Post-Empire Britain tries to adapt
WHEN members of Parliament enter the Victorian majesty of the Palace of Westminster, with its two miles of corridors and 1,180 rooms, they hurry past the polished oak, the gold leaf, and the colorful coats of arms to one of the few areas of less than baronial splendor.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
There they find waiting for their coats plain, utilitarian hangers. From each is suspended a length of red tape.
For umbrellas? Documents? No - the tapes have hung there for as long as anyone can remember so that, before proceeding to the floor, members may hang up their swords.
Decorated hilts and scabbards may have faded, but their memories linger on. Both the tapes and the palace itself (completed in 1852) are reminders of an imperial age, when Britain's rule extended so far around the world that the sun could never set on it.
Like the swords, the empire has vanished, but its memory and influence remain - in society, in institutions, and in individual attitudes.
Politicians might clash daily on the pace and depth of current economic recovery, and on the standing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but the empire, which in historical terms ended a short time ago, bequeathed a remarkable, underlying legacy:
A world view symbolized today by the Commonwealth; a competent central bureaucracy; skilled military forces; preeminence in banking and finance; and a tradition of elite, quality boarding schools which educated the children of far-flung colonial administrators and, in turn, provided the next generation of officers and officials. The empire also helped foster the kind of professionalism in the spoken word that created the BBC (whose World Service began in 1932 primarily as a way to link the countries of the empire).
There are other, sometimes less desirable legacies:
A hierarchical society that tends to be deferential in face of rank or title; an unwillingness or inability to see that the British need above all new social attitudes to help them rediscover in themselves what John Rae, the headmaster of Westminster School in London, describes as ''those national characteristics of energy, aggression, and enterprise that had once made their island the most successful trading state in the world.''
The good qualities can also seem obscured by the divisive public debate that goes on here day by day, centering largely on economic statistics and how much influence the central government should gain or lose.
The political system is a sharply adversary one. The public debate is shrill and often cast in personal terms. The public is helped by excellent radio, some good television, and some high-quality national newspapers. But most of the overmanned, technologically backward Fleet Street press battles for circulation using the weapons of trivia, sensationalism, and emotionalism.
The beneficial legacy of empire, however, remains substantial. The question is whether it is enough to transform Britain into a more flexible, forward-looking, prosperous state.
Many outsiders have the impression that, in general, this country is an old-fashioned place, pleasant to visit but emptied of real power, filled with public figures intoning the kind of statement heard in the House of Commons recently - ''Mr. Speaker, sir, I am all in favor of progress - as long as it doesn't mean change.''
Often Britain attracts attention because of its past instead of its future, because of its royal pageantry, its military parade grounds, its picture-postcard countryside, its historic buildings, its dukes and its earls.
Britain still is challenged to give a full and satisfying answer to the observation made by Dean Acheson, former US secretary of state, not long after this country's superb stand against Hitler. The British had lost an empire, Mr. Acheson commented, but not yet found a role.
The ebbing away of global power has left once-great institutions shadows of their former selves. Change rushes in on all sides, not always fully understood, often uncomfortable and sharp. Among the most difficult to deal with: the 16 percent unemployment rate among the 71/2 million Britons between the ages of 16 and 24 - young people with a bare minimum of education, few if any skills, and the feeling they have no future.