LONDON — What disturbs the British most about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's stand on South Africa is not her abrasiveness--they are accustomed to that. It is her apparent loss of political acumen, which lays her open to the gravest political charge of all--incompetence. Thatcher appears adrift from domestic opinions, heedless that her international wounds may be self-inflicted.
For a long time now, one of the truisms in British politics has been that highly publicized infighting is the preserve of the opposition Labor Party. Today, however, the most visible upheavals are within Thatcher's ruling Conservatives, who face their most damaging internal discord in 20 years. Then, the issue that divided the party was support from its vocal right wing for white minority rule in what is now Zimbabwe. Today, the divisive issue is South Africa. At first glance, the prime minister's outspoken comments in June about the "immorality" of punitive sanctions against the Pretoria regime merely seemed another example of her combative style. But many of her Conservative colleagues were horrified. "You could feel a shock wave run through the party," one senior Tory MP commented privately. "How could anything be more immoral than apartheid?"
Thatcher's comments flew in the face of a growing consensus that Britain has a special moral duty to help dismantle apartheid. A report last week by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, made up of six Tories and three Labor members, lamented that "apartheid as a legal system was made possible by the British Parliament's release of its responsibilities for the non-white population in 1909."
Most Tories now acknowledge that sterner measures against Pretoria are inevitable. The party even has an activist liberal group on the South Africa issue. During a South African government-sponsored visit last year, three Conservative MPs broke from the main group to visit the township of Soweto and the Crossroads squatter camp, and met with black leaders of the United Democratic Front. On their return, they launched a group called Conservatives For Fundamental Change in South Africa, which now claims the support of at least 50 MPs.
It has not been a good year for Thatcher. Since the January debacle over the Westland helicopter deal, she has seen her personal popularity fall to a new low. Reflexive Labor-bashing at home no longer wins easy points. Over the last three years, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, the Labor Party has recovered much of its reputation. Recent polls demonstrate that voters are dissatisfied with the decline in Britain's public health care and social services.
Thatcher's support for the U.S. bombing raid on Libya was bitterly resented here; a series of routine domestic policy debates in the House of Commons have been bungled badly by the government. Perhaps more damaging still has been the evident friction between Queen Elizabeth II and her Prime Minister. "Queen Dismayed by Uncaring Thatcher," ran the headline for a controversial June article in the Sunday Times of London.
Tory disquiet grew with Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe's humiliating rebuff last month by South Africa President Pieter W. Botha. The staunchly conservative Daily Telegraph called the Howe trip "a massive error which has exposed the Commonwealth to dangerous and unnecessary trauma." Last week's mini-summit of Commonwealth nations--where Britain was joined by Zambia, Zimbabwe, Canada, India, Australia and the Bahamas--did little to heal the wounds. The limited sanctions that Thatcher grudgingly agreed to--a "voluntary ban" on new investment and tourism promotion, and a ban on the import of South African iron, steel, coal and gold Krugerrands--will buy only a little time. And time, as Thatcher must recognize, is not on her side.
Her dilemma is now heightened by the mobilization of conservative right wingers, alarmed by what they see as a drift toward pragmatism and an abandonment of ideological orthodoxy within the Cabinet. They have chosen to make their defiant stand over South Africa, "to keep the Conservative Party conservative," as one put it.
Traditional old guard Tories--known here as "hangers and floggers"--remain deeply attached to the values of a long-dead imperial past, and decry groups like Conservatives For Fundamental Change as "a disgrace to the party." In South Africa, as in Rhodesia, their argument plays heavily on Britain's obligations to its "kith and kin"--the roughly 2 million South African whites of British descent.
The Tory right has also actively promoted British investment in South Africa, which reaped handsome profits of some 3 million pounds sterling ($4.5 million U.S.) between 1975 and 1983. Firms with subsidiaries or associates in South Africa accounted for more than half the contributions received by the Conservative Party in 1985.