Are Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies at last beginning to boost Britain's sinking economy? At home, many of the voices that grumbled about Mrs. Thatcher's confused leadership at summer's end are now holding their breath, and others are sounding more upbeat.
Abroad, with the US economy edging back toward inflation, and with Australi's Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser narrowly escaping defeat over his Thatcher-like programs, Britain's tight-rein experiment is being watched with increasing interest.
The new hopefulness, to be sure, is loaded with British reserve. Unemployment, already over 2 million, may touch 3 million before turning back. The minimum lending rate, lodged at 16 percent, is spreading havoc even among well-managed manufacturers as diverse as the centuries-old Wedgwood Potteries and the giant and usually successful Imperial Chemical Industries, which recently trimmed more than 4,200 jobs from its synthetic fibers division.
But four recent sets of figures suggest a brightening future.
The first concerns inflation. According to government figures for September, inflation has fallen to 15.9 percent -- with the average for the last three months producing an astonishingly low 8 percent if extended throughout the year.
Compared to 12.8 percent in the United States and 5.5 percent in West Germany , the official 15.9 percent here still seems high. But compared with Britain's August figure of 16.3 percent and the peak in May of 21.9 percent, it marks a faster downturn than many economists expected.
House prices are motionless, and High Street shops feature plenty of cut-rate sales and few price jumps. Many commentators now expect a 12.5 inflation rate by next spring.
A second figure shows the growth of the money supply -- a key measure in the government's bundle of indicators, seen as directly related to inflation. After some runaway growth over the summer, it, too, is coming into line.
Gordon Richardson, the governor of the Bank of England predicted at the annual City of London bankers' banquet Oct. 16 that the demand for borrowing by public and private sectors (the underlying reason for growth in money supply) would fall substantially during the rest of the financial year. Few challenged his forecast.
The third figure, just as welcome but more surprising, concerns the balance of trade -- the amount by which exports exceed imports in this oceanbound trading nation.
Because of an everstrengthening pound (it hit a new 5 1/2-year high Oct. 17, and is now worth more than $2.41), British goods cost more overseas.
Exports have remained high, with September's figures showing a $:369 million ($889 million) surplus over imports.
Pundits, groping for an explanation, note that many British firms are voluntarily cutting profits to retain foreign markets.
They also note that British industry, hungry for work, can meet delivery dates better during a recession -- thus overcoming one of the worst bugbears of a nation that is sometimes seen from abroad as strike-prone and mismanaged.
The fourth figure, which gives credence to Mrs. Thatcher's recently expressed hope for an "autumn of understanding" instead of a winter of discontent, is the 8.2 percent wage increase accepted by 2 million engineering workers.
Last year, after a 10-week series of one- and two-day strikes, the engineers settled for nearly 20 percent. But 130,000 engineering jobs disappeared in the year following the May 1979 election. Now, with the government plugging hard for "single figure" (below 10 percent) wage increases, the engineers have settled for what the government hopes will be a bellweather figure in the manufacturing industries.
Commenting on these recent economic events, the Financial Times newspaper says that "a chapter appears to be closed," that the government is changing its tone from the hectoring to the hopeful, and that "monetarism" is giving way to "fiscal responsibility" -- in other words, to an earnest cutback in government spending.
As a target for its cutbacks, the government is now zeroing in on the nationalized industries -- no doubt spurred by a comment Oct. 17 from US economic guru Milton Friedman (one of Mrs. Thatcher's favorites) that Britain's success depends on controlling an "unbelievely incompetent" civil service.
Ministers note an increasing disparity between the hard-pressed private sector, where bankruptcies are said to be up 50 percent in the last year, and the government-cushioned and more job-secure nationalized industries.
Recent government figures have been presented to highlight the differential. They show, for example, that where price increases over the last five months averaged 3.6 percent across the board, those from the often-monopolistic nationalized industries averaged 9.2 percent.
With substantial price increases pending for electricity, domestic coal, gas, telephone, British Rail and London Transport -- all nationalized enterprises -- the government's focus on public sector wage excesses would appear certain to win public support.