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Major caught on the hop in nuclear tests dispute

Commonwealth Conference: Surprise statement leaves UK isolated over support for France


John Major yesterday indignantly rejected a statement agreed at the Commonwealth summit, which left Britain severely isolated over French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. The statement, he said, was "just plain wrong".

The Prime Minister complained that the statement agreed at the Auckland conference was "factually inaccurate, intellectually inconsistent, and unbalanced".

The offending statement "noted the widespread anger caused by the current programmes of nuclear weapon tests". It continued: "The overwhelming majority of heads of government condemned this continued nuclear testing, which was inconsistent with the undertaking given by the nuclear-weapons states to exercise utmost restraint", in advance of a nuclear-test ban next year.

The Prime Minister's anger, as he emerged from the conference hall, was in marked contrast to the almost triumphal mood earlier in the day, when British officials boasted that nobody had rapped Britain over the knuckles for its support of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. In the morning session, there was no sign of the "spanking" that Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, had promised, only a "friendly exchange of words".

Britain had expected the nuclear issue to be raised later, in discussion of the end of conference communique.

The decision to issue a separate statement early in the conference caught Mr Major on the hop.

The British were forced to issue a separate statement, explaining the UK's dissenting view. This argues, in effect, that the nuclear tests are necessary in order to end testing. The British view is that the French should be allowed to complete their necessary final tests if that makes it possible for everybody to put their names to the comprehensive test- ban treaty, which is due to be signed next year.

Mr Major has been keen to emphasise his belief that Britain is speaking from the moral high ground, since Britain has itself declared that it does not need to carry out further tests. Britain's support for France, according to Mr Major's own analysis, is therefore disinterested.

Mr Major has repeatedly invoked the importance of Britain taking its responsibilities seriously "as a nuclear power" - in other words, France's equal, at the grown-ups' table.

Britain, he implies, understands the nature of the bomb-owning man's burden, in a way that none of the other 51 countries of the Commonwealth can be expected to do. It is a dangerous argument, which has not gone down well in Auckland. He is seen as having sold out to France - or as demonstrating an old great-power arrogance, which takes no account of smaller countries' feelings. On both counts, he gets nil points.

British officials earlier this week were sounding nonchalant, suggesting: "We don't want a row if we can avoid it. But if they [the rest of the Commonwealth] want a row, they'll get one." Mr Major praised the fact that the difference in views had been publicly aired. Without such a healthy debate, he said, everything would just be "blancmange".

None the less, Mr Major seems to have been quite unprepared for the fact that the other Commonwealth states took the nuclear issue so seriously, and were not prepared to bend their own version of events to accommodate the British view - a minority of one.

In one respect, Mr Major now resembles Margaret Thatcher, who made a speciality of being in a minority of one. Unlike her, however, he yesterday seemed to be dismayed and angered, rather than invigorated, by his isolation.

For Britain - and, indeed, for the summit host, the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger - one comfort of yesterday's statement is that it may help to get an obvious point of disagreement between Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth out of the way at an early stage. Commonwealth leaders go into retreat over the weekend, to agree the final communique, which will be issued on Monday.

The communique is likely to focus on "good government", and on ways of giving teeth to the declaration agreed by the Commonwealth at Harare in 1991, which emphasised the commitment to democracy and human rights.

The nuclear issue will probably be mentioned in the final communique, with reference to yesterday's document.