MARGARET THATCHER's principal difficulty, as she enters her second decade in office, is that the achievements of her first decade are increasingly taken for granted by the British public. Ten years ago, the British economy was mired in ``stagflation'' - a combination of high inflation and zero growth. Today it is enjoying its eighth year of rising real prosperity. Ten years ago, a rash of strikes by over-mighty unions brought the country to a halt. Even the dead went unburied. Today, the unions have been brought within the law, with the result that Britain has fewer strikes than almost any other industrial country.
Ten years ago, Britain had only recently called in the International Monetary Fund to help pay the bills. Today the British government is running a large annual surplus.
Are these achievements permanent? Or will a future Labour government overturn them? The best sign of their permanence is that the various opposition parties, however reluctantly, have adapted to Thatcherite priorities. Inflation, not unemployment, is now the great bugaboo of British politics to be avoided at all costs. Every Labour policy proposal is carefully advertised as ``non-inflationary.'' Labour may raise the top tax rate from 40 to 50 percent, but there is no talk of any return to pre-Thatcher levels of 83 and 98 percent. Trade union laws may be amended at the edges, but the union anarchy of 1979 is gone forever. Neil Kinnock goes so far as to describe Labour's new approach as ``socialist individualism.''
Thatcherism, then, is here to stay. So is Mrs. Thatcher any longer necessary? Her opponents argue that Thatcherite prosperity has been bought at too high a price in social divisiveness - picket line violence, football hooliganism, yuppie greed - which must now be remedied. And given the existence of a large government surplus, they argue further, the nation can now afford a little more collective compassion from Mr. Kinnock or the center parties to do just that. Opinion polls suggest that this soothing syrup is exactly what the nation wants.
This jumble of charges has no organizing logic other than partisan malice. As regards greed and hooliganism, Prime Minister Thatcher is being blamed for the vices of human nature. And as for industrial strife, she could never have brought powerful unions within the law if she had not been prepared to face down picket violence.
Nor is she unprepared to spend money. She has recently embarked on ambitious programs of environmental and ``infrastructure'' improvement. But her social programs are of a distinctly Thatcherite kind, designed to revive initiative and independence among the victims of 30 years of socialist dependency. Tenants of run-down, low-income housing. Parents with children in the blackboard jungle. Victims of inner-city decay. ``Social Thatcherism'' is based on the idea of individuals, businesses, and community groups helping the poor to help themselves out of dependency, rather than government's helping them into it. Government would assist volunteerism, not replace it.
Legislation to extend parental power in schools and tenant power in government low-income housing is only now coming into effect, and reviving lost habits of virtue is a slow task. But social Thatcherism could replace the morality of social compassion if the Tory government should win another term.
Which looks likely. Thatcher remains in a strongly political position despite the occasional by-election defeat - indeed, maybe because of it. Just as the American voter achieves balance in government by electing a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, so the British voter aims for the same end by voting in a Tory government at general elections but voting for opposition candidates in midterm by-elections. In effect, the voters warn ministers not to go too far. And ministers pay attention. Thatcher's health service reforms, for instance, far from overthrowing the idea of ``socialized medicine,'' are based firmly on the principle that the patient must continue to have free access to health care.
This is a semi-constitutional arrangement that works well. Since it gives the voters what they want, why should they take the needless, additional risk of voting for a Labour government? Even if Labour in power could be trusted to protect Thatcher's legacy of increased prosperity and wider share ownership (which some voters might legitimately doubt), they know that it is not easy to accomplish these things. It requires courageous leadership, sensible, down-to-earth views, and a willingness to stand up to hostile forces, from the miners union to the Irish Republican Army.
They have seen that Margaret Thatcher possesses these qualities; they are not certain that anyone else does. That is why they will continue voting for her at election time.