The 'Little England' That Could Go Global Falters on Europe Ties

IF Prince Charles has his royal way, March 29 would go down in history as the day that post-empire Britain finally stopped thinking of itself as ''little England'' and instead carved out a new role in the world.

But the heir to the British throne may be disappointed.

His hope of reviving Britain from its apparent cynicism and insularity did not find many takers at a high-powered talkfest on Britain's role in the world on Wednesday in London.

In fact, the conference's 700 opinionmakers -- ranging from Charles to Henry Kissinger -- seemed to confirm Britain's identity crisis, at least to the British media.

''More than 30 years after the late Dean Acheson (US Secretary of State under President Truman) said Britain had lost an empire but failed to find a role, there is still a widespread feeling that we need come to terms with the fact that we are only a middle-ranking power,'' a British Foreign Office official said.

The event was called by British Prime Minister John Major -- himself beleagured in the polls and within his Conservative Party -- to jump-start a national debate on Britain's future role. He believes his island-nation, once ruler of the high seas, is centered too much on Europe.

''We are attached to our independence, our sovereignty, and our national peculiarities,'' Mr. Major said. Britain had to look ''beyond Brussels'' (headquarters of the European Union) if it wanted a global role.

Mr. Kissinger turned heads by saying he had not lost faith in Britain. But he warned it could not remain an exclusive partner of the United States in a ''special relationship'' and should become ''a full-hearted European nation.'' In fact, Britain could be Europe's representative to the US, he said, and that it made a mistake in not entering Europe early.

Such words were music to British industrialists, whose investments and trade are pulling Britain ever closer to the Continent. Peter Bonfield, chairman of ICL, Britain's leading computer manufacturer, said ''the blind pursuit of national sovereignty'' was ''naive and dangerous.''

''We are a European power, but every time our partners in the European Union feel the United Kingdom is again turning its back on Europe, we marginalize our role within Europe, and that inevitably weakens our role globally,'' Mr. Bonfield said.

Prince Charles, however, along with Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, appeared reluctant to concede the reality of diminished British influence.

Mr. Hurd argued that Britain should continue to try to ''punch above its weight,'' by exploiting the strength of its culture, the global spread of the English language, and the nation's military skills and experience in the field of peacekeeping.

The Prince of Wales said foreigners thought Britain was ''crazy'' not to take greater pride in its strengths and achievements, and exploit them.

''Of course there is always room for improvement and constructive self-criticism,'' he said, ''but in the face of an approach to life which appears to seek only to denigrate, to decry, and to destroy, surely it is about time we took pride in the fact that we have many valuable assets.''

He cited the armed forces, the nationalized health service, and the British Broadcasting Corporation as examples of Britain ''leading the world'' in ''the pursuit of excellence.''

''There was a time when Britain exerted her influence on the world by throwing her weight around: by means of a strategically placed gunboat, a battalion, or even a strongly worded Foreign Office telegram,'' Charles said.

''Now we must do so by excellence and example. But to do that, we have first to believe in ourselves,'' he added.

IF by calling the conference Major hoped to spark disagreement, the opposition Labour Party certainly assisted him.

Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, challenged head-on the prime minister's contention that ''Britain should lift its sights beyond the European Union to a wider world.''

''We are in the EU, and we are in it to stay,'' Mr. Cook declared.

''There is no real danger that we are going to come out. The real danger is that we are going to stay in while sounding as if we wish we were out,'' he said.

Will future historians, as Prince Charles hopes, see the conference as a turning point in Britain's view of itself?

Hugo Young, a leading political analyst, does not think so. The government had ''failed to achieve its objective of getting the British establishment to talk about something other than Europe.''

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