Although Americans might think political campaigns in the United States bring out the worst in political rhetoric, it is the British who seem to be the masters of verbal abuse.
The traditional image of British eloquence and understatement is still around, of course, but increasingly it seems to be overwhelmed by a heavy dose of verbal venom as the British political scene grows more confrontational daily.
The favorite labels have to do with images of Nazism, fascism, Stalinism and other assorted pejorative comparisons. Both the government and its opposition invoke these emotion-stirring images, but it is the government that seems to call on them most often.
The heated rhetoric is clearly a reflection of a coal miners's strike, the longest and most violent ever, now in its eighth month. The object of the government's invective is Arthur Scargill, the fiery, Marxist leader of the striking National Union of Mineworkers, and the cadre of miners manning the picket lines, who clash almost daily with police.
Scargill, to put it mildly, is despised by the Conservative government. The miners' leader also tends to use rhetoric that stirs emotions, but he seems to stay away from the more provocative labels.
In July, the home secretary in Thatcher's Cabinet, Leon Brittain, said that "freedom and democracy are in danger and indeed under frontal attack from Scargill and his storm troopers."
That same month, at a time when the miners and the state-run National Coal Board were in the middle of the longest string of negotiating sessions to try to end the strike, Brittain warned the miners publicly against "jackboot methods."
Later in July, Thatcher delivered a speech to a conservative group in which she said: "We had to fight the enemy without in the Falklands, and now we have to fight the enemy within, which is much more difficult but just as dangerous to liberty."
The statement outraged miners and many Labor Party members of Parliament, who viewed it as "squalid," as member Ted Rowlands put it, for the prime minister to compare the Argentine invaders of the Falklands with the miners.
After a summer recess, the duels resumed.
In his keynote speech opening the annual Labor Party convention in Blackpool Oct. 1, conference chairman Eric Heffer described Thatcher's conservative policies as "a sort of top-hatted fascism."
That same day, Scargill stole the spotlight at a Labor conference, condemning the British police for what he called "state-controlled violence" against pickets and Thatcher for "the economics of the madhouse." He made clear that the miners are fighting against "the whole concept of this government's economic policy" and called a judge's contempt-of-court ruling against him "utter nonsense" with which he would not comply.
When the Conservative Party convention opened Oct. 9, Thatcher's energy minister, Peter Walker, described Scargill as "a Stalinist" who is "well aware that he will never realize his Stalinist-Marxist dreams through the ballot box."
Condemning Scargill's failure to allow a national ballot of miners on the strike (about 50,000 of Britain's 180,000 miners continue to work), Walker said, "the British people are facing a challenge to our whole way of life" from a strike that has "little to do with the coal industry and everything to do with a Marxist challenge to the roots of parliamentary democracy that will not succeed."
Then in the early-morning hours of Oct. 12, an IRA terrorist bomb blew up at the Conservative convention's hotel headquarters, nearly killing Thatcher and much of her Cabinet.
In a rousing speech later that same day, Thatcher condemned the terrorists. But in that same speech she also condemned the "thugs and bullies" creating violence on picket Without directly referring to the miners or Scargill, she said, "What we have seen in this country is the emergence of an organized revolutionary minority . . . whose real aim is the breakdown of law and order and the destruction of democratic parliamentary government."
Gerald Kaufman, the shadow home secretary in the opposition Labor Party, accused Thatcher of subtly lumping the IRA terrorists with other political foes and implying that those who oppose her domestic policies are also enemies of democracy.