LONDON, NOV. 24 -- Britain after Margaret Thatcher, like Germany after Bismarck or France after de Gaulle, now faces the prospect of life without the leader who dominated and transformed the country's political and economic existence.
Even as the leader who earned the nickname "the Iron Lady" was stepping down this past week to avoid a final, humiliating political defeat, the shape of post-Thatcher Britain was beginning to emerge:
In politics, the abrasive, crusading, ideological warfare of the past decade is likely to give way to a gentler clash over who can best manage the system Thatcher remade.
In economics, both her heirs and her enemies will have to find ways to cope with a system that is less fettered and structurally very different yet remains plagued by high inflation and low growth.
In foreign affairs, analysts expect Britain to retain influence yet lower the pugnacious profile Thatcher showed to the world. The new Britain is expected to face Europe more than the Atlantic, to be more of a team player in shaping the continent's future, yet at the same time to retain a special relationship with the United States and act as America's broker in European councils.
"Quite a lot of what we call Thatcherism is irreversible -- she got people used to ideas that were really very revolutionary," said Anthony Sampson, author of a series of books on postwar Britain. "But there could be many changes from the new generation of politicians inside her own party as much as from the opposition."
Margaret Thatcher leaves behind a unique and complicated legacy. She came to office promising to "renew the spirit and solidarity of the nation," yet divided Britain between north and south, haves and have-nots, winners and losers. She sharply reduced the economic power of the state, yet widened its control over schools, local governments and civil liberties.
Thatcher slashed income taxes, yet invented an unpopular new local revenue system and increased from 34 to 37 percent the share of Britain's gross national product that goes to taxes. She raised dramatically the number of homeowners and shareholders, yet approved punishing increases in interest rates that threatened the livelihoods of both groups.
Most of all, she leaves her heirs to resolve the key question of Britain's place in the world: Is this small island nation on a path of terminal decline that was only briefly interrupted by the patriotic revival and economic boom of the mid-1980s? Or can it stake a competitive claim to a permanent position among the world's leaders?
As with Ronald Reagan, Thatcher's ideological soulmate, the most obvious measure of her success was political: three straight electoral triumphs, two of them by landslides, over a bitterly divided, fratricidal opposition. Those victories caused a gradual but lasting shift in Britain's political center of gravity toward the right. Labor, the party she most despised and almost destroyed, was forced to recreate itself, shedding its socialist ideology and the radicals who championed that vision for a more pragmatic, centrist approach.
Thatcher's power helped force Labor "to catch up with the real world and become a modern European social democratic party like those in Scandinavia, Germany and France," said Patricia Hewitt, senior researcher at the Institute for Public Policy and an adviser to Labor leader Neil Kinnock.
Now that Thatcher is leaving power, many analysts believe her ruling Conservative Party also will shift ideologically toward the center. All three contenders for the premiership in Tuesday's Conservative caucus election in the House of Commons have signaled their intention to do so.
Michael Heseltine, the Tory maverick who helped force Thatcher from office, says he believes in a more active state role in economic matters, as in Japan or Germany. He also favors a more activist approach in reviving Britain's decaying urban centers and protecting the environment.
Heseltine and his opponents, John Major and Douglas Hurd, all say they would revise the deeply unpopular poll tax system that Thatcher instituted. All have spoken the language of conciliation and consensus that she often mocked. But it was Major, her former protege, who demonstrated most clearly the difference between the Thatcher era and post-Thatcher Britain when he pledged improvements in education.
Thatcher had tried tackling problems in education with a radical approach, imposing a new centralized curriculum and proposing a voucher system allowing parents to opt for private schools at the expense of the state system. Major, by contrast, spoke Friday of restoring the status of teachers and attracting "the best and brightest" -- in other words, he implied, by raising salaries.
"Whatever comes next, it will not be Thatcherism," predicted Financial Times political editor Philip Stephens. "It is time to shave off Thatcherism's rough edges, to pay more attention to the disadvantaged; to start replacing the conviction politics which Mrs. Thatcher embraced with the consensus that she despised, to listen as well as lead."
Training and research are two of the areas where policy planners say Thatcher has left Britain in a deep hole. A recent survey by the Henley Center for Forecasting reported the percentage of industrial workers with skilled vocational training at 80 percent in France, 67 percent in Germany but only 38 percent here. A report by the Science and Engineering Research Council found Britain was spending about $17 billion less per year than Germany and $10 billion less than France on research and development.
Such issues are certain to come to the fore in Britain's next general election. Labor has declared it will make improved education a central theme, and other non-ideological issues such as crime, environment and family life are expected to dominate a campaign far different from the Maggie-vs.-socialism contests of a decade ago.
When Thatcherites describe her economic legacy, they point with pride to the way she slashed top-bracket income tax rates from 83 percent to 40, eliminated exchange controls, deregulated the financial sector and broke the monopoly power of Britain's trade unions.
She also sold off vast portions of state-controlled property and companies, beginning with thousands of public housing units. Even as she was reluctantly yielding her Downing Street office this past week, government ministers were putting the finishing touches on the sale to private shareholders of Britain's national electricity grid for $9.5 billion, the last great privatization of the Thatcher era.
Behind it all was an ethos that many analysts agree will survive into the '90s. "I came to office with one deliberate intent," Thatcher said. "To change Britain from a dependent to a self-reliant society, from a give-it-to-me to a do-it-yourself nation."
But the enterprise society had its price. Many of the high fliers of the '80s, like Saatchi & Saatchi and Polly Peck, crumbled in a mountain of debt and poor management. Some, like Ernest Saunders, chief executive officer of Guinness Brewing, wound up in prison for illegal stock manipulation.
While the financial sector and service industries prospered, Britain's manufacturing capacity shriveled by nearly 20 percent. Thatcher took the British economy through its most punishing recession in 50 years in the early '80s to rid it of inflation and weed out inefficient businesses. She was rewarded with five years of unprecedented economic boom, culminating in her third election triumph in 1987. But now inflation is again the highest of any major industrial nation and back to where it was when she took office, the trade deficit has skyrocketed from about $1.5 billion per year to $36 billion, and the number of bankruptcies and homeless families have more than doubled.
"The economy is no closer to the simultaneous achievement of faster growth, full employment, stable prices and balance of payments equilibrium than it was before the Thatcher experiment," wrote Tony Thirlwall, professor of economics at the University of Kent.
Worse, perhaps, from Thatcher's viewpoint, is that her ethos has failed to take root in public perceptions. In a recent study of British social attitudes, 56 percent of the public favored increasing taxes to pay for better social welfare, while only 3 percent supported tax cuts to reduce public spending. More than 75 percent believed people living on state pensions had less than enough to live on.
"The enterprise culture seems to have been a bit of a miss with the majority of people," Roger Jowell, the poll's director, told the Guardian newspaper. "The prime minister has failed to change hearts and minds."
Thatcher's heirs will not only have to find ways of breathing new life into a flagging economy, they must decide whether to reverse the flow of power toward the central government. During her rule, local councils lost much of their control over taxation and budgets. London's metropolitian council was abolished altogether, leaving one of the world's greatest cities without a mayor or a single governing body.
Critics contend a similar erosion occurred in civil liberties. The government banned the broadcast of statements made by alleged terrorists and sought to censor publications it deemed security violations. It tightened the Official Secrets Act to make it harder for civil servants to leak information or for journalists to publish those leaks. Thatcher's aides and supporters conducted a constant war of nerves with broadcasters and journalists they disapproved of.
In foreign affairs, changes may be less overt but no less profound. Heseltine, Major and Hurd are all committed to further European economic and monetary union, although they say they will fight against a federal system that would damage British sovereignty. Perhaps most important, all three would be less combative than Thatcher.