Adrian Hamilton: Don't blame Des, he's only the minister in charge

It's the reverse of Nuremberg. I was only following the orders of my subordinates
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One good thing at least has come out of this week's sorry tale of the sailors' stories. With this lot in charge, we need never fear a British police state, whatever the Prime Minister's proclivities. They'd never manage it.

First we had the Ministry of Defence blaming the Navy chiefs for allowing the former detainees to sell their stories, then we the Navy saying that they only did it because the stories would have got out anyway in view of the money being offered and finally we've had the Prime Minister refusing to say whether he'd been consulted whilst his Defence Secretary, was ducking so far beneath the parapet that they had to send in minders to get him finally to say anything yesterday.

It is, as our French allies would say, "pas serieux". All we need now is for the First Sea Lord to be taken out on to his quarter deck to be shot, "pour encourager les autres". And don't think Ministers wouldn't order it, if they weren't so busy avoiding the flak themselves. Des Brown was at it in his belated interview yesterday. The original decision, he said, had been made by "Navy officials" in view of the sums offered to the families of the detainees.

"I was uncomfortable with the decision but I accepted the analysis," Browne stated. " I accept with hindsight - and I repeat with hindsight - I could have come to a different view." The hapless Hoon couldn't have put it better. It is the reverse of the Nuremberg defence. I was only following the orders of my subordinates.

It won't do and it shouldn't do. Here we have a cabinet minister in charge of his department saying that he had no control, and worse no sense of rightness, of a decision that was fundamentally political - whether to allow servicemen and women to sell their stories to the media. Any minister worth his salt must have known exactly how badly it would look in public, never mind to other servicemen risking their lives without such rewards.

And the people who should have known how it would look to other servicemen? The top navy officials in the MoD were the ones recommending such a course. What kind of business are we running here? The Chief of the General Staff, an army man, was apparently never consulted.

Of course, all governments tend to be accident prone in their declining years. You only need to have asked Harold Macmillan, James Callaghan and John Major that. This example of fin de régime is a little different in that it is happening as the Prime Minister rather than the administration prepares to bow out. But that in a way only makes it the more sardonic.

As Blair stumbles reluctantly to his departure, his hold on his ministers weakens and his interest in their affairs lessens as he concentrates on those bits of government that can bring credit to his legacy. The capture of the 15 sailors and Marines by the Iranians and their sudden "magnanimous" release is hardly the image he wants to go out with. For the master of spin to be first outdone by an Iranian radical and now embarrassed by so catastrophic a failure to understand the requirements of spin has an exquisite irony of its own.

There are no doubt subtle workings of self-interest in it all. The reason the Navy was so keen to see the stories out was a hope that this way they would counteract the general impression of incompetence and pusillanimity that the initial seizure and the video confession of the detainees had given. Sob stories in the popular press could have helped erase the humiliation of Britain's once-proud senior service.

The Prime Minister was equally keen to counterbalance the image of being outfoxed by the foreigners. The more the British public became incensed at the pitiful tales of forced incarceration and psychological pressure the better. If it reflected badly on the Defence Secretary, well then why should he worry about the travails of a noted Brownite?

There is a serious cost to all this, to the prestige of the country and the self-esteem of its armed forces. There are also important points about the degree of co-ordination and control of the services, the quality of their top leadership and the extent of oversight of the minister responsible. These would be fitting subjects for proper parliamentary scrutiny, if only we had the committees with the teeth or the staffing to carry it out.

In the meantime, the Government can take refuge in the hope that these things tend to blow over, particularly when there is a change at the top. They might also be comforted by the thought that, at bottom, the English have always believed there was more Ealing comedy to their institutions than Hollywood epic. You can see the picture now. Carry on after Captivity, with Kenneth Williams as Prime Minister, Charles Hawtree as the First Sea Lord and Sidney James as Defence Secretary.