A paradox of modern politics is that some of the most effective leaders lead while looking backward. Churchill was a 19th-century romantic. De Gaulle, entrusted with authorship of the Fifth Republic, had his gaze fixed on the sweep of past grandeur. When Ronald Reagan said, "America is back," he was saying that greatness is traditional. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, too, brings a retrospective cast of mind to an aggressive attempt to shape the future.

Asked in an interview at No. 10 Downing Street whether Britain can have a commercial future as bright as its commercial past, Thatcher reacted in the vigorous manner characteristic of the very faithful when confronted by uncomprehending agnosticism. Her answer contained about 2 percent economics, 2 percent sociology and 96 percent nationalism.

This was the question: Is not your problem more complicated than the one Reagan saw for himself? Campaigning in the late 1970s, he said Americans are instinctive capitalists, bursting with entrepreneurial creativity, healthy people ready to remake the world if only government would get out of their way. But the British are not that way.

Her terse reply was: "They were." Her expanded reply, delivered with quiet vehemence as she edged forward in her chair, was:

"Most of the major industrial inventions were ours. The steam engine, Brunel's bridges, the spinning jenny, Arkwright and so on, you name it." With her first word, "most," she was gilding the lily a bit. But gilding lilies in ways that stir confidence is an act of leadership. She continued: Britain has been more creative more recently than all the talk about "the British disease" would suggest. Britain created radar, the jet engine, vertical takeoff aircrft, penicillin.

But what happened to that vigor? She says there has been failure, especially in universities, to adapt to Britain's role after empire. The universities were brilliant at producing colonial administrators, but have never adapted to the need to train people for trade and industry. This reflects a "basic snobbery," the prejudice "that trade and industry aren't quite the thing as professions."

About that snobbery, she says icily, "We are getting rid of it." One way she tries to do that is by evoking memories of Britain's proud achievements and by laying waste, rhetorically, to what she sees as institutionalized snobbery.

Recently Oxford University, proving that academic folly knows no nationality, voted against giving Thatcher what it has given other recent prime ministers -- an honorary degree. In a speech last weekend she noted that many of Britain's best entrepreneurs came from modest backgrounds, "didn't speak with Oxford accents" and "hadn't got what people call the right connections." What critics "can't stomach is that wealth creators have a tendency to acquire wealth in the process of creating it for others."

Various bishops of the established church have been mixing, as modern bishops everywhere are wont to do, theology and macroeconomics. And they have been criticizing her. So she said, "Some reverend and right reverend prelates have been heard in the land. I make no complaint about that. After all, it wouldn't be spring, would it, without the voice of the occasional cuckoo?" Next morning the headline was:

Dons, clerics

are 'cuckoo'

says Thatcher

A few years ago some protesters were gathered at a hall when Thatcher arrived to deliver a speech. A television reporter asked her reaction to the protest. At first she seemed puzzled. Then she said, "Oh, you mean this. Why should I care? These people don't belong to my supporters. And I thank God they don't."

Her political success derives in no small measure from a second paradox: Democracy is government by consent. But one way to get consent from a majority is to be seen to care little for consensus. It has made her a success -- soon, an unprecedented success.

A constant complaint about democracy is that electoral cycles overrun the cycles of problems. By the time a government formulates and begins implementing policies, the pendular movement of opinion rearranges the governmental furniture, and the policies do not have time to be tested. In 1979 Thatcher said she would need two full terms -- 10 years -- to change Britain's course, which meant combatting snobbery and making other attitudinal changes. She may get more than 10 years.

In June 1987, she will break Asquith's (1908-16) record for the longest consecutive residence in No. 10. In 1987 or 1988, she probably will become Britain's Franklin Roosevelt, the only leader since the early emergence of democracy -- since, say, the 1832 Reform Bill -- to win three consecutive elections.