Malice and a failure to understand

On the eve of publication of the Scott report, the former Foreign Secretary fears for the reputation of good government
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The Independent Online
As to fairness, little more needs to be said. When Sir Richard Scott bases the defence of his inquiry on the repeated statement that it was not a trial, he is technically correct. But he must accept that witnesses of sound reason and good faith experienced it as a trial. Certainly, it was reported as such.

Whether the final report is fair is a completely different matter. Not having read it, I have no idea. Sir Richard seems to have concentrated on the allegation that three junior ministers, of whom William Waldegrave alone remains in government, conspired to alter the guidelines for the export of defence equipment to Iran and Iraq without telling Parliament. So far as I can see, this accusation, although often linked to the Matrix Churchill trial, is irrelevant to it. In whatever form the guidelines stood at any given time, they could not have been used to justify the licensing for export of machine tools designed to make Iraqi armaments. From what I have read and heard I do not believe the guidelines themselves were changed, or that Parliament was deceived.

Next under the searchlight comes the use of Public Interest Immunity Certificates. The certificate that a minister may be asked to sign relates to documents, not to a trial. The publication of certain documents or parts of them can harm the national interest. They may reveal the names or techniques of intelligence agencies. They may cover transactions or conversations with foreign governments which we have agreed to keep confidential. A minister can weigh these matters and certify accordingly. What a minister cannot effectively do is balance that judgement against the needs of justice in a particular trial, of which he almost certainly will have no direct knowledge. Only the judge can decide this. So a minister can "gag" no one.

This is all case-law made by judges, not governed by statute. If Sir Richard were to recommend that there should be legislation to clear up this point, I would agree with him. But I would be amazed if he came to the conclusion that either the Attorney-General or the ministers who signed the certificates on the Attorney-General's advice were doing anything except applying the law as it stands.

I do not fear for the Chief Secretary or the Attorney-General. I know them both well, and indeed have known William Waldegrave just about all his life. You have to live far from reality to suppose that either of these two was a party to dishonourable conspiracy to deceive Parliament or imprison innocent men.

More fundamentally, we are seeing an eruption, based on a mixture of malice and misunderstanding, against the way in which important policy decisions are taken in this country. Sir Richard Scott is the instrument, rather than the author, of this attempt to discredit. The Labour Party, if it seriously aspires to government, would be foolish to join the attempt.

I know the system has defects and makes mistakes. I am certain that it is neither corrupt nor dishonourable. It never permitted the export of lethal weapons to Iraq, though bishops still write to the Times as if it did. It had to wrestle, on this as in many other examples, with the need to balance the legitimate interests of British exporters against the British interest in a peaceful world. I believe that those concerned handled these issues more thoroughly and with greater scruple than our main competitors.

One cannot do much about malice. But misunderstanding is a greater enemy. Running through much of the comment on this affair runs a thick vein of misunderstanding on how modern government works, and has to work. Ministers and their advisers have, day by day, to take dozens of decisions balancing a wide range of legitimate considerations. They cannot hold a Scott inquiry every time a guideline has to be interpreted.

In my evidence, I gave Jordan as an example. The Government has been accused of sloppiness or sentimentality in handling allegations that arms authorised for Jordan were finding their way to Iraq. We let the King know of our concerns. But the whole future of Jordan was in the balance during these years. If we had handled this particular limited question of equipment for Iraq in such a way that Jordan turned decisively against us, the results for our interests in the Middle East, indeed for peace there, might have been catastrophic. Accusations would have flown. The government of the day might have felt compelled to set up an inquiry on the theme "Who lost Jordan?" Sir Richard Scott might have been invited to preside. The same papers, the same witnesses, might have been examined, from a different angle. How could it have been sensible, Presiley Baxendale, counsel to the inquiry, would have asked in her penetrating way, to risk such a catastrophe on some minor question of interpreting guidelines?

No one in a democracy can expect all criticism to be fair or well-founded. It was right that there should be an inquiry into what went wrong with the Matrix Churchill trial. The result has been an immense balloon of speculation and accusation. I do not know whether the Scott report will puff more air into that balloon or begin to let the air out. In either case, Parliament should, without delay, grip the subject and bring us down to earth.