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BRITISH CAMPAIGNS ARE SHORT, SWEET

The British general election is under way.

Ahead lies a grueling campaign, lasting a full three weeks before election day on April 9 - three weeks, at the end of which the public will be thoroughly fed up with all things political.Long enough for us but just one-tenth of the time that the poor American public has to suffer the onslaught of political bombast between the New Hampshire primary and Election Day.

During the campaign, I, like any politician, shall keep an eye on the finances.

After all, I have to raise $15,000 to fight the election in my constituency; if I spend more, I get disqualified.

So the close watch is not on raising the money but on seeing that there is no overspending.

There are no political-action committees, no Friends of Dudley Fishburn and no slush funds. But $15,000 is enough, since that it is all my opponents will have as well.

There is, as in America, the all-important TV coverage to be thought out. What I will say, not how much time I can buy, is the question. Each candidate gets exactly the same amount of free air time.

Each candidate, too, is allowed, courtesy of the Royal Mail, free postage on a single election leaflet that goes out to every voter. What the public doesn't watch it will have to read about - and it had better be quick about it.

My American political friends, aghast at the presumption that I dare call myself a politician with such puny resources at my command, ask, "How do you get anyone to vote for you?"

Prepare to be envious. Laugh at my three-week campaign. Mock my $15,000 in funds. But note, if you will, that on April 9 about 75 percent of the electors in my constituency will turn out to vote.

Note too that 95 percent of my constituents will be registered to vote.

In Britain it is easy to register. The lists are updated annually, and the onus to get the right names on the list rests as much with the public authorities as with the private individual.

Second and more important - more important even than my winning ways my long campaign and swollen coffers - is the voting booth itself.

In the polling station, voters are handed a pencil (no, it's not on a piece of string) and a slip of paper with the names of the candidates and their parties printed on it.

A simple X in the appropriate box is all that is required and off they go. That's it.

There is not the long list of political offices, Electoral College candidates, propositions, symbols, fine print and columns that greet the bewildered American voter.

One other difference - it sends a shudder through my American friends in elected office - is that the incumbent enjoys few advantages over the challenger. In our election, a number of the most promising names in politics will be swept from office.

In my patch it will not make a fig of difference that I've been a Member of Parliament for the past 31/2 years.

There is a particular advantage to this. In Britain, people float in and out of office.

You don't have to be a politician to get into politics: Margaret Thatcher was a chemist, John Major was a banker and I was executive editor of The Economist before becoming incarcerated in the House of Commons.

The ease of getting into, and of being booted out of, British politics attracts better people, not worse.

A healthy legislature draws its representatives from the public at large, warts and all, and returns them to a useful life after a spell in office.

(Dudley Fishburn, a Conservative, is member of Parliament for Kensington.)