A little London dinner discourse for holidays

You never know these days, when you come downstairs for breakfast, whether the act of opening the front door will let in a blast of freezing air . . . or a waft of mild. England races toward Christmas amid alternating freeze and thaw.

It rains, as usual, a lot. The leaves are well off the trees. Frost sparkles on the occasional morning. Our black rabbit and white guinea pig are still outside, seemingly none the worse, though soon they will have to be given more substantial shelter.

Meanwhile, when the humans of our acquaintance gather together, as a group of friends did the other night for dinner, the conversation turns to the dismal state of the economy (as usual) and the far-from-dismal state of Shirley Williams, David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Bill Rodgers, and the Social Democratic-Liberal alliance.

The elegantly accented businessman to my left believed Mrs. Williams and the others would form the next government at elections Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher can call either late in 1983 or in 1984.

The rather more forceful businessman sitting on the other side of the cheese and the biscuits disagreed. The Social Democrats and the Liberals would win a mere 60 seats (out of the total of 635), he believed, and the alliance would hold the balance of power. Not only would the popular Mrs. Williams hold ministerial rank once again (she has already been, among other things, a Labour education minister), but Liberal leader David Steel would also become the first Liberal in decades to hold such office.

It was a southern-England, business-centered, well-to-do dinner party, but in an area with strong support for the Liberals despite regular election of a Conservative member of Parliament. The rush to prominence of Mrs. Williams and her group has left such people almost breathless with surprise.

The entire table of a dozen people agreed the Labour Party was losing support rapidly (as recent by-elections have clearly shown) because of the fierce internal feuding between traditional leftists like leader Michael Foot, and near-Marxist Tony Benn and his young, militant, grass-roots constituency-party supporters around the country.

So what about this new Social Democratic Party?

To start with, it's more in the American, modern mold than Tories or Labour. It shuns (so far at least) a large central bureaucracy. It uses computers to mail out appeals for funds and to appeal for new members. Its main argument with Labour is that Labour is being infiltrated by radical left-wingers subverting party ideals and destroying party democracy. ''One-man-one-vote'' inside the party is the Social Democratic credo.

The new party so far has even deliberately refused to name a leader. Each of the so-called ''Gang of Four'' (Williams, Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers), who together set the ball rolling, acts as chairman of the ruling group for a month at a time. This practice will have to end soon, however, and the party will make its choice before long.

What else are people talking about this season of goodwill and recession?

There's talk of a tax cut next spring, since many people read the latest mini-budget (Dec. 2) as a prelude to easier economic policies in advance of the next election.

There's talk of what the mini-budget did not say in so many words but whose figures clearly implied: the Treasury lost its months-long battle to hold down public spending, which is to rise (STR)5 billion (US $9.5 billion) in the fiscal year 1982-83.

Payroll tax (national insurance contribution), medical prescriptions, and public housing rents all went up. Meanwhile tax intake will be slightly higher next year since inflation is also two percent higher than forecast. Financial sources see the clear possibility of small tax cuts at budget time in the spring.

People are also talking about the stricken state of British museums. The director of the famed British Museum, Dr. David Wilson, startled the establishment here by bluntly telling a House of Commons select committee that unless government grants are boosted, the museum may have to close altogether in two years.

The National Gallery and the Tate could be reduced to opening only a small number of rooms. The Victoria and Albert Museum fears ''catastrophic'' effects if it can't raise more money. Museum directors talk of entrance charges or an undignified hunt for commercial sponsors.

One museum official told the BBC about the large shop New York's Metropolitan Museum operates on its ground floor to sell replicas of exhibits, cards, and other souvenirs. The staff used to make the models could be used to maintain the real exhibits, the official said, adding that British standards of maintenance and security were high. But without extra funds, museums would have to cut back.

Mrs. Thatcher was moved. Unexpectedly, and to sighs of relief, Arts Minister Paul Channon announced Dec. 4 an eight percent rise in government grants for 1982-83. Amid the rejoicing, however, the Victoria and Albert Museum warned that its John Constable collection might never be seen again unless more adjustments were made.

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