A changing Britain: handling four major problems

RETURNING to Britain for a few impressionistic days is no substitute for a serious survey. But talk with friends old and new -- journalists, diplomats, politicians -- and a striking coincidence of views emerges.

It is a consensus about Britain's present mood and future direction that is often troubling.

If correct, it is a view in ironic contrast to the elegant (and some would say fairy-tale) view of Britain engendered among some Americans by the recent visit to their country of the Prince and Princess of Wales.

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Anglophiles tend to look back on World War II as Britain's finest hour. It was then that Britons endured with extraordinary courage and seemingly endless good cheer the German pounding from the skies.

But from a nation in the forefront of the campaign against Nazism, Britain over the years has shed empire and power.

Although retaining substantial moral influence in world councils, as well as a special relationship with the United States, it has emerged as a middle-size European power.

With the Falklands campaign there was a flash of that old Churchillian grandeur, but by and large Britain seems to have withdrawn from international power politics and lapsed into a self-contemplative mood.

There is nothing particularly wrong with a realistic appraisal of the nation's role in the world, and Britain, one might think, has the character and tradition to make such an existence congenial.

It has a long and stabilizing history. It has a countryside of great beauty, and cities of grace and charm. It has a people for whom good manners and good humor come naturally. It is a land with long-ingrained respect for law and order, so much so that British policemen have for years gone unarmed. It is a country with a reverence for the English language and an eloquence in its expression by the English, the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish, who make up Britain's people.

Yet for all its strengths, the view of Britain by those who live there is less than totally serene.

Violence is a principal topic of discussion. Of late, Britain has suffered a string of urban riots, in which police have been in pitched battles with angry mobs. Violence by British fans at soccer matches, both at home and abroad, have, in Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's words, brought shame to Britain. And accounts of rape and murder and shotgun attacks even in London's Park Lane are now featured routinely on the front pages of London's newspapers.

As a result, some policemen are being armed. There is criticism of the degree of force used by the police in some incidents. And however things turn out, the days when an unarmed London ``bobby'' maintained the law with a benign wag of his finger seem a thing of the past.

What is behind all this? The social scientists must give their expert answer. But ordinary observers list four major problems in Britain that may have a bearing. They are class, unemployment, race, and, more recently, drugs.

Distinction between the classes has hung doggedly on. One perceptive observer says: ``In the United States you have upward mobility by the middle class. Not so in England. Here your future is determined by how you speak, where you went to school, who your parents were.''

Unemployment among the lower classes is high and longstanding. Some school-leavers may never get jobs; some who have lost jobs may never return to them. Says a Scottish mine worker getting welfare-state benefits: ``Unless I make 300 pounds [$44O] a week in the mines, I'm better off not working.'' With more workers than there are jobs, racism has become more evident. Whites resent nonwhite immigrants. A white porter in your hotel delivers a long racist diatribe against nonwhite newcomers.

Meanwhile, a new wave of drugs has apparently been unleashed on Britain by immigrants from the West Indies.

The law-and-order issue is apparently working to the benefit of the Thatcher government, which enjoys a reputation for toughness with lawbreakers. Unemployment remains a major challenge -- although opposition politicians privately ponder whether they could do any better than the Conservatives.

The British have a reputation for ``muddling through.''

Those who wish them well cannot but hope that the sturdiness of British character will successfully vanquish these corrosive problems.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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