Britain's spring of discontent

BRITAIN is emerging from its worst winter in 25 years. It has been buffeted by ceaseless gray skies and snow since November, so the moments of sunshine that spring offers are a welcome relief. But spring has begun in a political winter. The United States bombing of Libya hit Britain like a December blizzard. Reaction was swift and angry. According to a Harris poll, 81 percent of Britain believes terrorist attacks against the British will increase as a result of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's support for the US air strike. Sixty-nine percent said the government should not have allowed the bombers that struck Libya to be launched from English bases.

As an American living in London, I find it impossible not to share the British reaction.

From Britain, the US attack looks like the work of a superpower frustrated that its wealth and technology cannot make the world work as it believes it should.

The British have feared for some time that this frustration would lead the US to act in a way contrary to British safety. A recent poll showed that 55 percent of Britons believe the US is a greater threat to world peace than the Soviet Union is.

Britain feels like a country at war. This feeling derives its strength, a middle-aged businessman explained, from suffering air attacks in the World War II and IRA bombings in the 1970s.

Retaliation on Libya or groups supporting Libya will occur not on American but on European soil. The considerable resentment against the US in Europe stems from the opinion that American action has endangered European lives, especially British lives.

British columnists, even in the conservative Financial Times, have exhausted themselves pointing out that the unresolved Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the deeper grievance that gives birth to that form of violence known as terrorism.

The British learned early on that political conflicts in the Middle East could not be solved by military might. Following the twin debacles of their occupation of Palestine and the 1956 Suez invasion, the British have consistently advocated negotiated settlements to Middle East conflicts. The public does not support Mrs. Thatcher's break with this policy.

Differences in British and American attitudes are partly related to geography. Sandwiched between two nuclear superpowers, Europeans find themselves exercising little control over their fate. Mrs. Thatcher's agreement to allow US planes to fly from England is seen as an abdication of British independence and neglect of British interests.

Increasing economic integration with Europe is slowly moving Britain toward Europe and away from the US. In the process Europe is grouping to define a foreign and economic policy distinctly European. Complex European Community trade links to the Middle East, including $13.5 billion annually with Libya, must figure in the policymaking of any British government.

The opinion that Mrs. Thatcher endangered British lives and neglected European interests has made her, and not Colonel Qaddafi, the likely first political casualty of the United States raid. Questioning of her political instincts within her Cabinet is growing. Significant retaliation against British citizens will bring her downfall.

The racial implications of the attack have yet to receive comment here. The Reagan administration's actions require location in an analysis that deems Arabs irrational people who attack America ``because it is there'' and who will be deterred from doing so by returning fire.

Only by asserting the centrality of the Palestinian-Israel conflict does Middle East violence become understandable.

American failure to do this is kin to British failure to give but scant notice to the deaths caused by the American attack. Arab deaths are still not news.

The British fear terrorist retaliation. This is the major impetus behind their desire for peace in the Middle East. This position is more enlightened, but has yet to confront the racist attitudes that so complicate the Middle East problem.

But there is hope.

European public response to the attack indicates movement toward confronting the hurdles blocking peace in the Middle East.

Whether the United States will go with them is a queston. If not, difficult days lie ahead for the Atlantic alliance.

Kevin J. Kelly, from Alameda, Calif., is a graduate student studying international political economy at the London School of Economics.

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