How can we ever repay our debt to the British? Forget the ancient gifts of Magna Carta, Shakespeare and Stonehenge. Their generosity has never been greater than in this past year, nor have we ever needed them more.

Last summer, when Washington was dying of heat and afflicted by a mad rush to dismantle government spending and taxes, the British gave us that most glorious exercise in official extravagance, the Royal Wedding.

In the autumn, when the economy slumped and the politicians began to duck and dodge, here came "Nicholas Nickleby"--eight-and-a-half hours of theatrical sport and splendor, a whole tapestry of colorful characters overflowing the stage, filling the aisles, enveloping the audience in their own love of language and life.

And then, in the endless winter, when rising unemployment and falling temperatures combined to produce suicidal impulses, there arrived the 11 episodes of "Brideshead Revisited," a constant inducement to hang in there just one more week.

When, finally, Sir Laurence Olivier accepted the consolations of the church just before expiring at the end of that deliciously protracted deathbed scene, the timing was exquisite. To go from Olivier's final whispers and Charles' painful parting from Lady Julia just in time to switch the dial to the high drama of the Georgetown-North Carolina NCAA basketball final was to experience the most emotionally satisfying evening in television history. The absolution granted Lord Marchmain had its perfect real-life echo in Georgetown coach John Thompson's protective embrace of the young player whose errant pass gave Carolina the championship.

And now, when the world is about to jitter itself to pieces over the threat of nuclear war, here, once again, are the British riding to the rescue. The Falkland Islands caper is the perfect antidote to the tawdriness of high-tech international terror, and the shabby mess 20th century politicians make when they attempt the rites of statesmanship.

The British response to the Argentine takeover of that island remnant of empire has been perfect, absolutely perfect. The queen's national security adviser has not been seen frantically scuttling from TV interview to TV interview in a demeaning effort to save his job. No, indeed. Lord Carrington submits a manly resignation to the prime minister in acknowledgment of the "humiliating affront" to the national dignity.

The prime minister accepts it with "a heavy heart," and then launches an armada of fighting ships to "recover the Falklands for Britain." Margaret Thatcher, understanding the dramatic requirements of the moment, quotes Queen Victoria: "The possibility of failure does not exist."

But this is no swift, stupid retaliatory strike--a launch-on- command of supersonic missiles carrying their destructive warheads through space before human judgment has verified the provocation.

These are ships of the fleet, leaving Portsmouth with bands and bunting, to the cheers of the townspeople lining the quay. One need hardly mention that, of course, the queen's son, dashing Prince Andrew, is aboard. They will steam slowly toward the Falklands, allowing time for diplomacy--and for the drama to build.

The people who staged the royal wedding, who gave Dickens' genius full rein on stage, who led us to the final moment of that leisurely saga of Brideshead just in time to see the duel of Patrick Ewing and (aptly named) James Worthy-- such a people, I say, can be counted on to handle the Falklands crisis in style.

Bravo, Britain!