Could the inquisition restore democracy?

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Though the mills of Scott grind

slowly, yet they grind exceeding small,

Though with patience he stands

waiting, with exactness grinds he all.

PURITAN vengeance is one part of our national character. Sitting at the back of the Scott inquiry inquisition of Baroness Thatcher, I was struck by the number of ordinary punters who had come to watch her being humiliated. Beside me sat a red-faced pensioner repeatedly wetting his lips and quivering with fascination. As the former prime minister tried to evade a series of questions he squirmed and grunted with an almost sexual excitement. This, it seems, is as near as one gets to public punishment, a kind of genteel ducking-stool.

The lust for vengeance after all those bungles, lies and hopes dashed is still perhaps a minority yearning. Many Britons have been corrupted in a different way, dulled into half-cynical, half-resentful acquiescence. Revelations about ministerial lying and the manipulation of official policy no longer shock; they confirm our basically pessimistic view of modern government. No one resigns, no one apologises, the buck circulates ever faster and the show rumbles on.

This is the decadence of a once- proud democracy. Its restoration is an urgent matter and could start this summer with the Scott Report.

The mounds of evidence already sifted and heard make plain that what we are witnessing is a fight between two kinds of language. On the one hand we have the worldly, cynical, private English of Whitehall and Westminster; on the other, the plodding, painstaking, literal- minded process of the inquiry.

This is what happens when democracies go wrong: the great game is taken into a courtroom, or a mimicry of one, and reduced to tedious simplicities like who, when, yes and no, right and wrong. The pressures of the time are ignored, the colour drains away, the context is diminished. Had Lady Thatcher gone mad in 1986 and had Neil Kinnock tortured to death in the bowels of the Cabinet Office, then the coup would have ended (assuming democracy was restored) in a similar room, with similar quiet, polite questioning, and probably under the gaze of Lord Justice Scott.

Thus far, the memorable words and philosophical flurries have all come from the politicians and senior mandarins. But they have been disconcerted by their inability to deflect the quiet and somewhat sinister persistence of Lord Justice Scott and Presily Baxendale QC - a new liberal heroine, who will surely end up being portrayed on the cover of Radio Times by Emma Thompson. Lady Thatcher tried to bluster, to patronise her, to divert, to intimidate. But all her formidable armoury of verbiage was as nothing compared with Ms Baxendale's simple questions. Ah, Justice]

Eventually, however, the language of legal process is inappropriate for the world of government. To govern has always involved trying, in private, to decide between bad outcomes. That has always engendered cynicism among those who spend their daily lives doing it: it is wholly unsurprising to hear a defence official say that truth was 'a very difficult concept'. A legalistic process can force out such nuggets, but has no way of grading one policy against another, or of judging the political strains that surround them. Whatever the Scott inquiry decides, it would be nave in the extreme to expect it, of itself, to change this culture. Things will slip back.

Does that mean that the inquiry is fated to be of short-term significance only, provoking an interim wariness about lying, some ritual public humiliation and perhaps a symbolic resignation? It does: unless the Scott Report is not the end of the matter.

It already seems clear that there are political conclusions to be drawn beyond party point-scoring. The revelations so far should be an important boost for the political reform movement in Britain. We have heard, after all, proof positive about the failure of our famous system of checks and balances, including the failure of parts of our informal constitution. Parliamentary scrutiny, on which Lady Thatcher placed so much emphasis this week, has been shown to be pathetically ineffective. Ministerial accountability and collectivity look like a joke, though by now rather an old one. The making of policy by a privileged and closed coterie produces ghastly howlers. The free flow of essential information around Whitehall doesn't happen. Basic guarantees for citizens about what policy is are lacking.

All of this is widely known, but somehow having it underscored during a public inquiry changes things. Seeing the Scott-Baxendale inquisition as a search for bad apples, coupled with a bit of ritual humiliation seems increasingly like a cop-out. We deserve more than a peep-show on government, however entertaining. Left to itself, the government machine can cope quite easily with a mere man-hunt - a few sacrificial victims, a bit of humble pie, an assurance that new checks are in place. So one minister goes? So another one's waiting. If that happened, the public cynicism and depression about government would be confirmed. For we are no longer that stupid.

But if deeper political conclusions are drawn from this process, by voters and by Conservatives, as well as by the various kinds of reformers on the opposition benches, the Scott inquiry could promote the modernisation and democratisation of our system of government. Ministers in any system will conceal things, and officials will be cynical; but some systems have good safeguards, and others don't. By making clear that this system is failing, rather than that individuals were good or bad, these two lawyers could help to restore our democracy. Some may say such an ambition for a public inquiry was nothing short of unconstitutional. But then we don't seem to have been too worried about the constitution lately, do we?