Lessons to be learnt on the feverish streets of Britain
ON MY way to Augusta, Georgia, for the Masters golf tournament, I stopped off in London for a few days. Election fever was in the air. Page after page and hours of television were being devoted to the battle between John Major and Tony Blair to occupy 10 Downing Street.
It is a battle which the Conservatives appear certain to lose, bringing to an end 18 years of Tory rule. What makes this contest different is that it is not a battle of ideas, a clash of values with the Tories on the side of the market and Labour champions of collectivism.
Ironically, Major and his party are struggling for survival in a booming economy, so strong that interest rates might well have to be raised which will make the pound even stronger and the task of Britain's exporters all the more difficult.
It is curious that in Europe's most successful economy the ruling party is more than 20% behind in opinion polls. Ah, the beauty of a genuine two-party system in which voters have a real choice and can hold the feet of politicians to the fire.
What is fascinating is to compare, as the Tory press is gleefully doing, just how complete is Labour's conversion to a belief in the market as the most effective means of the allocation of scarce resources and away from the notion that state intervention is the key to growth, harmony and prosperity.
In 1986, when Margaret Thatcher was creating the revolution which turned Britain around, young Tony Blair was just another socialist in denial. This is what he said then: "Privatisation is destroying the idea of public service in Britain. The interests of consumers are being sacrificed on the altar of big business."
Last week the Tony Blair of 1997, on the verge of becoming Prime Minister, said this: "Where there is no over-riding reason for preferring the public provision of goods and services - particularly where those services operate in a competitive market - then the presumption should be that economic activity is best left to the private sector, with market forces being encouraged to operate."
Our own Madiba, of course, had his Damascene conversion from the siren call of socialism to belief in the efficacy of markets, imperfect as they may be. His awakening was clearly not politically motivated. He could have run on a flat-earth platform and won hands down, and it is testimony to both the calibre of his intellect and his intellectual integrity that, as soon as he was exposed to the realities of the new global economy, he rapidly shifted away from his commitment, made as he left Pollsmoor, to nationalisation as fundamental to ANC policy.
As we have noted, the Tories are in trouble in spite of what seems to be a strong economy. However, there is evidence that many of the British feel that their quality of life is not improving, even if they are making more money. There are studies which measure economic growth, not only in terms of hard numbers, but also factoring the effects of, for example, increasing crime and pollution. In South Africa's case, given our crime epidemic and littered streets, our measures would probably be in negative territory even if we achieved Trevor Manuel's target of 6% growth.