Behold the backlash, sabres drawn

Those who are gleefully attacking the Scott inquiry would do well to recall the circumstances of its origins
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The Independent Online
The counter-attack against the Scott inquiry is now clattering at a brisk canter down the Mall. As a nation, we may not do everything quite as well as we used to. But by God, we can still mount a damned impressive Establishment backlash.

Lord Howe, with the words ''natural justice'' emblazoned on his banner, is leading it, with squadrons of Conservative backbenchers at either shoulder. Then comes the Whitehall Cavalier, Tristan Garel-Jones, sabre drawn and determined to right the ''monstrous injustice'' visited on his friend, William Waldegrave. Behind him come Her Majesty's Columnar Finest, with Paul Johnson and Simon Jenkins riding - a rare sight, this - boot-top to boot-top.

Then, who's that? Ah, Lord Rothermere's First Editorial Horse. Fine body of men ... Let us stand back and gasp with admiration as they pass. There is lump in every throat, a tear in every eye.

But wait a moment. Let us walk away, calm down and recall why the Scott inquiry was first set up by John Major back in November 1992.

This was a desperate political expedient. For the Prime Minister, it seemed the worst of times. He had endured poisonous attacks at his party conference and in the Commons. After Black Wednesday, the row over the closure of the coal mines, the announcement of higher taxes and the survival of his Maastricht Bill by a mere three votes, his administration seemed horribly, and possibly terminally, weak.

The mood of public mistrust about the executive was said to be at an all-time high. Then, with the collapse of a trial about arms sales to Iraq, came the realisation that three men, innocent of the charges against them, had narrowly escaped going to jail after ministers had signed documents designed to impede their defence.

This outraged people. As it became clear that Parliament seemed to have been misled, Mr Major ordered in a judge. He wanted a tough judge, for a very good reason. The administration was so lacking in authority that it was protecting itself, for the time being, with the borrowed authority of Lord Justice Scott. The tougher the judge, the stronger the shield. The judge, in return, would be given a wide remit to investigate what had gone wrong. This was exactly the same bargain Mr Major later struck over Lord Nolan.

How have they played out? The Prime Minister has survived the original squalls and succeeded, wily fellow, in delaying the political consequences of both investigations until after November, the month for leadership challenges. The response to the Nolan report won't come until the next session of parliament. These Scott inquiry leaks, which will delay the final report, mean that publication will probably come too late to affect any attempted putsch this year. Which takes Mr Major into a possible election year.

From the Prime Minister's own point of view, therefore, the game isn't going too badly. But from the collective viewpoint of the executive, Scott has been terrible. The judge has been uncovering, probing and criticising the most delicate, hidden membranes of British government. Denied its anaesthetic mix of privacy and authority, the government machine finds its exposure on the judge's dissection table both humiliating and agonising.

Almost everyone involved does. It is a sense of corporate loyalty that explains Lord Howe's persistence - he has his teeth into Sir Richard's ankle, and try as he may, the bicycling judge cannot shake him off. It also accounts for the passionate, even Quixotic, defence of Mr Waldegrave mounted by Garel-Jones on this page yesterday. The feelings of hurt are real. The writers of satires about government always miss out the fierce sense of mutual loyalty and self-belief shared by ministers and senior civil servants. And without such instincts, probably, government could not carry on.

The rest of us, though, must distinguish between the pain felt by individual politicians and officials, and the attempt by the culture of government to repel any criticism from outside as ill-informed. Above all, we should be watchful for attempts to use the regrettable leaks and procedural failures of the inquiry to hide the big questions which the arms-to-Iraq story raises.

Like all the most interesting questions in politics, they are about balancing competing goods. It is good that British exporters do well; it is good that Parliament is told the truth by ministers. When these goods conflict, which should be considered the higher one? Or again: it is good that ministers protect private and necessary sources of information; it is good that innocent people are not jailed. But when it comes to the crunch, which good matters more?

We are talking here not simply about individual acts, but about public values. Reasserting those values, and rubbing the executive's nose in them, is the prime public interest in all this. It matters far more than the survival of this minister or that.

The problem for the ministers concerned is that their actions weren't private ones, but the actions of the state. Mr Waldegrave's conscience and the conscience of the British state were, at least for a while, the same thing. Looking at the papers that were available before Scott started work, for instance, it was clear that government policy on arms sales was changed, and that a decision was taken to say nothing to Parliament.

Mr Waldegrave, who is a thoroughly serious and public-spirited person, justified this as the flexible interpretation of policy. But if a policy of not exporting potentially lethal kit is interpreted so as to allow gun-barrels to be exported after all, then this is ''flexibility'' so extreme that it is indistinguishable from a change of policy. Or, if I'm wrong, then hopping into bed with your neighbour's wife is merely a flexible interpretation of the Seventh Commandment (a viewpoint which, come to think of it, the Church of England will surely endorse before long).

On such verbal shadings and cultural arguments individual ministers and officials will be judged, not by Sir Richard, but by Downing Street and, in due course, by the voters. Mr Waldegrave has been meticulous about refusing to defend himself through the media. The Prime Minister is biding his time, too; but I would be surprised if he did not criticise the conduct of the inquiry when it eventually reports.

If that leads him to reject it as impertinent and misguided, then the backlash will have triumphantly succeeded - and public cynicism will be powerfully reinforced. Whitehall has been worried sick about the inquiry from day one; and has been looking for reasons to discredit it from day two. That doesn't mean the criticisms are invalid, but it ought to make us very suspicious about attempts to elevate failures in its proceedings into a generalised attack on the inquiry itself.

The counter-attack on Scott is clattering along in crusading and increasingly aggressive spirit. Well, it's up to them, but I think the Conservative politicians involved should be very careful. If they make this a test of credibility - theirs against the judge's - they will lose. For the underlying suspicion of the executive which provoked the inquiry back in 1992 is still as forcibly present today.