BRIDGING THE 'WALLS' THAT DIVIDE CITIZENS
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.
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.
Yet at the top of society remains a small elite able to boast family pedigrees, titles, university educations, the ''right'' accent and clothes, and fashionable travel. Below, British society is still hierarchical. People in general show a marked deference to rank and title whether based on solid achievement or merely on family tree.
In July 1982 the BBC asked several of its radio correspondents abroad to assess class in their areas. London anchorman John Clare summed up with some comparisons.
Class in Britain, he said, was ''more sophisticated . . . than in Australia; more sure of itself than in Japan; quite as alive as the caste system in India; sometimes, especially if you are black, as deadly as tribalism in Uganda - and much more pervasive than in West Germany.''
On a 12-passenger Finnish container ship in 1980, I joined officers at a single round table, to be served a fixed menu by a lone steward. On a later voyage on a British sister ship, I found separate tables for captain, first officer, chief engineer, and junior officers, as well as two stewards and a menu.
Meanwhile, twice each year (in the Queen's honors list at New Year and on her official birthday) the class system is perpetuated by the award of hundreds of titles - both ''spoken'' (''Lord,'' ''Baron,'' ''Sir,'' ''Lady,'' etc.) and unspoken (Order of the British Empire, Royal Victorian Order, etc.).
Higher awards go to older, wealthier, more professional people (retired ministers, diplomats, civil servants, lawyers, physicians, bankers, company chairmen, scholars), while lesser ones go to charity workers, bandleaders, athletes, pop stars, and others. Few disagree with the concept of rewarding good works in a nonmonetary way. But some argue the system is too political.
The respected Financial Times newspaper sees the honors system as perpetuating snobbery, having too many categories, and being too much in the hands of the prime minister of the day. It would be better, the paper says, to have a nonpolitical, independent commission in charge. Education
The gateway to class and status remains a ''public school'' (in US terms, a private, fee-paying school) and university education - and remarkably few are able to enter. So the British elite stays small.
''Public schools'' - Eton, Harrow, Winchester, and the rest - educate only about 5 percent of British young people, yet they provide 50 percent of the students at Oxford and Cambridge.
Research by the BBC shows that a smaller proportion of ''working-class'' children entered British universities in 1982 than in 1932. Only 7.5 percent of British 18-year-olds enter any university at all. The comparable figure for the US is 40 percent. For France it is 30 percent.
Even when all forms of higher education and vocational training are included, the British figure rises to only 12.5 percent, according to the Education Ministry.
''In the end,'' says the BBC's John Clare, ''social mobility - breaking out of your class - does depend on education . . . Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) does remain a gilded gateway to wealth, power, and privilege.''
Figures are also disturbing for secondary education. Only 38 percent of school-leavers in 1981-82 had obtained a pass in English in the ''O''-level exams all children take at about age 16, or in the equivalent Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE). Even fewer - 28 percent - passed in mathematics. A mere 15 percent passed in physics. Fifteen percent passed in French.
These figures were confirmed by the Education Ministry, and they underlie deep concern by the minister, Sir Keith Joseph. He has just announced a sweeping new plan to try to upgrade standards and make them more uniform nationwide.
The figures help an outsider to understand the depth of the unemployment tragedy here. Half of all those out of work are under 25 years of age. They have had no real training for any career. Only now is the government launching the kind of blue-collar training programs long in place in France, West Germany, and Japan.
A number of experts want even the elite private schools to change their values and curricula. The schools, they say, should stop stressing so strongly the qualities of team play, loyalty, and administrative skills needed to run an empire and focus more than at present on developing the attributes of individual initiative and entrepreneurial skill.
During the age of empire, Britain enjoyed protected markets and privileged imports. Now Britain needs to revert to the kind of rugged, flexible trading skills that once made England the greatest commercial power on earth.
With the empire alive, says John Rae, headmaster of the prestigious Westminster School in London, Britain could ''afford to regard what happened in schools and universities as having little bearing on the wealth of the country.'' But no longer, he believes. Racial attitudes
Racial prejudice is less dramatic than in the US: Only some 4 percent of Britain's 55 million people are ethnic minorities.
But in the inner cities, minority percentages are far higher: 33 percent in Brent in outer London, 28 percent in Hackney in London, 23 percent in London overall, 21 percent in Leicester, 15 percent in Birmingham, 11 percent in Bradford.
Indians and Pakistanis (about 600,000 in 1982) have assimilated more easily in areas such as London, Slough, Leicester, Birmingham, and Bradford than have blacker, less-educated West Indians in places such as London's Brixton and Liverpool's Toxteth. West Indians totaled just under 250,000 in 1982, most of them Jamaicans.
Experts - from Lord Scarman, who wrote a landmark report on the Brixton rioting of 1981, to Home Secretary Leon Brittan - talk of the need of British whites to overcome prejudice and fear.
In an interview, researcher James Hubbuck of the Commission for Racial Equality said evidence showed that high unemployment has heightened tensions and intensified prejudice as blacks compete with whites for scarce jobs.
Meanwhile, not a single black sits in the 650-seat House of Commons. Only one (Lord Pitt, a West Indian physician and politician) is among the 1,204 people eligible to sit in the House of Lords.
Minorities (especially Asians) do much better in business, and even include some millionaires. But in the professions, especially in the police, all minorities do very poorly.
Latest Home Office figures show that only 616 out of 121,300 police officers in England and Wales are from minority groups - half of 1 percent. Only one Indian has reached the rank of inspector. In the London Metropolitan Police, the figure is 235 out of 27,000 - 0.87 percent.
However, there is progress. More considerate and less abrasive police methods in the inner cities have helped avoid a repetition of the 1981 rioting, and more minority recruits are coming forward. North-south divide
This has widened in recent years as recession and competition have closed traditional steel, coal, textile, shoe, and other industries in the north and west - despite a variety of regional economic development programs.
Businessmen and even Church of England clergymen tend to resist assignments outside the more comfortable and affluent south. If they do go, they find it difficult to afford another house in the inflated London market on return.
Dire predictions notwithstanding, social unrest has been limited - mainly because of enormous severance payments (''golden handshakes'') of up to (STR)20, 000 ($28,000) per worker (which would take a man on an average wage almost three years to earn) and substantial welfare and unemployment benefits since 1979.
But unemployment is so high (13.5 percent), and so pervasive, that social commentators link it to increased boredom among many young people, as well as to crime and new, higher rates of heroin addiction in London and other inner cities.
Looking at the overall picture, it is plain that this country's immense potential could be more easily realized with a steady erosion of the invisible ''walls'' that tend to separate its citizens.
Next: Changes in the land of tea and Rugby.