THIS HAS been a year in which Britain's faith in the ability of its politicians to reverse national decline was further, and dangerously, eroded. In 1992, politics was about frustration, internal bickering and a universal failure to deliver. A cascade of headlines, from the election to the dramas of the Tory conference and the cliff-hanging Maastricht vote, gave the outward impression of great events. But below the frenetic activity, there was curiously little fire, energy or hope.

We would be wrong to blame this shallowness on individual politicians. Their stage has narrowed so drastically. Their powers have waned and, with them, their stature. So much is decided abroad - by boyish, anonymous market makers as much as by French or German politicians. A Victorian political mediocrity, charged with some part of the Imperial bureaucracy, might easily have seemed a person of far greater consequence than the most talented Westminster politician of today.

Margaret Thatcher seemed, for a while, to buck the trend. Whether you thought her vision repulsive or glorious, her decade stood for grander possibilities. Politics seemed to matter more, to be effectual. There were great prizes and forfeits for Tory, socialist and Liberal Democrat. As in Victorian times, politicians became the heroes and villains of dramas and novels. Britain might have been in decline or reviving, but the old place was jumpingly alive.

Yet the narrowing of the political stage since was mostly her doing. Britain's deeper and longer recession was caused by the aftermath of the credit boom and the house-price explosion, that she and her chancellors unleashed.

As the public sector has been whittled away by privatisation, so the influence of middle-ranking cabinet ministers has been reduced. Her creed was that governments were incompetent, compared with individuals and companies. Governments did not intervene, they 'meddled'. Departments did not invest, they wasted taxpayers' money. MPs were mostly lazy and ignorant, and their activities stifled enterprise.

This was a powerful message. So long as Mrs Thatcher was in Downing Street, its impact on the status of politics generally was masked by her own active, ambitious programme and the furious opposition it provoked. But the anti-politics message chimed with a naturally sceptical British electorate, which recalled it, to the detriment of her successors, after she had gone.

In the meantime, the European Community's influence was spread into ever-gloomier recesses of Whitehall, thanks to the single-market process that Mrs Thatcher so encouraged and eagerly sponsored. At Maastricht, out of office, she muttered, 'Enough'. But the grand project, hatched on the Continent, rolled on, and the most important aspects of British politics were all about its speed.

It was hardly a coincidence that by far the most impressive cabinet minister was Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary. Nor that the times John Major seemed most like a leader were when he was involved in European battles, in the Commons or at summits.

We should, therefore, be chary about simply blaming Mr Major, or his ministers, for a dullness and a littleness in our politics. He is a man of his time, who recognises the limitations of his office more than most observers.

Black Wednesday was his day of truth, when the grand economic strategies and pretensions of all the main parties were blown away on the dealing- room floors. Since then, his decision not to play the tyrant and stamp the stage seems more like realism than wimpishness. The emperor really is ill- clad, and until he finds some finer robes, humility is the sensible option.

Just as we are having to adapt to an era when politics means less, so we are still adapting to Mr Major's radically different style. A decade ago, the idea of a prime minister actively assuring cabinet colleagues (as Mr Major has done), strong and weak, that they were safe in their jobs and that he had no intention of moving them would have seemed an extraordinary abdication of power. It still seems a trifle odd. Across Whitehall, the question is debated, in a rather friendly way, as to whether Mr Major would have the audacity to sack a senior colleague.

Some may be delighted by the new world of anti-politics, the weakening of government, in which Mr Major operates. But, as the Italians discovered, faith in government is not an optional extra with which lively and vibrant nations burden themselves. Politics are the head from which the fish rots.

Without a self-confident programme and the ability to sway the electorate, administrations degenerate. Government itself is taken less seriously. For the voters, it is noticed less. Paying its taxes matters less. Obeying its regulations becomes a matter of personal choice. Taking its leaders seriously becomes impossible.

We are a long way from that: the British are not naturally anarchic; indeed, some would say we are not half anarchic enough. But 1992 was not a good year for the British system.

Westminster has been a lesser place, one of squabbling that most of the country finds irrelevant and distasteful. Whitehall has been a venue for scandal (Matrix-Churchill) and incompetence (pit closures). This is not even the genteel, well-ordered decline cynics said we were good at. This is tacky.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats can help to make next year a better one by the seriousness and radicalism of the political debate they open up. But for now, the real challenge is Mr Major's. He survived a year of political turmoil. He came through it. But all around him lies the debris of a political movement and the rickety architecture of a shaken nation crying out for leadership.

To survive was one thing. To rebuild will be far harder.