Déjà vu in Britain on eve of election

Margeret Thatcher during her first campaign for prime minister in 1976. Photo: AP Photo

A May election in Great Britain; the third party poised to break through for the first time; a nation facing economic crisis and soaring unemployment; and the British election campaign dominated, as never before, by “American style” campaign advertising, personality politics and trivia.

It all seems so familiar.

Twenty seven years ago, in May 1983, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called an election and ran on her record, mainly of confrontation: confrontation with labor unions, confrontation with the Argentinian junta over the Falkland Islands, and confrontation with the past. Her government had made decision after decision to close down unprofitable state-supported businesses – steel, coal, heavy engineering – and allow unemployment to reach levels unseen since the 1930s. She had fought and won a war for the Falklands, humiliating an Argentinian regime that soon crumbled.

And she had no time for conciliation on the domestic political scene. She so forced the economic issues on her opposition – the Labour Party – that it split apart, with four prominent party moderates creating a new third party, the Social Democrats. But this hardball record worried some in the government, and as Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister, approached the five-year limit of her government, and the judgment of the electorate, something had to be done to soften her image. Enter the spin doctors.

Thatcher admired a yearling during a photo op in 1979. Photo: AP Photo/Bob Dear

Spin and marketing had done her no harm in the 1979 election, when Thatcher had her first makeover. The Conservative Party turned to Charles and Maurice Saatchi, who then ran a hugely successful advertising agency, and a PR wizard named Tim Bell. The assignment was to turn a seemingly harsh and heartless woman politician into a softer, more conciliatory figure.

For the former junior minister of education known as “Thatcher the Milk Snatcher” – after a bout of cost-cutting in schools – her first photo op was surreal. The advance team brought her to (of all places) a dairy farm, where she was pictured sitting awkwardly in a muddy field, reluctantly petting and hugging a young calf. Much speculation followed. If she had a knife, would the Iron Lady turn the calf into veal or fillet the wizard who thought of this turn? But she embraced the image makeover, if that was what it would take to win an election and embark on a makeover of the nation.

Five years later, the spin doctors were back, though the calf was just a long-digested memory. The PR consultants coached her to lower her voice – from a ringing, adversarial clarity to a lower, huskier, if somewhat sinister, purr. Even while purring, she had a five-year record to defend – of unemployment, industrial unrest and war. All her policies were summed up, perhaps apocryphally, in a phrase attributed to her emphatic sotto voce: “There Is No Alternative.” TINA, for short.

Margaret Thatcher was fortunate in her opponents. The then chief of the Labour Party, Michael Foot, was an accidental leader. Given a lineup of, say, 100 Labour MPs and asked to pick one on looks alone, most voters would have put him dead last. Notwithstanding his titanic intellectual credentials as a historian and biographer, and dazzling oratorical skills, he was a dead ringer for the children’s television character Worzel Gummidge. He looked, at most times, as though he had been pulled through a hedge backwards. Disheveled, ill-dressed, sincere and fiery, he was not a candidate for the media age.

Then there were those third-party insurgents, then as now. Since the Labour Party defections, the fledgling Social Democratic Party had trouble fledging. So by May 1983, it had joined in an uneasy alliance with the Liberal Party – the 150-year-old former party of government, which now had only a handful of parliamentary seats clustered in odd pockets across the country. Naturally enough, a longshot campaign combining two parties had two leaders. Both projected a smooth demeanor. Both were known to have a nasty temper. Both were named David (Mr. Steel, the Liberal; Dr. Owen, the Social Democrat). Another children’s story was appropriated – Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

As the campaign loomed, the media consultants were poised to start consulting – for the powerful incumbent, the quirky opponent and the younger team of rivals promising an amazing insurgency. And those of us in TV journalism were set for the mad dash (and grueling marathon) of 25 days of campaigning.

In the Manchester offices of “World in Action” (the “60 Minutes” of the U.K., as we’d describe it to our American colleagues), gloom set in. How do you cover an election in a weekly current affairs broadcast when the newspapers, radio and TV news are covering it hourly? Answer: find a theme.

So, as the youngest, most junior producer on the show, my thoughts turned to the rampant cliche that our election was going to be “the most American-style ever.” I piped up, “Why don’t we get an American correspondent to cover the election for us?”

Forty-eight hours later, I was in Walter Cronkite’s office. But that was just the beginning of the fun.

Stephen Segaller is vice-president of content for WNET.org. He led the development of Need to Know, and is executive in charge of production.

 
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