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Up and down in Britain: taxes, the royal wedding, 300 puffins, peer parking perks

Day after day, sheets of rain lash Fleet Street, chasing hapless pedestrians and drumming on the top of buses and taxis. Historic St. Paul's Cathedral beyond Ludgate Circus is framed in banks of moving cloud.

As Londoners scurry, they talk about the weather, as always, and about the steep new taxes imposed by Chancellor of the Exchequer Sir Geoffrey Howe ("You name it. . . He's taxed it" banner-headlined the conservative Daily Express), and about the brightest piece of news here for many months: the royal wedding set for July 29.

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"Shy Di" is how the popular Fleet Street press refers to the first fiancee in the land, Lady Diana Spencer -- though the image was dented somewhat when she appeared for her first gala evening with the Prince of Wales in a striking (and daring) strapless black dress which set people talking all over again.

One of the better headlines recently came over a brief item about Lady Diana sitting for her waxwork likeness at Madame Tussaud's: "The Di is Cast."

Economic news generally here is so bad, and complaints so numerous against higher taxes on gasoline, cars, alcohol, tobacco, even motorscooters and matches , that Charles and Diana provide even more welcome relief.

The best wedding gift the US could give the royal couple would be the twang of American accents across the land this summer -- and the reassuring rustle of dollar bills.

British tourist officials are counting on the pomp and splendor at St. Paul's to revive the tourist trade from the US.

Tourism has been down since the peak year of 1978, when 1,964,000 Americans came here (15.53 percent of the total tourist flow of 12,646,000 that year).

The number of US visitors fell off by 245,000 in 1979 as the strength of sterling made visits steadily more expensive. The figure stayed low last year. But officials hope the wedding will help push overall tourism up by a quarter of a million this summer, and they hope against hope that many of them will be free-spending Americans.

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Those who cannot come will at least be able to buy Wedgwood and Royal Doulton souvenirs (candy dishes, loving cups, ceramic statuettes, and much more) in US shops: Distributors are already asking about orders.

And the stay-at-homes will see wide coverage on color television: At least one network (CBS) is moving its morning news program to London for the event. The ABC network has already booked 100 hotel rooms for extra camera crew and reporters.

Those who do come will see one of the biggest spectaculars since the coronation in 1953 and the biggest royal wedding since the marriage of the Prince's mother in 1947. That wedding of a poised young heir to the throne to a dashing naval officer lifted the spirits of war-weary Britain. The July wedding has begun to do the same, 34 years later.

The Prince is not just royal. He is rich -- of the richest. As Duke of Cornwall he owns 130,000 acres in nine counties. In 1979 his income has L500, 000 ($1.2 million), half of which went to the Treasury in lieu of income taxes. Since he turned 21 11 years ago, a nest egg of L300,000 ($720,000) has been carefully invested by London financiers.

The properties he owns include Dartmoor Prison, the famed cricket ground at the Oval, thousand of farms, and six or so ancient castles.

If he should ever find himself short of a shilling or two, there are always the 300 puffins he is entitled to claim each year from the Scilly Isles. Or the leg of roast mutton from Fordingham in Hampshire.

He can also fall back on any whales and porpoises that might be washed up on Cornish beaches. He is entitled to claim all of them.

One good thing about being royal -- it means never having to worry about parking.

The Prince, of course, is driven in a black rolls-Royce the size of a small house. But lesser royals who drive themselves also find overcrowded and jammed London easier than the rest of us.

Visiting the Ministry of Defense on Horseguards Parade off Whitehall the other day, I noticed a splendidly sleek 4.2 Daimler saloon, in British racing green, casually parked by a policebox. Closer inspection revealed a telephone inside the car, and several distinctive silvery racing club badges outside, one mounted on the hood complete with miniature Union Jack in enamel on the back.

A discreet inquiry or two, and I learned tht the mouth-watering car belonged to Prince Michael of Kent, visiting another government department at the time.

Did he always park his royal conveyance with such easy abandon? "He," came the emphatic reply from the uniformed guardian of the law on duty, "can park anywhere he likes."

Back in the day-to -day world most British people live in, no one seems happy with the new Conservative budget. It is said that six members of the Cabinet itself have misgivings.

Industry says the minimum lending (discount) rate should have dropped by more than 2 percent. Engineers accuse the government of mismanagement. Small businesses say the package of help to them was too little, too late. Unions, of course, are angry at the chancellor of the exchequer's expectedly harsh tax burdens.

The great concern is that the budget is too deflationary -- that it has knocked confidence out of the consumer, while not giving enough stimulus to private industry.

The government's own figure in the budget forecast unemployment rising to 3 million during 1982 and staying there until 1984. National output this year is to fall 2 percent over last year. There is to be no balance-of-payments surplus at all in the first half of 1982.

The money supply will grow. Nationalized industries will need continued subsidies. Consumer spending is expected to fall because of the new taxes.

At least 1 out of every 5 cars on British roads is already owned and bought by companies, analysts say: and the figure could be as high as two-thirds. Prices are sky-high.

The economic editor of the centrist Times of London was so moved at the new dose of deflation that the headline on his post-budget article said simply: "Is there another tunnel at the end of the tunnel?"

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher can ride out the storm for now. The opposition Labour Party is torn by internal feuding. But she is counting on an upturn in the economy later this year. If it doesn't come, she could be in serious trouble .

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