THE durability of the Anglo-American ``special relationship'' is one of those phenomena to be filed under the heading of ``The more it changes, the more it's the same thing.'' Never mind the new Europe, North American free trade, the wonders of the Pacific Rim: Britain and the United States are ``allies'' in a way the other partners in the multinational coalition against Iraq aren't quite. One wonders if Margaret Thatcher regrets being off the scene at a time of so much action. And yet John Major's succession as Conservative Party leader, and hence prime minister, will probably do more for Thatcherism than Mrs. Thatcher herself could have done had she remained in office.
He has already managed one significant accomplishment: He has reversed her minus 46 percent approval rating (in October and November) by registering a positive 46 percent approval on his own by the end of January. That is to say, 46 percent more Britons disapproved of Mrs. Thatcher's performance last fall than approved, and now 46 percent more approve Mr. Major's than disapprove. ``That means 46 out of 100 voters changed their mind,'' notes Robert Worcester, chairman of MORI Inc., the polling firm whose numbers these are. ``That's the biggest shift since Winston Churchill took over from Neville Chamberlain.''
It's too early for a larger assessment of Mr. Major as a statesman, but the view is widely held that he's the right man for the times. During the recent mortar attack on 10 Downing Street, for instance, his calm suggestion that the Cabinet to another venue was just what was needed.
The figures for the Conservative Party's standing have likewise improved, though not quite enough for an election: a 6 percent swing, corresponding, in US terms, to a 12-point improvement.
The dark shadow over all this, says Mr. Worcester, is that MORI's Economic Optimism Index is showing a net minus 30 percent - 30 percent more voters are pessimistic than optimistic. ``Until that swings around, Major is not in position to call and win a general election,'' Worcester says.
One of the major problems is that the country is in a recession as it endures high interest rates intended to bring down inflation. One of the significant achievements of Thatcher's government was to bring so many working-class people into homeownership, and hence the Conservative Party, by selling them their ``council flats,'' or public housing units.
But this strategy is backfiring for the moment: 80 percent of those 25 to 44 are paying mortgages, and with interest rates in the middle teens, many of these nouveaux Tories are ready to bolt and return to Labour. Having to pay the plumber at 50 pounds a visit to repair burst water pipes during the recent cold snap hasn't helped either.
To respond to these concerns, the Major government cut the so-called base rate, a key lending rate, by half a point last week to 13.5 percent. This was ``intended to send a message of improvement in the economy,'' says Worcester, without weakening the pound - ``not enough to scare the gnomes of Zurich,'' as he puts it. He expects subsequent cuts next month and then again in April, in advance of the local elections in early May. The results of those contests will suggest the timing of the next general election, which must be held by mid-1992, though some expect it earlier.
Politics teaches the importance of timing for both people and ideas, of knowing when it is time to go, of recognizing when a newcomer is the right man for the job. The transition from Thatcher to Major (with intermediate stops for Sir Geoffrey Howe, Michael Heseltine, and even Douglas Hurd) was a classic illustration of the dynamics of these intangibles.
Thatcher's resignation was precipitated by internal disagreement over her European policy, or rather its tone. Major can be expected to continue much of the policy, if not the tone. There are reasons for Britain to feel differently about European unity from the way its continental partners feel, and those reasons have to do with more than just Thatcher's personality.
Meanwhile, John Major has some time to show himself his own man - and show how he will lead Britain.