LEADING ARTICLE : No fuss please, we're British

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Hush: can you hear anything? Can you hear the deafening silence from the British Government over French nuclear tests in the Pacific? Much of the world is contemptuous. Ambassadors have been withdrawn; the people of Tahiti have rioted. The Australian prime minister has called Tuesday's test " an act of stupidity". Even Germany, France's closest ally, has registered its disagreement. Yet from Whitehall comes a platitude. "French nuclear tests are", says the Ministry of Defence "a matter for the French."

This is a strange statement. If it is only a matter for the French, does that mean oil spillages in the sea are only a matter for petrochemical companies? If you are mugged in the street, is that a matter merely for robbers? It is hard to understand why the French should be allowed to do what they like to the marine environment thousands of miles from Paris. But, fortunately for the Government, one other country sees things the same way. China, which itself exploded two devices recently, is at one with Whitehall.

The official British reaction, of course, makes perfectly good sense down at the Foreign Office. Britain, like France, possesses nuclear weapons and has long prided itself on the fact. The two countries have much in common on such matters. Anglo-French relations, moreover, are good, better than for some time, with much talk of defence co-operation and of Anglo- French collaboration acting as the core of future European policy. Now is not the time to disturb the waters, especially as protests on British streets have been minimal.

This is, alas, a classic piece of Foreign Office policy-making. Forget the broader issues, the post-1989 world, the new moral imperatives. The British voice in the world is informed by the narrowest and most short- term calculation. But the world has moved on. Nuclear tests are now unacceptable, and for a country to conduct them so far from its own territory, in someone else's backyard, is doubly unacceptable. This much is clear from the extraordinary outburst of public outrage against the test. The French government appears totally out of touch with the new climate of opinion and all the British government can do is to provide it with succour. Viewed from another continent, it would seem to be a classic case of two once-great European powers displaying a profound inability to come to terms with the modern world.

The problem is not limited to the government. Labour has been disappointing in its opposition even though it is not burdened by the responsibilities of office. Tony Blair has mustered all his rhetorical powers to urge the government to, wait for it, "express regret at this action". The Liberal Democrats have condemned the test with strong words, calling it "scientifically unnecessary and politically inept". But no party has sought to galvanise popular opinion.

In short, the political classes have failed to offer the leadership that has been required by the French tests. There are times, and this is one of them, when politicians should make morality, and not just national self-interest, the determinant of foreign policy.