AN AMERICAN LOOKS AT BRITAIN

By Richard Critchfield

Doubleday. 496 pp. $22.95

THERE IS a special pleasure, and a sense of power, in writing about the contemporary affairs of another country, especially if one knows it either very well or hardly at all. To organize the country, to fasten one's judgments about it upon others, to tell the people of the chosen country what they do well and do badly, combines the best and even more of the worst that one finds in military leaders, teachers and travel agents. As the Amharic proverb has it, "To lie about a far country is easy"; to lie about a near one surely is much harder.

In the tradition of the great travel writers, of Twain and Hawthorne, Trollope and Kipling, Richard Critchfield takes his readers traveling in order to set them to thinking about their own countries. He attempts no grand thesis, as Tocqueville did, and he does not seek to invoke the past to define the present, as Jan Morris often does so extremely well; rather, he is an American Anthony Sampson, a latter-day John Gunther, who describes what he sees and hears in order to analyze for us the present condition of the society. Critchfield has done this before, usually when living among peasants in some truly distant land, or in Asia, most particularly India. He has also used interviews to exemplary effect when writing about his own family background, in North Dakota (which he shares with Eric Sevareid, whom he quotes frequently and with approval), as in Those Days (1986) or, as in passing, in order to give the American who looks at Britain in this book a sense of his own place. Seldom has a mixture of travel writing, anecdote, interview and speculation produced so effective a brew of analysis as Critchfield provides here.

Critchfield's attitude is one that many Americans who know Britain well will share: He quotes Henry James, "Considering that I lose all patience with the English about fifteen times a day, and vow that I renounce them forever, I get on with them beautifully and love them very well." James meant England, but Critchfield means Britain, and he does not neglect Welsh coal mines, Edinburgh crime or ethnic Bradford. Along the way, with a touch of self-indulgence, he pursues anything that interests him: Here are chapters on children's classics, the spy thriller and the crime novel, on the end of empire and the decline of power, on Anglo-American diplomatic and social relations, on Eton and Oxbridge, Newcastle, London and Belfast, on "the chattering classes" and football hooliganism. Though Critchfield does not try to make these perceptive, sometimes chatty chapters bear too much analytical weight, he has telling points to make about what he finds hanging in all these closets. One might quarrel about categorizing the spy novel largely on the basis of Eric Ambler and John le Carre, or about the weight given to a limited number of commentators (Arnold Toynbee, William H. McNeill, Barbara Cartland) against the very light touch accorded others (Paul Kennedy, Sir Isaiah Berlin) -- no doubt a reflection of the varying depth of interviews and reading -- but one cannot dispute the intelligent use made of the material.

The mixture of quotation, anecdote, solid commentary and sometimes wry observation makes for compelling reading, and only slowly does one become aware of the largest theses: that Britain is failing in schooling, science and industry. To account for this failure, Critchfield interrogates the usual suspects and indicts the usual criminal, the British class system, using Margaret Thatcher throughout as Inspector Hound. The conclusion is not startling or original, but it is well argued, often with evidence that one might not expect. "To me," he writes, "the fight that matters in Britain is not the fight between socialism and free market economics, important as that is, nor even the fight between 'a dependency culture' and 'an enterprise culture.' It is the old, old fight over class and power: who is in control? Mrs. Thatcher claims, 'I have given power to the people.' She has not. Money is power. What she has done, I think, is to postpone the day of reckoning." She has not "been radical enough in the truest, compassionate way."

Having attributed to Britain a failure of nerve, Critchfield proves Henry James right; he cannot find it in himself to end on an ungracious note. Most of what he tells us points toward a growing irrelevance for Britain in world affairs as it becomes less and less like any other part of the world. Still, he says, myths have their magic: "The British don't fail. They succeed. And make life more gracious and decent for the rest of us." Yes, that too. Nothing can be ruled out, as the last months in Eastern Europe show. But let us not be too quick to decide what those months actually mean for the future.

Robin W. Winks is Randolph W. Townsend Jr. Professor of History at Yale University and author, among other books, of "An American's Guide to Britain."