Britain: camping, caning, China, and capital punishment

We sat in deck chairs on an immaculate English lawn, discussing the suitably summery subject of vacations. ''Just back from camping - tents, you know, on the beach,'' said the trim, cheerful, graying man on my right.

''Really?'' I murmured, having never been a canvas-and-rope man myself, and thinking of English camping sites with their cheek-by-jowl tents and trailers, their cheerful grime, and less-than-immaculate communal facilities.

''Know just what you're thinking, old boy,'' came the reply. ''Wouldn't think of camping in this country. But we went to the Brittany coast. And the French. . . .''

He went on to describe how he and his family had encountered, to their frank surprise, an idyll of spacious, already-erected tents, solid floors, unlimited hot water, clean restrooms, well-kept grounds, and (less surprisingly) superb (and cheap) food at the local markets.

We all began to discuss what to me was a new truism: When the British middle class camps, it camps abroad.

In France, and elsewhere, it can satisfy two needs: (1) to travel, one of the badges of middle classes everywhere, and (2) to be somewhere clean and well organized, yet able to make one's own pace and arrangements.

Of course, holiday camps do exist in Britain, ''but mainly for blue-collar workers and those who like crowds and don't mind a bit of dirt,'' as another in the deck-chair circle pointed out.''

''The middle class doesn't camp at home,'' asserted another. ''English travel companies will set up places in Brittany but wouldn't think of setting up similar ones in Devon or on Britain's east or west coasts.

''It's the weather of course - this year is exceptional,'' said the graying man, referring to reports that July was the hottest month in recorded memory. (Where else but in Britain could weather officials say with a straight face that they can find no hotter month since 1659?)

It is also, if a foreigner may venture an opinion, the case that for an island, this country has not made the most of its coastline. Many stretches are glorious and unspoiled, but others, especially in the more crowded regions, are dull, straggling, and unattractive.

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* When the British temporarily finish with the delights of the hot weather this summer, their next topic of discussion is punishment.

The country has just gone through prolonged and heated debate over whether to reinstate capital punishment. Parliament voted against restoring hanging for the crime of murder, though polls show a majority of people still in favor.

Now the subject is not capital but corporal punishment - whether children should be caned in school.

To the annoyance of many here, the issue of caning has been forced on Britain by the European Court of Human Rights. In 1982 it ruled that a parent convinced that caning was wrong is supported by provisions of the European human rights convention.

The ruling is binding on Britain as a member of the European Community, and the Education Ministry had to decide how to conform to it. One idea was to abolish caning altogether. Another was to permit it in some schools but not in others.

The plan now being considered is to let caning stand, but to allow parents to exempt their own children. A hail of criticism at once fell on the ministry.

''To have two classes of children would be very unfair, bureaucratically chaotic, and absolutely crackpot,'' said a spokesman for STOPP (Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment).

The National Union of Teachers agrees. Like STOPP, the national union urges that corporal punishment be abolished at once.

The ministry replies that it is still seeking opinions on what action to take - whether to make anti-caning parents register their views with schools, for instance, or only pro-caning parents, or to have all parents state one view or the other.

Caning, officials say, is still a valuable part of discipline. Besides, common law in England and Wales sees teachers as acting in loco parentis - and many parents still favor the cane.

The argument thrashes on.

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* Since the Falklands victory over Argentina, much has been heard about the British Empire - or what is still left of it.

At its height, before World War II, more than 1 billion people lived under the British flag, from India and Ceylon to Sierra Leone, the Bahamas, the Seychelles, and tiny Nauru Island in the Pacific.

Now, according to a new study prepared for the Foreign Office, only 5.5 million people are left - all but 150,000 of them living in Hong Kong.

Britain is currently negotiating with China over Hong Kong's status when British leases run out in 1997. Indications from the talks are that the communist Chinese in Peking will have formal sovereignty over the territory, with British officials and commerical traders still being permitted to operate their capitalist state.

The only other British territories with populations of more than 20,000 are Bermuda and Gibraltar.

The rest include such tiny outposts as St. Helena in the Atlantic, still almost as remote as when Napoleon was exiled there.

Meanwhile, about 50 former colonies have become independent, almost all of them choosing to remain in the British Commonwealth.

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