THERE COULD NOT be a better time than now to examine closely the politics and government in Britain. Under the strain of severe economic crisis and social upheaval, British politics has become polarized by the grim, survival-of-the-fittest, free-market determinism of right-wing conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the equally hard-faced, state socialism of the militant left-wing insurgents who have captured at least temporary control of the opposition Labor party. Moderates in both parties are struggling to regain influence. Some have broken away to form a new Social Democratic party that will ally itself with the existing Liberal party to provide voters an alternative in the center.

The societal problems facing British politicians are the most difficult since the depression of the 1930s, which spawned the postwar welfare state consensus in Britain that has now disintegrated. A long economic decline has culminated in a deep recession and widespread unemployment. The characteristic civility and stoicism the British have fallen back on is past crises are being threatened by the growing gap between rich and poor, employed and jobless, by the alienation of a generation of young people facing a bleak economic future, and by regional antagonisms, racial tensions, sectarian prejudices, and surviving class barriers. Crime, random violence and other antisocial behavior -- ills once confined to other, less stable societies like America's -- have increased alarmingly.

All three books under review recognize these problems and the apparent inability of British politics and government to cope with them. But they are intended to be largely descriptive rather than prescriptive, so their value to Americans worried about Britain is primarily in their perceptive analyses of British government and its shortcomings.

Policy and Politics in Britain comes closest to concluding that Britain may be peculiarly and institutionally unable to respond to the drastic economic and social change facing most Western industrialized countries today. Part of a series of studies of Western democracies, it makes particularly helpful comparisons with other countries. But it suffers from a turgid textbook style that bogs down the general reader.

By contrast, The Government of the United Kingdom is strikingly clear and easy to read, especially considering its comprehensiveness. Until British journalist Anthony Sampson next revises his The New Anatomy of Britain, this book, by two distinguished British political scientists, could serve as the best basic reference handbook on the structure and recent development of British politics and government.

The best book of the three for both the expert and the casual reader is British Government and Its Discontents, carefully and beautifully written by The Times of London journalist Geoffrey Smith and Berkeley political scientist Nelson W. Polsby. It explains with beguiling ease the complicated problems facing British government today and offers some purposely modest suggestions, including making better use of British experience and expertise in diplomacy, giving parliamentary committees influence over legislation and oversight over the executive as in the United States, and bringing the insulated British civil servant elite into greater contact with the outside world.

Like the best British journalism and debate, this book makes grappling with difficult issues a pleasant experience. Above all, the discourse is reasonable, avoiding extreme theories, surprising insights, harsh criticisms or radical remedies. "Half-measures are not only better than none but sometimes better than whole measures," the authors advise at the outset. "Many benefits and costs attend life in a middle-aged, middle-sized, formerly prosperous, presently semi-collectivized, freedom-loving, intensely tribal, modern society with tired blood, cultivated civil servants, weak industries, strong unions, and a flourishing high culture. . . . We are concerned not only with warnings and cautionary tales, but also with hidden resources and unexpected strengths."

As one would then expect, their analyses of Britain's problems are even-handed and restrained. Ultimately, this detached, gentleman's club approach is unsatisfying, however, for someone searching for what has gone wrong with Britain and what might be done about it. Particularly missing is any real feeling for the rawness of the less civilized debate out in the country: the anger and despair of the victims of endless sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, the unemployed in the grim industrial cities of Northern England, the West Indians and Asians in the urban ghettos, or the skinheads, punks, neo-Nazis, soccer-stadium hooligans and public-housing toughs and vandals who sometimes seem to have taken over almost an entire generation of young white Britons, like so many Clockwork Orange bodysnatchers.

Perhaps an outsider living a relatively short time in Britain underestimates the time-tested ability of its long-surviving civilization to absorb and muddle through all this, as it has everything from the Norman Conquest to the Blitz.Nevertheless, the symptoms of current, serious crisis, so vivid on the ground, appear much too muted in these pages.

Yet Smith and Polsby beg this very question with their surprisingly poignant conclusion. Gone, they say, is the confidence of the British people that built and dismantled an empire, met and solved problems in the past through gradual change "sustained by the stability of British society." They now fear and fight the change necessary to deal with its present economic, social and political problems. Smith and Polsby admit they have no remedy for recovering that confidence, but they implore the British people to seek it in a revival of national spirit. "The question for Britain," they conclude, "is whether it will recover its readiness to hope and to renew constructive endeavor, or whether the pride that it retains will come only from contemplation of the past."