Queen Victoria would have sent a gunboat but today Her Majesty's government is making her the mildest of "representations" over the public flogging of its citizens by Saudi Arabia.

Ambassador John Wilton reportedly has politely pointed out to the Saudi govenment that British public opinion is distressed by the spectacle of Britons caned in dusty market squares for illicity using alcohol.

London, however, was studiously avoided the word "protest" and is making an unsuccessful effort to lower the popular temperature here. Britain's formal reason for the low profile goes like this:

Saudi Arabia is a sovereign state entitled to write its own criminal code. Foreigners, including Britons, must suffer the same consequences as Saudi citizens for breaking the law.

Foreign minister David Owen underscored Wilton's point last night. He told reporters:

"My advice to people is - You have to observe the law of the country you are in."

Owen, however, added that it "is not unreasonable to ask friendly countries" to think of a choice of penalties and their effect on the "feelings" of their friends. In other words, a longer jail sentence and less flogging would polish the Saudi image here.

But "if they decide to ban alcohol, that is up to them," said Owen. He said he doubted whether spirits were a human right, a sentiment that insures he could never be foreign minister of France.

This was a far cry from the language of Lord Palmerston, Victoria's foreign secretary, who once said that a British subject ought everywhere to be protected by the strong arm of the British law against injustice and wrong.

Behind Owens' cautious words lies a crucial fact for the country that Napoleon once termed a nation of shopkeepers.The Saudis are rich and the customers is always right.

British sales of goods to the Saudis are now running at a rate of $1.3 billion a year. Earnings from services like those provided by the 15,000 British technicians and managers in Saudi Arabia - all potential victims of the cane - could well exceed this.

Unlike other Western nations, Britain is not overly concerned about Saudi oil. Crude from the North Sea is due to supply all the nation's needs by next year or the year after, but the profits from sales of goods and services matter enormously.

Meanwhile, a growing list of Laborite Members of Parliament are denouncing what they describe as the 'barbarous' Saudi practices. One, John Lee, said it was "incredible" to think of permitting Queen Elizabethto visit the place.

But the Queen is scheduled to go next year and Buckingham Palace made clear there will be no change of plans unless the government of the day has a change of heart.

The first two British victims of Saudi prohibition came home yesterday and brushed off reporters queries. They are Nigel Maidment, 27, and Brian Cooper, 35, who each got 70 lashes and six months for leaving their home brew where Arabs could get at it.

The pair put their drink in an equipment shed where Yemeni workers helped themselves, got drunk, and were arrested.

Cooper said he and his friend, hired to drive machines making traffic lanes for an extension of a Saudi airport, were both fit. They looked healthy and sun-tanned but they did not take off their shirts.

A much more severe penalty awaits two other Britons sentenced after this month. John Pearson, said to be in his 20s, will recieve 200 strokes on his bare back and two years. His friend, Paddy Walsh, in his 50s faces 150 strokes and 18 months.

Official here could not confirm whether the pair, workers for the U.S. Lockheed Airport Corp. had been convicted of selling illicit alcohol.

In Pakistan, sentences like these could mean death because the flogger flays open his victim's back with a bamboo cane. The Saudis are said by Middle East experts here to inflict pain but not to cripple. The more devout floggers are said to limit their reach by holding a Koran under their flogging arm.