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What stops Britain from getting on with it?

AFTER a seven-year absence, I knew I was going to enjoy wandering around Britain again, but I wanted to do more than ''see the sights.'' I felt that if I could start with even a slight idea of what goes on under the surface, then what I was looking at would have more significance.

John Rae, headmaster of the prestigious Westminster School (the British call it public, the Americans private), would be, the experts told me, just the man to put me straight. He has been described as the best-known headmaster of a British public school, and his frank comments have made him well known outside his own field.

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Westminster School, where I went to talk to Dr. Rae, stands within the abbey precincts, shares the abbey's history, and certainly has its share of the abbey's breathtaking beauty. And if its ancient buildings suggest the monastic, there is nothing frozen-in-the-past about its headmaster.

''It's marvelous to be rid of an empire,'' he told me. ''Terribly important. It's lovely. You can start again. It's like a very, very successful businessman, suddenly at the age of 45 giving away the whole lot and saying, 'I'm going to start again.' Lovely. Most exciting. What he can't do is sit back and say, 'I'm still a great man. I'm not actually earning anything, but . . . .' ''

Then what, I wanted to know, was stopping Britain from getting on with it?

A big subject, Dr. Rae said, ''but let me touch one aspect of it. It's partly that British society after the war was seized with the idea that the most important thing in the world was to produce a fairer society than they'd had in the past. I think most of us would agree that that was desirable.

''But in that obsession with the fair society, they were unhelpful and unsympathetic to anybody who had the get-up-and-go to make things work, to do things on their own.''

In fact initiative and enterprise have been undervalued in Britain since the war.

''In a way it's revealing that Freddie Laker (the recently bankrupt pioneer of cheap transatlantic flights) -- who after all was just a good entrepreneur like any other, and failed -- was such a folk hero in Britain. It emphasizes, I think, how rare he is. In other words, he is a sort of 'one off' phenomenon. Whereas what Britain needs is about a thousand Freddie Lakers. And what's more, it needs them to be successful. And it's a very interesting reaction, that it's when Freddie Laker fails -- it's at that moment that everybody rallies around and says, 'Isn't he marvelous?' Rather like Dunkirk or the Charge of the Light Brigade.

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''The fact that he had to fight so hard to get what he wanted, both in Britain and abroad, shows how difficult it can be for men like that.''

I had always had a feeling that it was the trade unions that were handicapping Britain, I commented.

''I doubt it. Trade unions raise certain problems which could be changed by a change in the law, which they won't like. But I don't think that's really the answer. Britain's industry has been becoming uncompetitive ever since about the 1860s. Any historian who looks at it -- and I speak as a historian, not as an industrialist -- can see what happened from the 1860s onward. We simply then became uncompetitive. There weren't any trade unions.

''It's a matter of attitudes -- and bad management, too. Lack of energy. Government restrictions. Sitting back smugly on our past. That's not good. We've got to be very careful about our past. I love the past as a historian, and I love Britain's past. But you can't sit back on it. It sounds rather trite, but the past was always the present in its time.''

I remembered that Dr. Rae had once complained that a bias against engineers was handicapping Britain. Was that still true, I asked.

Not so much. He felt that in the last 10 years the status of the engineer in British society has undoubtedly changed. In fact the largest career for boys (not girls) from private schools is now engineering.

''But still,'' he said, ''I feel that in society as a whole there is still a bit of prejudice against the the engineer, as distinct from the doctor or the academic. In other words, British society may not look very intellectual, and I suspect it isn't, but it still has perhaps too great a respect for the person who can do pure mathematics as distinct from applied, and for the person who can analyze without doing anything, rather than the man who can get things done, solve problems, and actually do something.''

Nor, he pointed out, has a strong bias against success in practical subjects disappeared from the education scene.

''The interesting thing is that 50 years ago, a school like Westminster, one of the great private schools, taught classics and perhaps a little pure maths and a few languages and so on. And they were criticized for not teaching science and applied mathemetics. . .

''The funny thing is that the thing is completely changed around. It's these schools that are sending boys and girls to university to read engineering. And it's the government schools, the state schools, that often can't provide good teaching in mathematics and physics. . . ''

So that's another problem for Britain: It may be in favor of technology, but there's a shortage of people who can teach it.It all boils down to problems of attitude.

''If you think of it historically, we only lost an empire, or gave up a large part of it, in the '50s. We're only 30 years on. In fact, in some cases, less than a quarter of a century on. It will take some time for Britain to readjust and find a different role in the world.''

What Britain really needs, Dr. Rae emphasized, is vision, ''which in my view our politicians don't have. They may have other qualities. They don't have vision.

''You may remember the extraordinary anger that was raised when an American politician (Dean Acheson), some way back now, said that Britain had lost an empire and not found a role. And it was the most friendly, obvious statement you could imagine.

''We've got to change, we've got to find a new role, we can't pretend to be something we're not, more important than we are or more powerful than we are. That's very silly.''

Can Britain find that role? I wondered.

To find it, Dr. Rae said, and ''create the right sort of society, requires men and women of real stature -- in politics particularly. And I fear that they're not there. I don't mean there're not honest, hardworking, intelligent men and women in politics -- there are, in my view. They're often run down unfairly. But you do now at this stage in history need something a little more -- more vision, I think.''

But, I said, there seems to be a worldwide dearth of men of vision, doesn't there?

''Perhaps it's difficult in a nuclear world to have any vision of the future. But I think that would be a very pessimistic point of view. I think that you have to have vision, and say, 'In 50 years this is what we would like Britain to be - the quality of its society, the things emphasized as distinct from not emphasized, its environment, the role it's playing in the world.' You can't be too precise, but you've got to have some goal.''

Is there a starting point?

''I'd certainly like to see Britain stop pretending it was a major power. I don't mean give up its nuclear weapons, necessarily. That may or may not be right. But I think it needs to remember that it's not as it was in the 18th century, but 200 years on. It's a small island off the coast of Europe. Its survival -- by that I mean its ability to pay its way in the world and provide the conditions of life for its people that are important -- depends primarily not on natural resources, of which we are short despite the oil and the coal, but on the enterprise and the energy of its people, and particularly on the way that enterprise and energy is encouraged.''

He thought that after the next 50 years the great tension in Britain would be over the need to encourage its people while at the same time doing justice to ''the very reasonable demand for society to be fair, particularly in opportunity , not in uniform treatment, but in equal opportunity.''

''It could be very exciting. But it worries me that -- even that very loose vision -- politicians don't seem to want to refer to it. It's funny.

''I do feel so strongly that Britain has an exciting future, as long as it doesn't try and play the wrong role. It's a member of NATO, it's a member of the EC (European Community), and these are important parts of its program, I'm sure.

''But its real strength in the world and its real importance, I think, and this sounds rather nationalistic, is in the quality of its people. I don't mean that people from other countries don't have the same qualities. But Britain has to depend on them. It really doesn't have anything else to depend on.

''There's an immense amount of goodwill and civilization here, despite riots and all that. It must look awful from abroad. There's still a great fund of common sense and goodwill, and I would have thought enterprise, too. It's almost as if it needed the right politicians to release this energy, or perhaps to turn the right switch.

''I ought then to add a warning. And that is that I always see the English -- I speak as a Scotsman, half Scotsman and half Welshman -- are also quite a dangerous people.''

Dr. Rae went on to explain what he meant about my countrymen, occasionally breaking off in laughter, but his tongue was certainly not entirely in his cheek.

''If you look back in history, they're more aggressive than most. We tend to think it must be the Russians or the Germans or something. But in terms of energy, the expansion, and acquisitiveness in history, you'll find the English are about the most dangerous. With minimal resources they put together an astonishing empire, which wasn't done by public schoolboys playing cricket, although people think that. It was all before then. It was done by, maybe by public schoolboys, but not playing cricket to the rules. Fairly unscrupulous, acquisitive, enterprising people. The borderline between pirates and public servants was very thin, in the 16th century particularly.''

Dr. Rae thinks that -- ''curiously enough'' - what is dynamic in the English character has tended to be held down by the empire. ''The English needed to be respectable in bowler hats and with rolled umbrellas, playing cricket to the rules and so on,'' to run an empire, he says.

''Take the empire away,'' he suggested, ''and look back at the 18th-century Englishman. I think what you're going to find, possibly, is a reversion to that. The English will become, I hope in some ways, very aggressive in terms of markets and trade and so on. They could also become slightly dangerous people. Although people don't realize that, because they still think of it as a well-behaved imperial power, slightly going downhill.''

What form does Dr. Rae hope this aggression will take? Trade, he says. ''Get out of Britain's mind the idea that trade is somehow bad form, that you mustn't make money. Get that out of its mind -- and it's going -- and it could become a very energetic trading country.

''The British ought to be selling cars to Japan; after all, the Germans do.''

''Of course,'' he said, ''aggression could take on a less attractive side. When you see British football supporters abroad -- and they are very aggressive -- no other country has this problem. They behave extremely badly, and people wonder why. They just need to remember that this has always been the problem with the English. Even in Joan of Arc's day the last thing the French population needed was any Englishmen in the country, because they behaved so abominably. It's really a very deep-rooted problem.''

What about the great private schools like Westminster? Do they have a place in Britain now? I wondered.

''Curiously enough, all that we've been talking about, about Britain's problems and a vision of the future and so on, in a sense can be encapsulated in this one problem, because you want Britain to be a free society with people having initiative and enterprise. On the other hand, you want it to be a fair society, less snobbish than it used to be, less concerned with the past than it used to be.

''And the problem in the private schools is just that. On one hand, it's true they are rather divisive. It's true they do tend to reinforce -- they don't cause class divisions -- but they tend to reinforce them. On the other hand, they're good, and they are free from state control.

''Here in this one issue of the private schools -- that most politicians don't want to know about because it's controversial, because it's so difficult to resolve -- is encapsulated a fundamental problem for Britain: How does it go forward and away from its rather class-ridden past, or the divided past? At the same time, how does it retain all that's important in freedom and individual initiative? Very big challenge.''

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