Oxford, England -- IMAGINE RIP VAN Winkle awakening afte decades and finding the politicians of his country arguing exactly the same issue as when he went to sleep. That is what he would find in Britain today: the same old arguments, long since threadbare, about Britain's place in a uniting Europe.
Here are the same old fears of wily Continentals and Brussels bureaucrats, the same obsession with "sovereignty." And the same delusion that Britain can go it alone.
To find those attitudes still is to confront a painful truth about Britain. The political culture of this country has atrophied. The vision and daring that once put the mark of Britain on the world has shrunk. Mentally, it is a small island.
Forty years ago, when the European Community was formed, Britain stayed out. It was a disastrous decision; the British economy fell further and further behind the Community's.
In time Britain sought to enter, and eventually got in. But it has been a grudging member, repeatedly resisting efforts toward greater economic and political unification.
Last week the EC foreign ministers discussed a draft of a revised Community treaty. The preamble spoke of "a process leading gradually to a union with a federal goal."
This anodyne sentence set the British foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, off like a rocket. Britain could never accept the word "federal," he protested.
Much of the popular British press also reacted with expostulations. Even the Times charged Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission, with twisting "the federalist screw."
As a matter of dictionary meaning the reaction was preposterous. The word "federal" signifies a political system in which much power is retained by constituent states, as in the United States. But the reaction was a question not of logic but of emotion -- instinctively anti-European emotion.
Then in waded Margaret Thatcher. In a speech in New York, the former prime minister condemned the Community's plans to move toward a common monetary policy and a single currency.
Britain's Parliament had managed its economic affairs for 700 years, she said, "and most of us think" that that system "should be kept for the next 700."
The speech showed Thatcher's true beliefs, concealed to a degree in office. She detests the whole idea of the Community, seeing it as an infringement on British sovereignty. What she wants instead is an Atlantic free trade area including the United States -- and inevitably dominated by it -- with no common economic or political institutions.
Thatcher's views have little or nothing to do with reality. For example, she objects to the idea of a single European central bank, arguing that it would end Britain's right to make its own monetary policy. But in fact today the German Bundesbank makes the decisions that matter, and Britain has less input into its workings than it would with a European bank.
The blindness of Thatcher, and her detachment from reality, were bad enough. Even worse was the reaction of her successor as prime minister, John Major. He fudged and fumbled, as if he were afraid to say anything very definite.
In the last 40 years Britain has had just one prime minister who really understood that the country's destiny lay in a uniting Europe. That was Edward Heath, who negotiated Britain's entry into the Community. He denounced Thatcher's speech last week, angrily and rightly, but he did not get much support from other politicians.
What is so sad about all this is that the British people and their leaders are missing the chance to take part in a great enterprise. The shaping of a new Europe, slow as it has been and must be, is in truth a political drama of a high order.
Think what America would be like if our Constitutional Convention 200 years ago had been dominated by little minds like most of today's British leaders. The delegates would have been intent on protecting their little state sovereignties, and there would be no United States.
The European Community does not have to end up as a United States of Europe. But it must develop a constitutional faith of its own, a federalism of ancient cultures. Britain of all member states should be playing a full part in the shaping of that future. Alas, there is no sign that it will.