ON the surface the row inside the British Cabinet over which consortium is to rescue Britain's last helicopter builder is a small family affair of no broad general meaning or concern. But the heat engendered is out of all proportion to a small family affair. There is a big reason. Take the details first. Westland is the only manufacturer in Britain still in the business of building helicopters. It is in financial trouble (1985 losses were $137 million). Two offers have been made to take over Westland and keep it going. One is by an American company, United Technologies Corporation. The other is by a European consortium.
The American offer was favored by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It was disfavored by Michael Heseltine, her defense minister. He disfavored it so strongly that on Jan. 9 he had a showdown in the Cabinet, and when he lost he walked out, leaving his resignation behind.
Since then Mr. Heseltine has kept up a running attack on Mrs. Thatcher over the issue that has already made him the leader of the anti-Thatcher wing of the Tory party and has continued to be the centerpiece in British politics.
The battle over Westland was joined in the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street, carried to the floor of the House of Commons, and moved to a meeting of the shareholders of Westland and back to the House of Commons. Because of the unusual interest in the case, the shareholders' meeting was moved to the vast Albert Hall. It was inconclusive. A 65 percent majority favored the American offer, but under company rules a 75 percent majority was required.
Meanwhile, Mr. Heseltine had accused the government of improperly attempting to rig the deal in favor of the American company. And there precisely is the issue that is rousing British political passions as they have not been roused for some time.
What is the Britain of today? Is it the free and independent and self-reliant nation of its illustrious past? Or has it sunk so low industrially and economically that it is merely a subsidiary of the American giant? Does it have an alternative? Might it find more independence by associating with Europe than with the United States?
Mrs. Thatcher has pursued the most pro-American policy of any of the Western Europe allies. She has followed as often and as much as possible in the economic footsteps of President Reagan. She has ``reprivatized'' and deregulated. She has stood her ground against higher wages. She has checked inflation and slowed down welfare.
But unfortunately for Mrs. Thatcher, her footsteps along the Reagan path have produced neither rising employment nor British industrial competitiveness. Britain's GNP has been steadily sinking; today Britain ranks behind Italy -- and its last helicopter company has to be rescued either from America or from the European continent.
Nothing has so sharply outlined the nature of Britain's present condition. It must export to live. Its economic life must be within a larger community than the British islands themselves. For nearly 400 years its community was on the high seas, a community of many peoples drawn together by the Royal Navy into the greatest and most productive empire the world has ever known.
But in the span of half a generation that community has gone. We watch filmed stories of what life was like in the heyday of empire and marvel and think we are watching strange and ancient history. But it was only yesterday.
And now these Britons who only yesterday ruled over more than half the world find themselves having to decide whether they are to find their British identity diluted in the American mass or the European mixture.
Briton's heart is still on the high seas. Its proudest memory is of the day when it stood alone, in defiance of Adolf Hitler. But its necessity is to make a choice which means, whichever way it chooses, that it is no longer free, no longer independent, no longer the unfettered master of its own destiny.
For many Britons, this is a bitter moment in the story of a proud and gallant people. Small wonder that it has torn the Tory party asunder and might bring down Mrs. Thatcher's government.