London — The color, the coaches, the uniforms, the robes, the horses, and the ceremony of the royal wedding rouse echoes of Britain's imperial past. Its role in the world today is less military, more intangible, but still considerable -- despite the grim states of the economy and of Northrn Ireland.
Three scenes make the point:
1. In a carpeted corridor of power, government officials were relaxed as they discussed Britain's niche as the oldest and the closest overseas ally of the United States with Monitor. One by one they ticked off the positive points:
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ideologically and personally on the same wavelength as President Reagan. London and Washington united on their view of the Soviet threat, on NATO, on the need to counter Soviet SS-20 missiles with US cruises and Pershing IIs in Europe.
The officials were confident that despite criticism of London by Irish-Americans Mr. Reagan wants to stay out of the Northern Ireland issue.
"Oh, we could 'invent' a few problems, if you like," smiled on senior official. "There are always some minor things. We'd like you to deregulate natural gas prices: They're so low now you have an unfair advantage in man-made fibers and chemicals. Your interest rates are high and fluctuate more quickly than ours.
"But you are trying to bring down inflation. Reagan and [Secretary of State Alexander M.] Haig consult more with European allies than Jimmy Carter did. We're basically content, I'd say."
2. A beaming Nigerian diplomat welcomed me to the handsome corner room of Marlborough House which Queen Mary used for many years after her husband, George V, died. There, too, Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward, established the "Marlborough House set" at the pinnacle of British society during his decades as heir to the throne.
And there, today, is the headquarters of the Commonwealth -- 44 countries, one-quarter of the world's population, united in the use of the English language and their acknowledgement of the British monarch as symbolic head.
It has not been the "British" Commonwealth since 1965, when the secretariat was set up. It has long since shed its image of a rich white man's club. Yet the Commonwealth still adds to British status in world councils. "It's our own North-South dialogue," commented one government official. "It definitely means a lot tous, at a time when the global dialogue between North and South nations, rich and poor, is gathering steam."
3. Walk through central London. Theater marquees, concert halls, ballet stages, art galleries, and libraries proclaim Britain's world eminence in culture and ideas.
Similarly, a stroll through the City's narrow streets is a reminder that Britain remains one of the world's great repositories of financial skills, from banking to insurance, from export-import to commodity trading, from stocks and shares to international property and business dealing.
Overall, the British military role has shrunk since World War II. Prince Charles is heir apparent in a country whose days of empire have long since gone, which plays little permanent role east of Suez, and whose conventional forces are cncentrated on the Rhine (some 55,000 men) and in the North Atlantic (naval duty for NATO).
Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government insists that Britain retain its membership in the global nuclear club along with the US, the Soviet Union, China , and France. So it is spending a minimum of L5 billion (10 billion) in the next decade to buy Trident intercontinental nuclear missiles from the US and install them in four new nuclear submarines.
The opposition Labour Party officially opposes this independent nuclear deterrent as wastefully expensive and morally wrong. It is on record as urging nuclear disarmament within NATO. The center-left would retain the current Polaris missiles but only for the decade until they become obsolete and as a NATO and not an independent force. The far left would scrap all nuclear weapons and leave NATO.
Mrs. Thatcher has boosted real defense spending by just under 8 percent in the first three years of her term. But cuts are inevitable now if Trident is to be paid for. She has signaled her intent by reducing the political impact of the armed forces: She has created one joint ministerial team under Defense Secretary John Nott to replace ministers for the Army, Navy, and Air Force.
US officials worry that an isolationist Labour government would harm US-British ties. Britain cannot really afford the defenses she would like.
But Britain today remains guardian of a mighty past, a staunch defender of spiritual values, the center of the Commonwealth, and a friend to the US.