Major at the Wire

THE chant that arose from the British electorate last Thursday was not an exuberant "Five More Years!" so much as a cautious "Steady as She Goes." Still, that was sufficient to extend Prime Minister John Major's lease on 10 Downing Street until 1997.

The Conservative Party victory - its fourth in a row - stunned pollsters and journalists. Most had predicted that the Labour Party would oust the Tories narrowly or that neither of the major parties would win a majority in the House of Commons, necessitating a coalition government.

As an incumbent who won reelection in an upset, John Major became Britain's Harry Truman.

The Conservatives' majority in Parliament has been pared back sharply, however. Major can ill afford any party defections on important votes, and Tory backbenchers will have more leverage on policy than during the Thatcher years, when Conservative MPs had to squeeze onto the Commons' green-cushioned benches.

Major will regard the election as a "mandate" at his peril. Britain's electorate is manifestly disgruntled over the state of the economy - especially high unemployment - and what many see as a deterioration in the quality of life. At the last minute the voters pulled back from the higher taxes and government management of the economy promised by Labour (this looks like the political end for party leader Neil Kinnock). But they also withheld strong endorsement for more Thatcherite innovation, as through p rivatizing the delivery of public services.

In 1979 - a time in Britain of stagflation, union stranglehold on the economy, and a national identity crisis left over from the end of empire - the strong and assertive Margaret Thatcher appeared to many Britons the embodiment of the spirit needed to buck the nation up. Much of Mrs. Thatcher's supply-side and entrepreneurial agenda was realized and will continue to have positive effects.

But the Thatcher revolution never trickled down to many Britons, and it touched others harshly. The voters didn't repudiate Thatcherism, but they put it into a museum, like Churchilliana. Thatcherism was right for the time, they seemed to say, and we'll stick with the Tories; but give us a conservativism that, while fiscally prudent, is more sensitive to people's distress.

The low-key John Major - a working-class boy who grew up to be simultaneously conservative and humane - seems well suited to lead a nation that is calling for just such a mixture.

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