THERE were, of course, several reasons for Margaret Thatcher's unusual feat of winning a third British election in a row. No one can say with certainty that the main reason was that the doctrine of socialism is fading. But that was certainly one of the reasons. Her feat therefore goes down in history as one of those events that record a change in general public perception of some particular idea about how human society ought to be organized.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sweeping election victory in 1932 recorded a loss of confidence in the idea of unregulated free enterprise. Political history since 1932 has been a long and varied experiment with the idea of regulating the social and economic life of nations with the aim of producing something better.
Each country has had its own formula. The experiments have varied from the total control of an entire national economy by the state at the center, as in the Soviet Union, to mixed economies, as in most of the modern industrial democracies. Britain went a long way (further than the United States) down the road to socialism. From the political defeat of Winston Churchill in 1945 to the election of Mrs. Thatcher in 1979, Britain's story was dominated by the steady expansion of government ownership and of all forms of social welfare.
That period has also been marked by the decline of successful enterprise. In 1945, Britain was the second-wealthiest country in the world. By 1979, it had sunk behind Japan, West Germany, France, and Italy. Its gross national product was approaching that of Spain, and Spain was on the way up.
The fact that in Britain the rise of socialism ran parallel with the decline of economic strength does not necessarily prove a cause-and-effect relationship. The economic decline of Britain was in part due to the liquidation of empire, which narrowed the market for British goods. The markets of the world's largest empire were no longer there to sustain the industrial structure of the home country.
But the amount of socialism practiced in Britain during the 1945-to-1979 era blunted one of the two stimuli of the private-enterprise system. One stimulus is glittering reward at the top for the successful. The other is the penalty for failure at the bottom. There is nothing like the fear of unemployment, plus poverty and short rations, to spur man's endeavor and stimulate productiveness.
Britain, during the socialist years, went about as far as any society had yet gone toward outlawing fear of unemployment. To be out of a job ceased to be a terrifying condition. Government provided housing, health care, and minimum subsistence for everyone, regardless of how productive they were. The old socialist slogan of ``to each according to his needs'' became almost more of a reality in Britain than even in the USSR.
And now Mrs. Thatcher has been allowed by the electorate of Britain to reverse the trend of 35 years of progressive socialism. For seven years she has been improving the rewards at the top by cutting taxes while sharpening the penalties at the bottom by trimming back on welfare. She has sold off much of the nationalized industries, thus increasing share ownership. She is selling public housing to its occupants, thus expanding the proportion of homeowners.
The price has been a drastic jump in unemployment. But the reward is that Britain's rate of productivity is ahead of that in Germany, France, and Italy. Britain is once again becoming competitive and solvent.
The important thing is that a majority of British voters have decided that high productivity at the price of high unemployment is a lesser evil than full employment with economic stagnation. That would not have happened in any modern industrial democracy 10 years ago. Plainly, the idea of socialism is fading. In Britain as in other countries, including the US, the trend of the day is back to a less compassionate but more competitive and demanding system.