Five years ago this month, in the wake of the Labor Party's recapture of the government, a group of rightwing Conservatives formed a private thinktank to reexamine what one of them called "the alternatives to socialism."

Today, that organization, the Center for Policy Studies, is still a semi-obscure outpost of free-market, monetarist ideology in welfare-state Britain. A visitor to its Wilfred Street townhouse headquarters in Westminster found a secretary embarrassed to admit that there is so little demand for its publications that she had to scrounge change from her co-workers' purses for the 10-pound note a reporter used to make his purchase.

But the situation could change on Thursday, if, as the polls rather shakily predict, Margaret Thatcher leads the Tories back into power. Just as last year's papal election created a market for the poetry of a previously obscure Polish cardinal, this week's British voting could have a marked impact on the demand for publications of the Center for Policy Studies.

For the vice chairman of the Center at its formation and one of its leading authors is the same Mrs. Thatcher who may be the next British prime minister. And the policies her government follows in what she likes to call her "rebellion against the bulging socialist state" may reflect the views she has absorbed from her CPS colleagues.

Principle over pragmatism?

May -- but not necessarily will. Ever since the first preelection polls established Mrs. Thatcher as the favorite to replace Labor Prime Minister James Callaghan, the experts here have been arguing whether she could, in fact, govern on the principles she has been advocating.

The Conservative manifesto or platform pledges deep cuts in government spending (except for defense), significant income-tax reductions, a halt to further nationalization, curbs on labor unions, boosts in sales taxes and a skeptical look at the subsidies for ailing industries and marginal jobs.

Mrs. Thatcher says these changes will restore the incentive for British workmanship and enterprise to regain their rightful place in world markets and will cure an economic slump that has seen real growth averaging less than 1 percent a year under Labor.

Her critics say her policy is a guarantee of higher inflation, unemployment and industrial strife.

At the Reform Club and similar centers of political gossip, the pundits sniff skeptically at Mrs. Thatcher's claim that she is a "conviction politician."

They say that she was not a notable rebel when serving as the education minister in the previous Conservative government of Edward Heath. They say that "when the civil service get hold of her, she will be told what she can and cannot, as a practical matter, do." They point out that, even in this campaign, many of the members of her "shadow cabinet" have made clear their skepticism about the drastic change in direction she is proposing.

All of their comments suggest, in a somewhat asxist way, that the lady doth protest too much her devotion to principle over pragmatism. And they could be right.

But this is the same woman whose convictions prompted her to challenge Heath for party leadership in 1975 when none of the men would step forward. And this is the same woman who began this campaign in the Labor stronghold of Cardiff with the declaration that "the slither and slide to the socialist state is going to be stopped."

"She is the first Tory leader of my time who is a committed anticollectivist," says Paul Johnson, a former editor of the leftist New Statesman who, since his own conversion, has become one of Thatcher's principal advisers and boosters.

Shift to the right

Whatever Thatcher's future, her emergence has given impetus to an ideological counterrevolution that is as visible in the United States as it is here. In both countries, the 1970s have seen a shift of intellectual energy and conviction from the left of the political spectrum to the right, with results that are yet to be fully messured.

For British Conservatives, the defeat of the Heath government in 1974 was almost as demoralizing as the forced resignation of Richard Nixon that same year was for Republicans. In both cases, the loss of power was seen as the result of the abandonment of principle -- and thus doubly damning.

Heath had led the Tories into government in 1970 with most of the same conviction Thatcher now espouses. They included "cuts in government spending, lower direct taxes, reform of the trade unions and more selective social service benefits," writes British political scientist Anthony King. "The aim was to revivify British capitalism, to make it more competitive and efficient, to restore its self-confidence."

But under the pressure of union strife and economic crisis, the Heath government made a series of "U-turns." Instead of letting industrial "lame ducks" drown, it provided emergency loans for Rolls-Royce and other ailing firms. From an allout opposition to an incomes policy, it moved to what King calls "the most stringent wage and price controls in British history."

When the British voters in 1974 handed Conservatives a defeat, they also gave them leisure and occasion to consider what had gone wrong. Sir Keith Joseph, a member of the Heath cabinet, proposed the creation of an independently financed think-tank to reconsider and redefine Tory policy. Joseph, an intense and brooding man, hired a kindred spirit, a journalist who had the burning zeal one sees in so many ex-Communists, Alfred Sherman, as its principal staff officer. And Margaret Thatcher became Joseph's vice chairman. And Margaret Thatcher became Joseph's vice chairman.

The initial thrust of the CPS group was to liberate the Conservative Party from its consensusoriented acceptance of the virtues of a mixed economy. Harold Macmillan, who had been the Tory prime minister from 1957 to 1963, had espoused a "middle way," which he said "combines state ownership, regulation or control of certain aspects of economic activity with the drive and initiative of private enterprises" in other areas.

It was that sort of Tory semi-so-cialism that Joseph, Thatcher and Sherman set out to challenge through the CPS. In a speech delivered between the two elections of 1974, Joseph fired the opening gun against the Tory compromisers.

"This is no time to be mealymouthed," he said. "Since the end of the Second World War, we have had altogether too much socialism. There is no point in my trying to evade what everybody known. For half of that 30 years, Conservative governments, for understandable reasons, did not consider it practical to reverse the vast bulk of the accumulating detritus of socialism which on each occasion they found when they returned to office."

Condemnation of Secialism

Instead of accommodation, the CPS group preached full-scale condemnation of socialism as an econopaic failure and a threat to political democracy. Their critique derived from free-market economic philosophers F. A. Hayek and Milton Frieaman, but it was fueled by the disillusionment with union-management strife, shoddy social services and worsening inflation in Britain.

"What lessons have we learned from the last 30 years?" Thatchar asked in a 1975 lecture, published by CPS. "The pursuit of equality is a mirage," she answered.

Her victory over Heath in the 1975 Tory leadership struggle was only in part an ideological battle. Heath was scarred by defeat, and the Tories were ready for a change. But Thatcher did not chuck her ideology when she became party leader; rather, she did her best to impose it on her colleagues.

Asked in a recert interview what she thought she had accomplished as the Conservative leader, she said:

"The revival of the philosophy and principles of a free society, and the acceptance of it. And that is absolutely the thing that I live for. History will accord a very great place to Keith Joseph in that accomplishment. A tremendous place. Because he was imbued by this passion too. We set up the Center for Policy Studies and it has propagated those ideas, and they have bean accepted."

Although Thatcher has degrees in both chsmistry and law, her admirers praise her less for the originality of her thought than for her moral courage. Skeptics view her as an ideologue who will band to reality if placed in power -- or be broken.

But so far as the campaign shows, she is not backing off from her root belief that socialism tends inevitably toward absolutism and that the free market is not only economically more efficient but morally superior.

"What is the real driving force in society?" she asked in her campaign kickoff speech "It is the desire for the individual to do the best for himself and his family. There is no substitute for this elemental human instinct.

"Give the state control of 60 percent of what we produce -- as we have been doing -- and wealth melts away like winter snow," Thatcher said. "Tilt the balance toward freedom of choics, and the wealth-producing process begins again."

Peter Jenkins, the political columnist of The Guardian, wrote that this last paragraph "sounded more like religion than like political economy." That was intended as a rebuke. But it may also be read as a landmark of a significant political change: the transfer of ideological passion from the lert to the right.

And that does seem to be an international phenomenon. Talking to converted leftists like Alfred Sherman and Paul Johnson here, one is reminded of the intellectual vigor such refugees from the American left as Irving Kristol, Ben Wattenberg and Michael Novak have brought to their new conservative circles in the United States.

Reading Dick Leonard, a former Labor member of Parliament, write in The Economist that Jim Callaghan is singularly devoid of broad vision and ideology for a labor leader, one is inevitably reminded of former White House speechwriter James Fallows' almost identical judgment on Jimmy Carter as a Democratic presideat, published in the current Atlantic.

The parties of the laft to both Britain and the United States have become fearful of their own ideology. Stuart Eizenstat, on behalf of Jimmy Carter, stood guard at the 1976 Democratic Platform Committee sessions to soften on veto the planks proposed by its leftish elements. Callaghan's main contribution to the Labor manifesto, Dick Leonard has written, was blue-penciling anything controversial proposed by Energy Minister Tony Benn and his leftish friends.

At the same time the left is suppressing its ideology, the parties of the right in both countries are becoming bolder in asserting their own convictions. The ideology of the CPS has its echoes at what Sherman calls "our younger sister," the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The American right has reason to watch with interest what happens -- for good or ill -- when CPS' vice chairman faces the voters Thursday, and, perhaps, the responsibility of goverring for the next five years.

And so does the American left.