THE BRITISH have replaced a Reagan with a Bush. With startling speed, the 372 voters have called off the Thatcher revolution to consolidate its gains.
Where Margaret Thatcher is passionate, John Major is calm; where she is determined, he seeks consensus; where she is doctrinaire, he is pragmatic. And where she is a caricature of herself, he is a bland if handsome chap whom people are not inclined to dislike.
The Conservative Members of Parliament were not choosing their leader ideologically. That was a byproduct. They were making a practical political choice. They chucked a leader of whom the cabinet ministers were jealous but to whom the back-benchers were devoted, because she had become a liability who would lead them to defeat in the election that must be held by June 1992.
They replaced her with her protege from the next generation of politics. They spurned a reliable stand-in who could have held things together for a few years (Douglas Hurd), and an ego-centered challenger (Michael Heseltine), for a new man who is meant to drop old baggage and carry them into the next century.
It's what the Labor Party did when it chose young Neil Kinnock to be its leader in 1983. He had been a Labor lefty, but could see that what was needed for a Labor comeback was anything but his old politics.
Mr. Kinnock and Labor have been winning in the polls, but that is illusory. In the negative campaigning that is so honored in British politics, Mrs. Thatcher was doing their job, making her own enemies. Mr. Kinnock had only to pose as a reasonable alternative. Now the game has changed. Whatever is wrong with Mr. Major, Mr. Kinnock will have to convince the British people of it. The new prime minister won't make that easy. He formed a cabinet of unity. As one impish Tory grandee said, the party would rally round a broom stick.
If John Major brings a personal agenda, he is going to keep it hidden. His government's preoccupation is to prepare for the election. If it wants to chart new ground or do unpopular things, it will unveil them afterward. But it will seek a mandate as a Major government, not a Thatcher child, her injudicious crack about back-seat driving notwithstanding. And whatever the polls said last week doesn't matter because Mr. Major is going to make news and gain public recognition.
The British Conservative Party is quicker than the Labor Party to bring talent up and push deadwood out. The prevailing assumption in Labor is that a Member of Parliament is better off than in a previous job of teaching, social work or union organizing. To kick such a person back is cruel.
The Tories, however, assume that any of their chaps is performing public service at personal sacrifice and could make more money in finance. To send such a fellow packing is not mean. Bright young talent is spotted, groomed and boosted, until it is spent, when the process is repeated.
Two decades ago, when covering Britain for The Sun, I met Douglas Hurd. He was Prime Minister Edward Heath's political secretary. I knew about Michael Heseltine, a flashy junior minister. But I never heard of John Major, a council member in one of London's 32 boroughs, south of the river, and junior executive at a big bank.
Anthony Barber, chancellor of the exchequer in the Heath
government, vanished from politics in 1974 to become chairman of that bank, discovered young Major and boosted him. For loyal work in the trenches, the young man was made candidate for Parliament from a district Tories could not win in the two elections of 1974. Five years later, the party gave him one he could. He entered the House of Commons when Prime Minister Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street.
Despite her reputation for destroying anyone who disagreed with her, the Major legend has it that he caught her eye by talking back in 1984. He has been falling upward ever since.
From 1979 on, Mrs. Thatcher methodically crushed potential rivals in her cabinet. But she was grooming John Major, 18 years her junior, to succeed her, probably in the mid-Nineties. It was one of her victims, Sir Geoffrey Howe, who pulled the plug, signaling another, Michael Heseltine, who had been waiting his chance since 1986, to go for it. As it happened, Sir Geoffrey's rebellion ended not only Mrs. Thatcher's career but Mr. Heseltine's aspiration.
Mr. Major has made Mr. Heseltine environment secretary, just as Mrs. Thatcher did in 1979. That gives Mr. Heseltine license to end or transform out of recognition the poll tax in local government, the one chunk of Thatcherism the party repents, as a service to Mr. Major.
Mr. Major has reached what a predecessor 122 years ago called the top of the greasy pole. He is 47, giving him time to make a lasting imprint on British life, as Mrs. Thatcher did in 15 years of party leader- ship and 11 1/2 as prime minister.
As a meritocrat of modest origin (not working class, but fallen middle class), Mr. Major is in the recent Tory mold. The only part of his rags-to-power ascent that sounds un- American is the bit about a giant bank hiring a jobless laborer without a high school diploma as executive trainee. (The moral is that the way to get people off the dole is to put them in banking.)
He does not quarrel with a description that he is ''economically dry and socially wet'' (American translation: fiscal conservative, opposes apartheid).
And if he doesn't live up to the hopes colleagues have for him, they will ship him back to the bank.