Margaret Thatcher's overwhelming victory in Britain's general election was really a triumph for the politics of masochism.

This country, whose spirits have been sapped by rapid decline, has again embraced the steely-eyed leader who convinced people that only through more of the suffering they deserve can their nation once again flourish.

"At last Britain is taking the measures that have started us on the road to success," was an oft-repeated Conservative campaign message. Far from apologizing for what has happened during her first four years in office, Thatcher managed to make a virtue out of widespread unemployment, record bankruptcies and drastic shrinkage of basic industries. Turning an incumbent's usual claim on its head, Thatcher told British voters, as The Economist observed: You've never had it so bad.

A recurring theme of this election was Margaret Thatcher's affinity for Victorian principles as they are now remembered. In those days, individual enterprise and hard labor were rewarded, the unworthy were punished (or went hungry) and discipline was applied in the home and workplace. The modern welfare state notion of society's obligation to protect its needy has gone too far to be dumped, even by Thatcher. But what she has been elected to do is apply the older values in whatever ways she deems suitable for ending Britain's descent into a gloomier future.

One cannot understand this country today or the chemistry of Thatcher's stature without appreciating the pervasiveness of the feeling of national decline. Depressingly, it has become the overriding feature of British life. After two centuries as one of history's great economic, military and political powers, Britain has been transformed in barely more than a generation into a middle-rank state favored by foreigners mainly for its shabby charm and relics of its former glories.

Royalty with all its colorful trappings has never been more popular. Nor have the stately homes which grandees -- struggling to keep these manses in the family -- have turned into amusement parks. Period pieces like "Brideshead Revisited," "Upstairs Downstairs" and "Chariots of Fire" reinforce an image of the genteel past that is cozily out of phase with today's realities. "Pickled Britain" is what Anthony Smith, director of Britain's film institute,calls the phenomenom.

The most overused qualifying adverb deployed in any conversation with or about the British is "still" -- as in "Britain can still mount an ambitious operation to retake the Falklands;" or, "Britain can still make Jaguars and Rolls-Royces that rich Arabs and Americans will buy." It is almost as though the fact that so diminished a nation is capable of these things comes as a surprise. When you're down, every accomplishment tends to be unexpected.

The model for a healthier Britain in much of the political debate, especially inside the Labor Party, is no longer the United States or West Germany, or even Australia and Canada. It is countries like Austria or Sweden, which are a fraction of Britain's size. That alone is a revealing reflection of public sentiment.

There can be no doubt that the fall has been steep. This spring marks the 30th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, an event celebrated at the time as the onset of a new Elizabethan era. It was a heady moment. A British expedition had scaled Mount Everest -- the news was announced on the very day the young monarch was to be crowned. "All happy and glorious" was the headline in the News-Chronicle.

The effects of World War II austerity were finally wearing off. Rationing was lifted on meat, eggs, candies. Britain remained one of the world's richest countries, with an empire that spanned all five continents. Inflation was 4 percent (exactly what it is now -- a lower rate than in many years) and unemployment was under 300,000, less than a tenth of the current figure.

Britain's auto industry was second largest in the world after America's, and exported 40 percent of its output. The shipbuilding industry was bigger than that of the United States, Germany and Japan combined. Britain was a leader in the production of aircraft and electronics. It was a newly minted nuclear power, the third after America and the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy, with five battleships, 18 aircraft carriers and 25 cruisers, could still defend the claim that it ruled the waves.

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, then in his 80th year, won the Nobel Prize for Literature. "When in May he mused out loud in Parliament about the possibility of an international summit to discuss the future of the world," The Sunday Express recently recalled wistfully, "no one either at home or abroad thought it the slightest bit odd that Sir Winston should assume that he would take his seat at the conference table as one of the world's 'Big Three.' "

Instead of continuing to turn up, Britain's fortunes -- as measured by most of these indicators, at least -- went careening down. While there was a gradual improvement in the standard of living for the majority, Britain soon lost the luster of its imperial epoch and more recently its economic prowess. At the time of Thatcher's first election in 1979, Britain's economy was already smaller than West Germany's and France's and was hovering in the vicinity of Italy's.

The core of manufacturing industries that was chiefly responsible for the modern age has suffered in Britain as it has nowhere else in the Western world. Steel, shipbuilding, textiles, automobiles and mining are shadows of their former selves, often surviving only on the largesse of a government that gives the impression it would little more than shrug if they disappeared -- unless they can justify themselves through competitiveness and profitability.

For the young people leaving school whose forebears could look forward to a place in the older manufacturing sector, there is really no such option. Even with faint signs of economic revival on the horizon, jobs are being shed, not added. That is why nearly one of three teenagers is unemployed and, worse, unemployable, except in make-work projects that are more humanely admirable than they are productive. For the first time in its history, Britain imported more manufacturing goods in April than it exported.

A succession of governments, Conservative and Labor, presided over what amounts to the disintegration of British industry. External developments were partly responsible, but just as Britain's rise to greatness was a credit to its people, so the downturn also must be seen as their doing.

Complacency was to blame as the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s masked signs that the halcyon days were numbered. A continuing class war in the form of union-management combat was also costly. The markets were there, and so were the research skills, but Britain could not -- or would not -- exploit them. Certainly, that is the way Margaret Thatcher sees it, and judging from her success in the balloting, a fair share of the electorate agrees.

"Many people do now see mass unemployment as some kind of divine retribution for years of industrial self-indulgence," Ian Aitken, political editor of the Guardian, wrote on the eve of the election. "All those arguments about overmanning, restrictive practices and paying ourselves too much have plainly had their effect."

Evidence for this is that Thatcher's Conservatives handily defeated a Labor Party whose platform pledged to create 2 million jobs through a massive injection of public funds -- a classically Keynesian solution that was decisively rejected. The moderate alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats also offered a reflationary approach.

But a plurality of the British people evidently saw a greater chance of long-term improvement in Thatcherism, despite the fact that for many Britons, more Thatchderism is a threat, not a promise. The government's projections in February were that another 250,000 people would be added to the unemployment rolls this year. Moreover, experts reckon that even if the economy grows at a rate of 3 percent a year for several years, well above its recent record, employment will remain stagnant.

So what is Thatcher's vision for a revivified Britain? One hope is obviously that Britain will be pulled along by a general upturn in the Western economies. No doubt Britain's problems in recent years can be attributed largely to international recession -- as Thatcher emphasized in the campaign. British economic problems were further skewed when the country became a major oil producer in 1975; that pushed the value of the pound so high that British goods were at an insurmountable disadvantage. Now that oil prices have eased, sterling has dropped to its natural level of about $1.60.

The worst practical effects of unemployment -- the absolute squalor of poverty -- are offset to a considerable extent by generous welfare benefits that Thatcher has pledged to maintain. Oil revenues help pay for these. A safety net tends to reduce the social explosiveness when millions are out of work. It does not, however, add to the country's well-being to have men and women in vast numbers sit idle.

With her renewed mandate, Thatcher can also be expected to continue efforts at deregulation and to tinker with taxes as an incentive to the private sector. She is committed both to protecting the needy and encouraging the well-off.

But all considerations seem secondary for the moment to Thatcher's personal aura, the feeling shown by the voting results that she, more than any other British politician of the day, is capable of stemming Britain's decline -- of recovering, in her words, the country's "confidence and self-respect."

In her forward to the Tory election manifesto last month, she wrote that this aim is already being achieved. On that score, she is probably premature. The Falklands experience gave a boost to the collective psyche and certainly bolstered Thatcher's own standing; no other Western leader since World War II has emerged the victor in an old-fashioned dust-up over national honor. But Britain is not yet cured of the ailments which afflict it. Far from it.

No solution has been put forward for resolving the continuing crisis in heavy industry. As one answer, Thatcher plans to introduce legislation that would further curb the disruptive powers of labor unions by requiring secret ballots before strikes. Significantly, when miners twice voted in the past year on whether to walk out over the prospect of pit closures by the National Coal Board, they defied their union bosses and stayed on the job. Thatcher has succeeded in persuading many workers that militancy is counter-productive.

The pressure will continue on nationalized industries to streamline themselves and eventually go private, although its hard to see much maneuvering room for an industry like steel, already a third the size it was five years ago. In Scotland, for instance, there is only one large integrated steel mill left. Ten thousand people work there, and if it goes, an entire region will be largely deindustrialized.

The greatest challenge has to be in creating new industries, applying technology, harnessing British creative skills to challenge the West Germans, the Japanese and the Americans. "We did not lack ideas in the past," Thatcher told the Confederation of British Industry in a pep talk earlier this spring, "we do not lack them now." But Britain will be passed by, she added, unless it shows a "spirit of enterprise . . . ambition for success and sheer professional and technical skill."

Out of the continuing dislocation and upheaval of a country struggling to refashion its niche as a viable producer, Thatcher sees the chance of a better future. With its best gloss, the politics of masochism sounds less like a negative prescription.

"Our nation is waking chdup to the reality that its prosperity is not guaranteed," Thatcher told the business community in that vein, "but needs to be earned every day."

Perhaps the biggest question now is how much the British actually want Thatcher to galvanize them. Despite her landslide victory in parliamentary seats, the Conservatives' popular vote total was only 43 percent. Still, having chosen by democratic means the political course that holds out the prospect of more economic misery rather than Labor's quick fix, the British could respond to the lash. Or they could become even more resigned to decay. The latter would mean a mood of sullen or cynical resentment and -- inevitably -- further deterioration of British morale.

Much therefore depends on Thatcher's skills. Can she do for Britain what Charles de Gaulle did for France between 1958 and 1968, restore a combination of national pride and productivity? Or is too late?

As a politician and a personality, Margaret Thatcher is still evolving. In 1973, a relative newcomer to Tory leadership ranks, she modestly said, "I do not think there will be a woman prime minister in my lifetime." Two years later she was party leader. At the start of her second term at the helm she is, undisputably, the ne plus ultra of British politics. With a record like that and at only 57 years of age, Thatcher's capapcity to fulfill her ambitions cannot be dismissed.

She is by no means the most popular person in the land. But she may well be the most determined. And whatever pain it causes, Thatcher's plan for Britain is to reverse decline and, once and for all, get renewal underway. CAPTION: Picture, Mock photo of Margaret Thatcher. Copyright (c) 1983, by Peter Kennard