Spring in Britain: flowers, angry miners, and economic optimism

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While snow pounds parts of the United States, daffodils frolic in the warmer breezes and share the early spring glory with the crocuses in London's Kensington Gardens and St. James Park.

Although spring does not officially arrive in the Northern Hemisphere until today, London has already had its first dress rehearsal for spring.

Another sign that the country is throwing off its winter mantle is that Britain returns to Summer Time on Sunday, March 25. Clocks will move forward one hour, stretching the time difference between London and the East Coast of the United States from five to six hours.

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As the weather warms up, London braces itself for the avalanche of spring and summer tourists. With the dollar remaining relatively high, despite some recent slippage, Americans are expected to come to the British Isles in droves.

One American living in London who is tired of being mistaken for an American tourist sports a green and white button on his jacket which says, ''I'm not a tourist. I live here.''

Many multinational corporations in Britain offer an attractive investment climate. Whether their employees will feel so well disposed toward Britain after Nigel Lawson, the new chancellor of the exchequer, announced his budget is debatable. Under existing British tax laws, employees of foreign companies sent to Britain enjoy considerable tax relief. They are only required to pay British tax on 50 percent of their earnings. Not any more. Under Mr. Lawson's new budget proposals this relief will be phased out. There will be no relief for those entering Britain after budget day.

For this correspondent returning to Britain on assignment after a 14-year absence there is a strong feeling of deja vu - of having seen it all before. We shoppers continue to cram those well-known stores, Harrods and ''Marks and Sparks,'' as Marks and Spencer is affectionately known here. The No. 16 double-decker bus to Cricklewood Garage still winds its way up Park Lane and sweeps around Marble Arch as it heads north to the Irish community of Kilburn.

Even the major stories - Britain's problems with the Common Market, Northern Ireland, and its own miners - have an all too familiar ring. Many of the television interviewers and commentators, such as Robin Day, now with the aura of a knighthood, and David Dimbleby, were household names in the late 1960s.

Conflict still reverberates across the British TV screen in the form of angry miners coercing less militant colleagues into closing collieries.

But times are changing.

This is not a replay of the miners' strike that more than anything helped bring down the government of Edward Heath in 1974. Miners are losing ground both in terms of their political clout and in the size of their pay packet vis a vis other British workers. Instead of miner solidarity, the miners' strke is pitting miner against miner.

Britain is in a transitional stage. Unproductive coal mines are being phased out to make the industry more streamlined and efficient. Many of Britain's other old, large, traditional industries such as shipbuilding are on their last legs.

Britain is now in the throes of a new industrial revolution where coal from Newcastle or ships from the Clyde will become less important than computers from the Swindon Valley.

Despite talk of a stagnating Britain, there is also a perceptible impression that in many areas Britain may well be turning a corner. Mr. Lawson's budget speech conveyed a new mood of optimism. True, it could turn out to be yet another false dawn.

Britain needs all the help it can get. It is estimated that 8.5 to 9 million Britons - or one-sixth of the whole population - live in poverty.

A recently released EC report shows only those living in London, southeast England, and Scotland live above the average EC wealth level. Those living in the rest of England, Northern Ireland, and Scotland are below the average.

Still, on the strength of current economic indicators and the chancellor's buoyant prospects for the economy, mortgage rates dropped a full percent last week.

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