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Maggie's new mandate

Let it be said first that the Western alliance is greatly reassured by the stunning electoral victory of Margaret Thatcher. Britons have signalled that they intend to remain a strong ally of the United States and a strong member of NATO. With West Germany also now firmly committed to new medium-range missiles in Europe, the Soviet Union can be under no illusion that it can manipulate a division of the West or erode its resolve to stand united. That is the international bonus of the British election.

Now to Britain itself:

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Two factors seem to account for Mrs. Thatcher's electoral sweep and both have lessons for Western politicians. The first lies in the attributes of leadership which the British Prime Minister has so visibly demonstrated. British Tory voters may or may not agree with all the specifics of her policies, but there is little doubt that she meets their yearning for national resoluteness, a sense of moral principle, and a toughness to carry through whatever the odds. This inner strength and certitude are qualities especially sought in a time of acute global uncertainty.

Secondly, it is plain that the opposition parties did not offer a viable alternative to Mrs. Thatcher's forceful prescriptions. Labour, Britain's other major party, has so declined in leadership, character, and direction as to be less than attractive to many who would normally vote for it. Squabbling within the party and the radical-left positions of Labour leader Michael Foot on nuclear disarmament took their toll. Even the effort to capitalize on the issue of unemployment failed - partly because Mrs. Thatcher's economic policies have successfully laid the basis for a recovery and partly because many Britons tend to blame the previous Labour governments for the country's economic mess. If she has done nothing else, Prime Minister Thatcher seems to have convinced her countrymen that the old socialist policies undermined Britain's capacities and virtues and that stern remedies are necessary to restore them.

As for the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance, it polled a respectable 25 percent of the popular vote - almost as much as Labour - but because of Britain's electoral system captured only a meager 23 seats in Parliament. This means that, despite the early hopes the SDP aroused, it has not managed to fill the vacuum created in the political center-left. The question now is whether the Labour Party will rejuvenate itself, change ideological direction, and recover its place in the British body politic. Or whether it will gradually cede power to the Social Democrats. Certainly Britain needs a strong political voice in the middle of the road - whichever party it comes from.

Whither Britain now?

Mrs. Thatcher can exult in the mandate she has won for the next five years. But there is no hiding the severe problems to be dealt with. Unemployment today stands at over 13 percent (an addition of almost 2 million jobless under Thatcher rule) and there is a deepening division of British society into a relatively prosperous south and a poorer Labour heartland in northern England, Scotland, and Wales. With the advent of the electronic revolution, ways must be found of phasing out the old smokestack industries with the least human dislocation and hardship and shifting to the new and innovative high-technology industries. It must sober Britons to be reminded that Britain has become one of the lower-wage, lower-producing countries of Western Europe. Certainly to push forward, the nation will have to continue pulling down class barriers, including the privileges which accrue to a private education and the hierarchies in business which still often separate managers from workers. Racial tensions lurking beneath the surface also need to be faced up to. Mrs. Thatcher cannot afford to be complacent, therefore, especially knowing that more Britons voted against her than for her.

The British people need not only the assurance of resolve and moral firmness at the helm but a sense of compassionate concern as they struggle to find new bearings in this era of change. Mrs. Thatcher has not always conveyed such concern but it surely is not lacking. The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi which she offered up when she first entered 10 Downing Street four years ago is eloquent testimony to that: ''Lord, make me an instrument of your peace! Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.''

No finer precept for leadership could be found. If ''Maggie'' can translate it into the requirements of practical politics, she will indeed help restore Britain to the economic and moral stature she so earnestly desires for it.

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