr. Blair is at 43 the youngest recent British prime minister. (The younger William Pitt made it at 24 in 1783.) He is a glib, educated, man on the make with a grin wider than his face. Detractors consider him a Clinton clone.

Taking a page from the New Democrats, he calls his party New Labor. "New" may have helped persuade British voters that Labor had chucked its outdated socialism but also signifies inexperience. Mr. Blair was not in Parliament when Labor last ruled. Most of his cabinet will have had no governing experience.

The British system of a strong civil service allows governments to come in as policy-setters. Even so, the Blair government must be expected to make early mistakes. It has won a strong mandate and will be around for a long time.

Pub Date: 5/02/97

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