London — The serenity of the British countryside charms tourists from all over the world - the steepled villages, the patchwork-quilt fields, ancient oaks, thatched cottages, gentle hills.
But could it be that this very countryside is a villain in disguise? Does its timeless lure actually get in the way of Britain's effort to cope with the postwar industrial world?
A number of people think so - at least they see the British businessman's love affair with his countryside as one of a number of reasons British business management is not more successful.
It all has to do with the values the British middle and upper classes consider to be important.
''What do successful people want in this country?'' asks John Egan, chief executive of Jaguar Cars in Coventry. ''I'll tell you - it isn't to be a good manager. It's a title, and a house in the country. As long as that's true, you won't find people working as hard as they do in the US or in Japan or Germany. . . .''
Businessman Ian Davidson caused a lively debate at the end of last year when he wrote in the Financial Times newspaper that ''the British are not, in the main, and never have been, really interested in making money . . . for its own sake. Japan, Switzerland, and America are different, and richer.''
A Kensington reader, Maurice Zinkin, commented: ''I think it is understandable that many people like to live in the country. The English countryside is particularly attractive.
''The fact remains that most people have to live in towns, and that if the better-off insist on living in the country it means that far too many of our top people spend time traveling that would be more usefully occupied, from the country's point of view, in working. The City [London's financial center] is full of examples.''
One trouble is that the ambition to live in the country is so eminently attractive that many British people can't bring themselves to criticize it, even though they know it slows ambition. They worry that if people did not love the countryside so much, and gardens, and flowers, and going for walks, some of the unique quality of British life would be lost.
''These roots go deep,'' comments Anthony Sampson, author of ''The Changing Anatomy of Britain.''
''It's sensible to want to live in the countryside, after all . . . it's one of the causes of the British people's peaceful relations with their surroundings. . . .
''But it is hard for people to keep their drive here. We do have our dynamic young people who go to the Harvard Business School and so on, but the drive fades fairly early on. You don't have people keeping on driving hard in management. You don't get that lasting dedication that makes people really keep on working hard.''
In part this is because the ruling ethos of Oxford and Cambridge for many years was that a gentleman did not roll up his sleeves to go down to the factory floor and work. He operated through tiers of managers and foremen.
''Now attitudes are changing,'' Mr. Sampson says. ''Computer specialists, for instance, are far less interested in class and more interested in people working together.''
Japanese employers in Britain are showing the way in establishing good relations with their British workers. Managers like Jaguar's John Egan stress communication within companies, and eliminate separate parking spaces and restaurants for varying grades of workers.
But much more remains to be done. Attending Oxford and Cambridge is still, for many who make it, a step up a moving staircase leading to a seat in the House of Commons, a judgeship, or a stockbroker's seat in the City of London. Too seldom does it launch one on the kind of career in business management which British industry so urgently needs.
Meanwhile, more and more parents are willing to pay the high fees for British private secondary schools, seeing them as the passport to their children's success.
Last year private-school fees rose about 10 percent, according to a survey by the Independent Schools Information Service (ISIS), a group set up to deflect widespread criticism of private school elitism in the 1960s.
Actual enrollments were down 1 percent because of a dip in the birthrate, but that amounted to only 3,000 pupils, the survey said. In contrast, the drop in state schools was 3.2 percent, or 250,000 children.
For boarders, the average annual fee at a British private school in 1982 was (STR)3,080 (about $4,700).
But private-school headmasters want to see no more cuts in government funds to state schools. They fear that, as Headmaster Roger Ellis of Marlborough College puts it, the differences between state and private schools would become so marked that ''the politics of envy'' would make abolition of private schools more likely, not less.
The nine main private schools in Britain are Winchester (founded in 1382), Eton (1440), St. Paul's (1509), Shrewsbury (1552), Westminster (1569), Merchant Taylors' (1561), Rugby (1567), Harrow (1571), and Charterhouse (1611.)
In 1981 their boarding fees averaged more than (STR)4,000 ($6,100) a year.
Britain's weakness in the field of management has at least two side effects:
* It forces the government to turn to people from abroad to take on difficult management tasks. (South African Michael Edwardes to run BL Ltd. in car manufacturing, for instance, and Scottish-born Ian MacGregor, first for British Steel Corporation and now chairman of the National Coal Board.)
* Many able professional and managerial people leave to earn more money abroad. This ''brain drain'' stood at a near-record of 22,300 in 1981, with 67, 500 leaving and 45,200 coming in, according to the Government Office of Population, Censuses, and Surveys. The net figure was up from 20,300 in 1980. Both 1981 and 1980 were sharply higher than 1979, when the ''brain drain'' was only a net 5,000.