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New steel man raises British tempers

The trouble-ridden British Steel Corporation (BSC) is to have a new chairman -- and Britons are fuming over the choice. Scottish-born Ian MacGregor has been brought (many say "bought") from the United States to replace Sir Charles Villiers in the massive nationalized industry. But Mr. MacGregor's salary of L48,500 ($110,000) a year -- typical of nationalized industries here, but low by private-sector and internal standards -- is only part of the cost to taxpayers.

The rest is in an unprecedented "transfer fee" of up to L1,825 million ($4.1 million) paid by the British government to the New York investment bank Lazard Freres, of which he is a senior partner.

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When the terms of his transfer were announced in the Commons May 1, incredulous members of Parliament said it sounded like a Gilbert and Sullivan farce. Union leaders were scandalized, as one said, over going to America for "an old- age pensioner." And chairmen of other nationalized industries were feeling miffed.

There is more, however, behind the scenes:

* The choice again raises questions about the prowess of British managers, whom many here have been comparing unfavorably with their American, West German, and Japanese counterparts.

* The appointment squares with the Conservatives Party's interest in providing "incentives" to energize business here. But it also raises loyalist hackles, with some MPs asking whether a nationalized industry chairman ought not accept some sacrifice in pay as a contribution to stemming Britain's industrial slump.

* The deal suggests that British industry is entering the age of the superstar. Already Sir Michael Edwardes, Chairman of the nationalized Automaker BL, Ltd., (where Mr. MacGregor is a director), has taken on the mantle of a hero for his decisiveness and inventiveness. The discussion of Mr. MacGregor has been sprinkled with comparison to expensive transfers in the football leagues.