With a cruelty only British politics can muster for its greatest leaders, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has been dispatched. Not by the voters, which was Winston Churchill's fate during the Potsdam Conference at the end of World War II, but by an unsentimental Conservative Party intent on holding the power she herself created.
Whether those who organized the coup will achieve their aims will not be known until elections are held in the next 18 months. For now, Britain is preoccupied internally with the process of discovering what it means not to have Maggie Thatcher at 10 Downing Street.
The British welfare state will remain for the simple reason that Mrs. Thatcher never really dismantled it. What she did was eliminate its excesses: the corporate statism of huge government-owned monopolies, trade union tactics undercutting productivity, the economy-choking effects of over-taxation and the consequent destruction of initiative. Even if the Labor Party should win the next election, it is doubtful it could dismantle Thatcherism in its essentials. Greater reliance on the private sector has become as much a part of the British fabric as the social democracy created by Clement Attlee's post-war Labor government.
For the United States, Mrs. Thatcher's departure deprives Washington of its doughtiest ally, one whose tough talk against Iraq has exceeded George Bush at his most bellicose.
More pertinent, however, is what her absence will mean in the development of a unified European Community, which, along with a regressive poll tax, was the prime reason for Mrs. Thatcher's undoing.
The Germans will rejoice, not just because of Mrs. Thatcher's ill-disguised distrust of their resurgence and reunification. They will also welcome the end of unyielding British resistance to a pan-European economic combine that undoubtedly will be led by a newly unified Germany.
While the French will join in this enthusiasm, if only because they see strong partnership with Britain as a check on Germany, there will be Gaullists among them who share concerns which Mrs. Thatcher enunciated and which the Washington Establishment more quietly entertains. Recent trade negotiations underscore the point that the EC can be protectionist and parochial. If Thatcherism can be properly described as a philosophy, it is rooted in a belief in the individual, free enterprise and market forces -- ideas at odds with the statism of the new Europe.
Yes, Margaret Thatcher probably ruled too long. Yes, she was imperious, arrogant, not afraid to be out of step with prevailing political fashion. But on this side of the Atlantic, we have lost a kindred spirit whose values were a reminder of the Anglo-Saxon sturdiness that so powerfully shaped the American character.