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Britain's `Big Bang' points up a need to think a little bigger

`FOR the best part of a decade, visiting US business men have regarded our Stock Exchange with an admiration normally reserved for Anne Hathaway's cottage, the Beefeaters at the Tower of London, Stonehenge, and other ancient monuments.'' So says The Times. ``Big Bang'' may change all that. But this column is not solely about Big Bang, which was big news in London last week.

It's a column about the price that nations, as well as individuals, pay when they don't plan are enough ahead or think largely enough.

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Britain has been hard at work miniaturizing itself for 40 years now. This was in part necessary in the wake of Britain's postwar loss of empire. But the loss of confidence that followed this adjustment should not have happened to such a civilized and educated nation. It has resulted in lost opportunities, and the latest evidence seems to indicate that whatever lesson needs to be learned is still out there waiting for its pupils.

John Bell, who is the author of the statement at the top, also wrote in The Times last week, ``Britain seems to be maintaining its reputation for the invention rather than the application of technology.''

The British are aware of that reputation. They frequently excuse it on the grounds that a nation of 55 million people does not have the vast internal marketplace that the continental United States presents for US producers.

That is true, as far as it goes. But that doesn't foreclose the development of important market niches, as the Japanese and West Germans have won.

Nor does it excuse, in the case at hand last week, the evident underestimation of the demands that would be made on the computerized trading system. (At one point, some 200 inputs a second were being put to the giant computer.)

By Monday afternoon last week (the day of Big Bang), I saw notices on the newspaper kiosks, ``Big Bang Blows a Fuse.'' This was not just a newspaper seller's hyperbole. It appears that it will take several months to bring the computer trading system up to planned speed.

``Abroad,'' Mr. Bell commented, ``they have been wondering first what took us so long, and secondly why in the first three days we seem determined to make everyone else's mistakes all over again.''

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At midweek, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher cut the ribbon on the last link of the M25, the expressway that rings London. Planned some 25 years ago, the M25 is a compromise (again, downsizing) from an original plan to build three ring roads surrounding London at different radii from its center.

The expressway is a major improvement, but already some sections of it are being used beyond their planned capacity. Additional lanes are being planned. One reason given for the bulge in traffic is that planners had not expected local traffic to make use of the road for short stretches of travel.

Yet familiarity with the experience of other nations with much older highway programs could have foreseen this shortcoming.

The postwar history of the British civilian aircraft industry also provides literal examples of thinking too small. The British more than once have been first with a new plane, only to be outmaneuvered by US manufacturers, who built essentially the same plane on a bigger scale after sizing up expected market demand. Examples are the competition between the BAC-111 and the DC-9 and between the de Havilland Trident and Boeing 727.

Being overly ambitious, being greedy, trying for too big stakes -- these, of course, come closer to one of the seven deadly sins than do their opposites. Yet a tendency to think small, to expect too little, reflects and further promotes a mind-set that perhaps expects too little from life itself. The shock of two world wars in 30 years drained the former European leaders of the West -- Germany, France, and Britain -- in differing ways.

But to many who admire the fortitude in the British character, the partial fizzle of Big Bang was just another reminder that ``England's green and pleasant land'' may still be in need of a broader vision of itself.

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