Clark the charmer beguiles inquisitor: The former minister Alan Clark demonstrated the elasticity of the English language with impeccable manners at the Scott inquiry into arms for Iraq, writes Andrew Brown

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The Independent Online
WHEN Alan Clark arrived to give evidence to the Scott inquiry, he held the door open for Presiley Baxendale, Lord Justice Scott's formidable counsel. There are villains who could spend their lives holding doors open in vain for Miss Baxendale. But from Mr Clark, she accepted the gesture: it was the act of a gentleman - if one who happens also to be a notorious ladies' man.

Gentlemen have many qualities. They are unafraid, and Mr Clark was certainly that. He answered most questions as if he were not facing a roasting from a judicial inquiry but lounging in front of a fireplace at home. Gentlemen are courteous.

Above all, they do not let the side down. There is no need to let the lower orders in on disputes that do not concern them. In this sense, Mr Clark is a perfect gentleman. Everything he said was true, but hardly anything yielded its true meaning to a vulgar interpretation.

His performance was entirely in the spirit of the guidelines on exporting arms to Iraq, which he so gleefully dissected. 'It is clear,' he said, 'that the ordinary meaning of words, and natural common sense, and other familiar devices, have deliberately been avoided in all this.'

Sometimes, when dealing with inferiors, a gentleman may make his meaning plain. Thus Mr Clark left no doubt of his views of the Foreign Office: 'The one thing they hated was any publicity attached to any of their decisions,' or of the 'obsessional possessiveness of factions of the secret services, who were in competition with each other as much as anything else.'

But when he spoke of William Waldegrave and Baroness Thatcher, his manners were perfect. He did not call Mr Waldegrave a pusillaminous fraud for claiming that the export guidelines never changed. Not at all. He said: 'I certainly don't want to land a former colleague in it. Mr Waldegrave least of all.

'I suppose, by stretching the meaning of the words, it could be argued that the guidelines had remained unchanged.'

He did not say that Lady Thatcher knew perfectly well what he was up to. On the contrary. Documents were copied to her office, but he had no way of knowing what she read. She may have known nothing, as she claimed to the inquiry. 'Very tenuously you could just sustain that construction,' he said. Miss Baxendale seemed quite satisfied with this.

Mr Clark made his meaning plainer: Lady Thatcher, he said, had for five years answered questions on exports to Iraq with one formula. Suddenly, she changed this stock answer, when the guidelines changed, by adding a clause about the end of the war. 'That was the signal; the trail that was laid,' he said, with a delightfully incendiary metaphor. But Miss Baxendale did not reach for her lighter.

At the entrance to the inquiry we had been body-searched for tape recorders. It was a magnificently futile gesture as no one had said anything memorable at all. There were only gentlemen (and a lady) talking among themselves.