London — "If you want to know why those people want to split off from the Labour Party , I'll tell you -- they are desperate to keep Britain in the [European] Common Market."
So said a well-placed Labour Party official, a dedicated left-winger, in a conversation in an elegant, paneled London drawing room the other night.
"I support my party in wanting Britain to get out of Europe," she went on. It's a millstone around our neck."
She was explaining to this newly arrived correspondent how she saw the intricacies of the clash inside Labour. In Conservative salons and smoky workingmen's pubs, the debates rages. Labour is in chaos. The Conservative government is strengthened. The trade unions are wondering if their newfound power to elect the party leader is what they really want. And the prospect of a new social democratic political party in Britain draws closer and closer -- with opinion polls suggesting even before its formation that, in an alliance with the Liberals, its popularity would exceed that of either the Labour Party or the Conservatives.
By "those people," the Labour Party official meant the so-called "gang of four" -- Labour moderates Shirley Williams (former education minister), David Owen (former foreign secretary), William Rodgers (former Cabinet minister), and Roy Jenkins (former chancellor of the exchequer, former home secretary, and former president of the European Community). All are staunchly pro-Europe.
All oppose the new electoral college that is to elect Labour leaders and deputy leaders from now on, and also oppose the voting formula inside the college: 30 percent for the parliamentary Labour Party, 30 percent for the grass-roots constituent Labour parties now largely run by radical young Marxists , and 40 percent for trade unions. Previously, Labour members of Parliament alone elected the party leader.
Party leader Michael Foot, passionately opposed to British membership in the European Community (EC), urges the gang of four to stay in the party -- or to get out quickly. He plans to try to overturn the electoral college and the voting formula, both pushed through the recent Labour conference in London by a skillful left wing.
"I know Shirley [Williams] extremely well," the senior Labour Party official continued. "She wants Britain in Europe to give Britain a wider world role. She can't accept a situation where the left wing could force a new Labour government to withdraw from Europe. She might not say so in public, but that's her overriding concern.
"As for me, our membership in the EC has forced British food prices up. It has made us contribute more to the EC budget than anyone else, proportionate to our income. In infringes our sovereignty."
The official would remain friendly with the United States, but would aim to continue as a member of NATO on the same basis as Denmark -- without nuclear arms.
American officials have been warning Labour leaders here that such a move would weaken US readiness to give Britain automatic military aid -- and to funnel US investment into London.
Britain remains the country where understatement reigns. The public temperature is generally calm.
Take 10 Downing Street, for instance. Compared to the White House or Continental seats of power, security is virtually invisible: a lone bobby at the corner of Downing Street and Whitehall, and another at the main entrance to No. 10 itself.
Standing in the entrance hall the other day, a Thatcher aide remarked: "It's just a house, you know. Everyone uses the front door. I have seen a workman in a blue coat delivering boxes of paper for the Xerox machines through that door. Ten minutes later, the King of Jordan came through it."
I smiled. Just then Mrs. Thatcher herself, trim in turquoise and white, walked briskly past on her way out. She nodded "good morning" to us. I nodded back. One minute later, the front door opened again -- to admit a workman in a blue coat carrying boxes of Xerox paper.
"See?" said the aide.
This is also a country where people are devoted to trains and to wildlife. For many, pleasures still tend to be simple and natural. When I asked the man opposite me on the train why he, too, was going to York, he said: "I like trains , you see. I'm on holiday today. I'm on this one, and in York I'll visit the railway museum."
And in the crimson and gold House of Lords, their lordships have been solemnly debating how best to protect wild birds and their eggs. Lord Montague of Beaulieu wanted an amendment to a new wildlife and countryside bill to protect museums who had bird and egg collections and who might suddenly be liable to prosecution.
No, said the Earl of Avon, "pre-act egg collections" were unlikely to be the subject of prosecution -- if clearly marked.
Viscount Massereene and Ferrard objected to an amendment banning any shooting between an hour after sunset and an hour before sunrise. The widgeon and the pinkfoot, he explained, could only be shot if the moon, tide, and clouds were right.
Lord Leatherland defended the rights of courting couples who wanted to sit in hedgerows at night: "Just think what would happen if at some emotional moment there was a shot and they were peppered with pellets from 80 yards?" Despite his argument the amendment against night shooting was withdrawn.
The British are also intense about their language -- and their postage stamps.
In a debate on reforms to the English language, some lords have pointed to American spelling as more economical. Alas, said Lord Airedale, Americans also preferred longer words: An Englishman leaves his flat by the lift. American leaves his apartment by the elevator.
Lord Kings Norton ascribed current troubles to the Battle of Hastings in 1066 . Hastings was a blow to brevity. Norman French and Latin had provided new words, which were longer. We should all return, he said, to 1065.
And a letter writer to the Times had the last word on the latest rise in postal rates. Noting the plan to introduce a new L1 coin by 1983 and to phase out the pound note, Mr. P. H. Kemp of Surrey wrote that it might be better to "produce a smaller version gummed on one side for use on first-class letters in the not too distant future."