LONDON — London. -- Who are the British? What do they want? Are they Europeans committed to a destiny shared with the other states on the ancient continent? Or are they something else -- Atlanticists, a people with one hand extended across the English Channel, the other groping westward across the ocean in solidarity with the English-speaking democracies?
Or are they, as their greatest poet described them, a special breed apart, a people living in "This little world," content with their separateness?
These questions are not entirely fanciful. In the last 35 years they have returned again and again to trouble the British soul. They are answered by successive governments, even by the people themselves in referendum, but still they remain unresolved. Now they are back again.
What do the British want?
There is a bright Spanish diplomat in this town who suspects that Britain is in search of itself during this new period of indecision. "They can't seem to find their identity," he said.
This is a lot to say of the people who more than any other in the world always seemed to know who they were, the people who made the ostentatious assertion of self confidence a key element of their personal style.
Now the power to order events in the world is greatly diminished. Britain is reduced, having been drained by two global wars, a world depression, and too many years living beyond its means.
"If they do not choose correctly they are going to be alone, isolated," said the Spanish diplomat. Spain has an ongoing dispute with Britain, over possession of Gibraltar. But there was no trace of a gloat in his comment, only a kind of sadness.
Spaniards endured over three decades of isolation from the rest of Europe during the years Francisco Franco held sway. They know how that can stifle a country economically and socially.
The questions above are valid today because next month Britain must again choose the path to its future. On December 10, at Maastricht, a small and ancient town on Holland's Meuse River, Britain's Prime Minister John Major will be presented with two treaties crafted to move the 12 members of the European Community closer together economically and politically.
Mr. Major must accept them or reject them.
On every side, as the date approaches, even the stiffest lips are quivering. Here and there they are snarling in determined resistance. Almost nowhere are they confidently smiling. Maastricht might be Britain's greatest test since the end of World War II.
Since the end of the Conservative Party conference October 11 in Blackpool, the British government has been in almost perpetual conflict with its European partners over a whole range of issues which will be contained in the Maastricht treaties. In almost every instance Britain is alone or in the minority.
Here are some of the issues: the speed of monetary union and acceptance of a single currency; a proposal to allow all community members a say in the foreign policy decisions of member states (on Northern Ireland, say); immigration law (who gets into Britain; who can be kept out); employment practices and social policy (length of the work week, protection of women against sexual harassment in the workplace); defense (NATO vs. a new specifically European force, as urged by France and Germany); the enhanced authority of the European Parliament, and the environment (does Brussels or London set environmental standards for Britain?).
Every one of these implies a transfer of authority from the member states to the center. There has not been such a concentration of power in Europe since the Treaty of Rome launched the EC in 1957. It is understandable why there would be some hesitation.
* For Margaret Thatcher it was all too much. It still is. She is the
leading opponent in Britain to the Maastricht treaties. She remains very much a presence in British politics despite her removal from the premiership last November by a Tory party worried that her policy toward Europe was coming to resemble that of Queen Boadicea, who in the first century AD resisted the Roman penetration of Britain with fire and sword.
The word that sets Mrs. Thatcher alight, and others of like mind, is "federal." The idea of Britain being a part of a federal Europe is as distasteful to her as eating snails.
And in truth, were all these proposals listed above to be carried out, Europe would be a large super-state, or at least something close to it.
John Major came into office last year with the honey of conciliation on his tongue and a promise to take Britain to the center of Europe. Everybody on the continent breathed easier when Mrs. Thatcher left office. For though many European leaders shared some of her reservations over what lay ahead, and were even pleased that her criticisms constantly made the community re-examine its purposes, most were signed on.