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(Page 2 of 2)

He smiled - but he was not wholly joking.

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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.