Major defends nuclear stance

Commonwealth summit: British policy at the centre of controversy
Auckland - John Major today robustly defended Britain's support for France's continued nuclear testing in the Pacific, despite widespread criticism in New Zealand and among other Commonwealth countries, writes Steve Crawshaw.

The Prime Minister complained that Britain's position is not understood, and insisted: "There are important issues that we need to discuss, face to face - and not through the distorting prism of long-range soundbites." It is, he said, "not in the style of the New Zealanders and the British to be other than direct and open with each other".

He said that Britain had accepted the South Pacific Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, and argued: "In this situation, it would have been easy for me to join the chorus of disapproval of French tests." This, he said, would have provided him with "a nice free ride".

But, he said, he was not prepared to take that free ride. "I'm not prepared to do so because if I had, it would have been hypocritical. I know the responsibility of being a nuclear power. I understand the difficulties that faced the President of France. I am not prepared to condemn him for discharging those responsibilities."

If he were to condemn President Jacques Chirac, he said, "I would have fallen short of the honesty and frankness that New Zealand has a right to expect from the United Kingdom."

Mr Major was speaking at a lunch hosted by the New Zealand Prime Minister, Jim Bolger, with whom he held bilateral talks, ahead of the Commonwealth summit that begins today.

New Zealand public opinion is strongly against the nuclear testing - an issue on which Britain is in danger of finding itself in a minority of one at the conference. There has been widespread indignation at Britain's perceived cosying-up to France on the nuclear issue.