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BRIDGING THE 'WALLS' THAT DIVIDE CITIZENS

By David K. WillisStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 8, 1984



London

THE visitor here enjoys the outward, readily visible Britain - the pageantry, the settled tradition, the civility, the peace and beauty of fields, farms, rivers, oaks, and elms.

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The resident also reaps the benefit of these genuine and substantial British characteristics. At the same time, however, the resident keeps stubbing a toe against at least four other features of the landscape.

These are the physical and mental, social and cultural divisions of class, of education, and of race relations; and - with geographic and economic aspects as well - the divide between the relatively prosperous Jaguar-and-Mercedes south of England, and the poorer, bleaker, recession-hit and largely out-of-work north of England together with Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

Much progress has been made toward bridging or softening these divisions. Some notable changes are evident. And, of course, there are invisible walls in most other countries as well.

What the venerable poet Sir Stephen Spender calls the ''barriers'' of social class can be found in varying degrees in Australia, India, Africa, and even in supposedly egalitarian societies such as the United States, West Germany, and the Soviet Union.

Nor is Britain the only country to have a small, highly educated elite, or large numbers of adults whose education stopped at age 16, or heavy, unevenly spread unemployment.

Yet in few other Western, industrialized countries are all four ''invisible'' social and economic walls so marked, so entrenched. And many Britons recognize that to build further on their country's many current strengths demands that some or all of these walls be lowered; that there needs to be a softening of the sharp edges of social class and of north-south differences; a leveling up, rather than down, of schools and education; a narrowing of racial divisions between majority whites and growing minorities of Pakistanis, Indians, and West Indians, whose children have been educated here and whose expectations of prosperity and social justice collide with high urban unemployment. Social class

A British government official who often travels abroad observes, ''In a country lacking sharp ethnic divisions for many years - except in Northern Ireland - social class has been a constant collision point. People love to hammer away at it.''

Class divisions remain embedded in British life today, even though some changes are taking place, and even though some Britons think class exists largely in the eye of the overseas beholder who has watched too much ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' on television.

The nuances of class and position remain the stuff of much British TV and theater, of films and books and newspapers that constantly use the terms ''upper class,'' ''middle class,'' ''lower class'' in a way that US society does not.

True, the extremes of wealth and poverty that so distressed Charles Dickens in Victorian times are not nearly so apparent today. Fewer people are super-rich. Fewer are dirt-poor. A more middle-class Britain, with middle-class values, is emerging. White-collar jobs grow (in service industries and electronics and in the financial areas of banking, accountancy, insurance, and stock and commodity dealing). Blue-collar jobs decline.

''Trade'' - shopkeeping, tailoring, industry - no longer carries the social stigma of previous eras.

Lord Bethell, a member of the House of Lords and of the European Parliament, says the Conservative Party is far more egalitarian these days. ''I personally know senior officials who once owned garages,'' he remarked.

The spread of middle-class values has so far survived high unemployment. And loss of jobs has not caused financial despair (though its impact on morale and confidence, while not measurable, is likely to be much greater). A private study done for the BBC estimates no less than (STR)6 billion ($8.52 billion) has been paid out since 1979 in severance payments alone. Many an unemployed man and his family take package tour vacations to Spain and Greece - and also qualify for lower home mortgage payments, cut-rate gas, electricity, and local tax bills.