LONDON -- Is socialism trying to creep into Britain through the back door of Europe, as Margaret Thatcher once warned? It may be.
To prevent that in 1989, Britain's then-prime minister and apostle of the free market rejected the so-called "social charter" advanced by most other members of the European Community. It would have regulated the wages, hours, working conditions for women and children, and holidays across the whole of the EC.
Prime Minister John Major, convinced that Mrs. Thatcher was right to do this, went to the EC summit at Maastricht in the Netherlands last December and excluded Britain from the Social Chapter of the treaty that the summit produced.
The Social Chapter was the hated charter written into EC law. But opting out, as Mr. Major's action was described in December, apparently is not all that easy to do.
On Thursday in Luxembourg, Mr. Major's new employment secretary, Gillian Shephard, seemed to accept a 48-hour limit on the workweek, at least conditionally, in a directive covering health and safety in the workplace. In London she said that Britain was "only prepared to see 48 hours in the directive's text subject to a solution to our major problems being found."
But Britain may have to accept it. The directive will be voted on by EC social affairs ministers in June. It is sure to be approved with the work-hours restriction included. This is because it has been advanced as a health and safety measure, not an industrial relations or employment measure, and requires only a majority vote to pass, not unanimity.
Britain has two recourses at the moment. It can try to negotiate a softening of the directive in the next few weeks by getting exemptions for more industries -- such as agriculture, transport, bakeries, printing -- fields in which work is seasonal or has to be done round-the-clock.
And once the directive is approved, if Britain still does not like it, it can fight it in the European Court of Justice.
Why does Britain resist these measures? What is gained? Does the country have unmodern labor laws? Do Britons work excessive hours?
Yes and no. European Community statistics show that the average British worker puts in 37.7 hours a week, six minutes more than the EC average of 37.6 hours. But Britain does not have a minimum wage or much firm legislation regulating hours worked by women and children. Also, alone among European countries, Britain has no fixed holiday and vacation entitlements.
But the main source of Britain's resistance is philosophical. "We don't like the directive. It is very much against the British approach of leaving things to employees and employers to sort out," said Martin Helm, a spokesman for the Employment Ministry.
"We have a flexible and free-market approach and have never felt the need to legislate in this area."
Mr. Helm said it is because of this approach that Britain receives half of all the investment coming into the European Community, and he repeated the government's assertion that acceptance of the social charter would cost Britain's employers nearly $10 billion. They would have to hire new employees to do the work now done in overtime.
Stephen R. Dunn, an expert in industrial relations, agrees that Britain's resistance is basically philosophical, but it is not necessarily a philosophy shared by all Britons. The Labor Party, for instance, favors the Social Chapter. Had it won last month's election it would have signed up.
"It is because the Conservatives have an intellectual and philosophical objection to regulating the labor market. They believe leaving it free is the best way to raise the standard of living," said Mr. Dunn. "It is primarily a point of principle."
It is also a matter of history, and not only history since 1979.
"It is not all a product of the Thatcher years. Europe is much more interventionist in this area," Mr. Dunn said. "There is a lot of legislation in Europe protecting workers, but here these things have always been the product of collective bargaining."
But Mrs. Thatcher and her free-market governments did have an effect. According to Mr. Dunn, the trade unions in Britain used to control hours of work and overtime and such. And when they did, "things were always very rigid. Now management has been liberated from that [by the Thatcherite legislation], and they don't want to surrender all the flexibility [in scheduling and arranging shifts] they now enjoy.
"And the government doesn't want a whole bunch of new regulations imposed on it," he added.