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Perceptions and realities of Britain

WITH a parliamentary election on the horizon next month, Britain will be the focus of tremendous scrutiny from the American media. Unfortunately, much of what is written merely will serve to reinforce the usual stereotypes. The sad fact is that many American perceptions of Britain are about a decade out of date, and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's nation often has been given short shrift on this side of the Atlantic. In analyzing American media coverage of Britain, one can detect four major themes. First, there are the eccentric little ``human interest'' items, of the sort that frequently close network news programs and leave the announcer with a wry smile. These usually take place in quaint country villages replete with half-timbered buildings and thatched roofs. Such idyllic villages and the characters inhabiting them feed into the Miss Marple stereotype of a highly individualistic nation tolerant of eccentricity, but with a fussy sense of justice. Indeed, this particular trait remains a real part of British life, given the island's formidable supply of comfortable retirees with lots of time on their hands.

But such innocuous images are overshadowed in the serious press by the notion of British ``decline,'' with both political and economic aspects. Britain hardly is ever mentioned in major American newspapers without some reference to seemingly perpetual decay. Fortunately, this notion rests on selective statistics that ignore the single overwhelming reality that in material terms, at least, 90 percent of the British ``never had it so good,'' to paraphrase Harold Macmillan.

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A third idea about the British that figures prominently in the American media is that Britain is America's closest major ally (apart from nonnuclear Canada). While this was undeniably the case through the 1960s, it now is out of date. The glow of Anglo-American wartime partnership has lingered because of Mrs. Thatcher's good relationship with Ronald Reagan, but will vanish when the prime minister departs the political scene.

What is remarkable in contemporary British political life is the extent to which Thatcher's perceived pro-Americanism is a distinct liability and at variance with British opinion. Media clich'es notwithstanding, French and Italian opinion generally are friendlier to the US than are the British, both on specific political issues, and in more general indices in each country's view of America.

Perhaps the most dramatic aspect of American press coverage of Britain is provided by the monarchy and the class system over which it presides. In covering royal pageants, American newsman David Brinkley used to repeat wistfully that ``The British still do this better than anyone else,'' implying, perhaps, that fancy dress parades for American tourists are about all that is left of British grandeur.

In fact, though both the monarch and the monarchy widely are beloved, they are not without their pernicious aspects. True, the trappings of aristocracy are responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars in tourist revenue. (This has particular appeal for the nouveau riche American, seen most recently in the fawning admiration of the Yankee rich for the contents of British country houses.) Yet nothing so reinforces the notion of British insularity and stodginess as that gaggle of ridiculously affected aristocrats that surrounds the royal family.

Perhaps the major positive evolution in British life during the past decade has been an unreported decline - that of class consciousness and the destructive labor disputes it engendered. This socioeconomic phenomenon accounts for the rise of the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance and the demise of Labour, with the latter's veiled appeals to class warfare. Sadly, the trappings of monarchy and social class still tend to obscure this.

The British themselves are beginning to be grumpy with foreign (particularly American) press coverage because, taken together, these themes overshadow the central reality of Thatcher's Britain: economic recovery.

Unemployment, long Thatcher's Achilles' heel, has been declining for seven consecutive months, and will continue to do so throughout this year. British productivity has risen more in the past five years than in the previous 15, often leading the leagues of advanced industrial countries. Strikes are down dramatically. The percentage of Britons who own their homes is up in a decade from just over half to nearly two-thirds. Britain's net external assets have risen from about $4.8 billion a decade ago to some $128 billion today, which puts Britain second in world rankings. British economic growth this year, at 3 percent, will lead the industrial world.

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Happy as they are about relative economic success, the British are concerned not only about the ideas foreigners have of them, but whether the traditional ideas they have of themselves still are valid.

Indeed, one such stereotype, shared by Britons and foreigners alike, that the British are a polite and well-behaved people, has come under strain in recent years as more and more football hooligans have terrorized Europeans from Brussels to Barcelona.

Too, crime promises to be an issue of some importance in the coming election, with many pointing to the greater tendency of both police and criminals to use handguns. On the other hand, by virtually any statistical measure, Britain still is a relatively violence-free society, particularly when compared with battle-scarred urban America.

And what of that old 1940 notion of the British being a repository of courage and common sense in a world of fanatics? Consider for a moment the extraordinary British media coverage of Pauline Cutting, the heroic British physician ministering to Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps. This is another example of a nation's consecrating as heroes those who seem to exemplify national virtues - the calm under fire of the British doctor or the spirit of American astronauts.

Thatcher, too, feeds very well into this mythology, most recently displaying her famous icy calm in a live television interview with top Soviet journalists that left the Moscow diplomatic corps in awe. Economic statistics apart, the way Thatcher incarnates Britons' idea of themselves is a good reason to suppose she once again will be prime minister.

Kevin Michel Cap'e is a French-American writer who lived four years in Britain.

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