A SUCCESSION of riots has cracked Britain's comforting belief that a special tradition of civility rendered the nation immune to the shocks caused elsewhere by social change and economic distress. The rioting, looting and violence are of dimensions notably smaller than the disorders that exploded in American cities in the late 1960s. But they are serious by any standard, and they have forced many British people to conclude they are in the presence of a periolous new disorder.

There are parallels with the American experience. Racial Discrimination and alienation are evident, Britain's minorities being East Asians and West Indians. Complaints about police insensitivity are especially familiar. Unemployment is widespread enough (11 percent) to have created a substantial tinder among whites, too. Where the non-white and white groups meet is in the older parts of the industrial cities. The worst rioting has taken placed there, some but not all of it with racial cast and some of it -- feeding off Britain's still live class divisions -- with a class-war aspect, too. Property damage has been considerable. But since Britain is not an armed society -- the police do not carry guns and the rioters are reported not to have guns either -- the death toll has been mercifully low.

What most distinguishes these troubles from the earlier American ones is the political reaction to them. In this country, the dominant political society accepted the riots as proof of an urgent requirement for social renewal -- to build better bridges between the two races and to give the disaffected a larger stake in the social order. Some of the resulting expectations wer misguided and some of the responses inadequate, but the riots did tend to solidify a consensus that lasted for the next dozen years.

In Britain, however, a sharp and bitter political divide immediately emerged. The government, already besieged on other fronts, tends to see the riots as evidence of a broader rending of the social and cultural fabric; its answer is to invoke authority and apply more law and order. Its critics, especially those on the left -- and Britain has a left of a strength and rigidity foreign to the United States -- emphasize the adverse effects that Prime Minister Thatcher's own supply-side policies have so far had on employment, production and productivity. No consensus is in sight.

Americans did not so well solve the flaws revealed by the riots of the 1960s that they can advise the British confidently now. It is humbling, however, to see that many in Britain are looking across the Atlantic for guidance. At the least, it should remind Americans, even as they wish the British well, of the distance they themselves still have to go.