ALTHOUGH former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was forced out of office more than a year ago, the Thatcher era in Britain will truly end next month, when British voters elect a new government. On April 9 caretaker Prime Minister John Major, the Conservative Party leader, will get a new lease on 10 Downing Street with his own electoral mandate, or Neil Kinnock will become the first Labour Party premier since 1979.
The coup by Conservative members of Parliament against Mrs. Thatcher in November 1990 eliminated three issues that were dragging the party down in opinion polls. First was Thatcher herself, who was regarded by many Britons as having become too imperious. Second was the hated "poll tax," which taxed rich and poor equally for local services; Mr. Major quickly rescinded it. Third was Thatcher's implacable opposition to European economic and political union; though with some reservations, the Major governmen t is riding the tide toward a more integrated Europe.
But Thatcher's ouster hardly clinched victory for the Conservatives. Major, though competent, doesn't inspire Thatcherite passion among true believers. Also, the Major government has presided over the longest recession in Britain since the '30s.
Moreover, the Labour Party - for years the party of the unions, socialism, and unilateral disarmament - has jettisoned its most radical positions. Many middle-class voters now regard Labour as a safe alternative to the Tories.
The next prime minister faces a big task. After the burst of economic energy imparted by early Thatcherism, Britain seems weary. Thatcher's free-market reforms, though important, benefited yuppies in the south more than working people in the north, and even those gains are being eroded by inflation and recession.
Even more worrisome for the long term, Britain's relative lack of entrepreneurial drive and of an educated, mobile work force - problems compounded by the country's persistent class rigidities - threatens to make it an economic backwater in a dynamic European Community.
Britain's next leader must guide it to a post-Thatcher vision.