London — TO hear the British talk, you'd think the Atlantic Ocean was narrower than the English Channel. Many inhabitants of this island nation feel closer to the United States (despite frequent private tut-tutting here at US attitudes and foreign policies) than to the continent of Europe.
''The channel might seem very small,'' remarked Lord Carrington, the urbane former foreign secretary, in an interview recently, ''but psychologically it is quite a large affair.''
Time and time again you hear people say they really don't care for the manners of the French, or the bravura of the Italians, or the stolidity of the Germans, or the staidness of the Belgians. Nor do they think much of the way the Brussels bureaucracy of the Common Market can make rules that impede British sovereignty.
This remains an island nation, mentally as well as geographically. It is an outpost of Protestant ideas on the edge of a largely Roman Catholic Europe.
It is, in a word, separate.
Its newspapers, radio, and television, with only a few exceptions such as the BBC External Services, carry relatively little in-depth analysis of European news, and hardly any at all about the Republic of Ireland.
Britain is a member of the Common Market, but judging by the frequent complaints here about rising food prices and high-handed directives from Brussels, Britain's heart is not fully engaged.
Recent polls show almost half the population wanting to leave or feeling the market was a ''bad thing.'' Younger and more affluent Britons favor membership.
Apart from anything else, the British cannot just slip into Europe on the spur of the moment the way Europeans can drive across a border to shop or have a meal.
My family, staying in Antwerp on vacation, once had breakfast in Belgium, lunch in southern Holland, dinner in Aachen, West Germany, and drove back to Antwerp all in one day. But if you are in Britain, first you have to cross the channel. That takes planning, time, and money.
The British can fly, but European air fares are considerably higher than American fares of equal distance, and British incomes are lower than those in the US. If they reach the channel by rail or road, Britons find the average cost of a summer crossing, according to one survey, is (STR)2 and 77 pence per mile -- eight times more expensive per mile than flying the supersonic Concorde 3,400 miles to New York.
A family of four has to pay what for many people is a week's wages -- upward of (STR)100 ($140) -- in summer just to get itself and its average-sized car across the 22 miles from Dover to Calais.
Nonetheless, the Common Market's 270 million people are too powerful a magnet to be ignored. Like it or not, they are Britain's biggest market now.
So British attitudes appear to be changing somewhat - at least, their replies to pollsters are.
In a 1969 Gallup poll 34 percent put United Kingdom ties with the US ahead of those with Europe (only 21 percent put Europe first). A November 1983 poll showed the reverse: 40 percent said Europe mattered more, and only 26 percent stuck with the US.
Moreover, necessity and the slowly rising level of income mean that more and more Britons are taking the trip to the Continent regardless.
When the Gallup organization took a poll in August 1983, it found that 53 percent of people here had visited France (up from 32 percent in 1968). Thirty-eight percent had been to Spain (12 percent in 1968), and 34 percent to West Germany (20 percent).
Deep down, however, many a Briton appears to keep his distance. A recent debate at the Oxford Union was on the partly humorous, partly serious subject, ''Better dead than French.'' The motion was carried by 27 votes to 19 although (or perhaps because) one opposer spoke entirely in French.
I once asked an acquaintance why, if the British felt so separate, so many took car and caravan (trailer) to France, for instance.
''My dear chap,'' he replied, ''I love France. Go there all the time. Splendid place. It's the French people I have difficulty with. . . . I adore Italy, but the Italians, . . . well. . . . Belgium? Good food, but the Belgian people are, well. . . .''
He smiled - but he was not wholly joking.
Nor are the British great linguists. One might imagine that the island, as a member of the European Community and a longtime trading nation, would be awash with foreign languages.
But according to polls, 1 person in 5 says he can make sense of a foreign newspaper, but the figure seems too high. Thirteen percent say they can speak French, 6 percent German, and the other languages are nowhere. It's a contrast with the Netherlands, where a much higher percentage speaks two or more languages.
When Gallup asked Britons where they would rather be if they couldn't live in Britain, the silence was deafening. Eventually, 16 percent chose France, 15 percent said Switzerland, and 14 percent said West Germany.
Britain's best friend in Europe? Gallup found it was West Germany -- but only 27 percent said so. A mere 9 percent said France. No other nation received more than 2 percent support. Britain's economy is in Europe but not its heart.
How, then, do the British feel about the United States?
The answer: mixed.
On the one hand, America and Americans are liked. Many Britons tend to accept readily what they know of the US and its life -- strategic and nuclear leadership of the Western world, vitality, movies, TV, Coca-Cola, clothes, fast food. Many take business and holiday trips to the US, and their children return wearing Disney World T-shirts.
But there is also a tendency to look down at US life, manners, and clamor. In part, this is because the US and not Britain now leads the Western world. In part it is compensating for the long period in which the British economy has been getting relatively weaker while the US economy has been getting stronger. In part it is a feeling that Americans may supply Europe's military shield, but they don't really understand European history and concerns.
And in part it is an issue of sovereignty. Polls show that two-thirds of the British people want to retain nuclear weapons. Opinion is fairly evenly divided on whether American weapons should be here. In a Marplan poll last November, 42 percent accepted NATO's deployment of US cruise missiles here; 47 percent opposed. Eleven percent had no opinion.
At the top level, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seldom criticizes President Reagan in public. In private she has concerns: on the invasion of Grenada, for instance, and on strategy on Lebanon. She objects to US efforts to stop European sales of microcomputers and some other high-technology to the Soviet bloc.
Her foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, told a think-tank conference in March that in European eyes, the US takes an ''unnecessarily confrontational approach'' to the Kremlin, has a ''fundamentally flawed'' policy in the Mideast, shows a ''dangerous indifference'' to the third world, and runs a budget deficit that is far too high.
But the Thatcher team shares Reagan's view of the USSR and of economic affairs in general. It agrees with Lord Carrington that ''the most important concern within the alliance is to keep Americans involved. . . . Europeans need the American nuclear umbrella.''
DURING an interview, Lord Carrington drew a line between anti-Americanism and nationalism in Britain.
''People like to be their own sovereign self,'' he remarked, ''to feel they are responsible for their own affairs. . . .''
A new generation not just in Britain but on the Continent is not so automatically pro-US as their elders, who remember World War II, the Marshall Plan, and the origins of NATO, he says. At least part of this new generation must make up its mind: Does it equate the US and the Soviet Union, or support one over the other?
Back at the Oxford Union, a training ground for the House of Commons, another recent motion for debate proposed that there was no moral difference between the foreign policies of the two superpowers.
US Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger carried the day when he opposed the motion by arguing that there were plenty of moral differences -- one being his very presence in an open society, openly debating.
Most British people would agree with him.