Leading article: A damning indictment of business and government

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The Independent Online

At last, some sound and principled sense has been spoken on the matter of the Serious Fraud Office, BAE Systems and the Saudi arms deal. Fortunately, this sound sense comes from the High Court, in its judgment on the SFO's decision to drop its corruption inquiry into the multi-billion pound contract. Unfortunately, it took the indignation of two campaign groups to bring the case at all. The ruling thoroughly vindicates them. It should also shame not only the SFO, but the Government of the day.

The judgment is as disturbing as it is excoriating. The court found that the Saudis – as was widely mooted at the time – had threatened to end diplomatic co-operation with Britain and call off a future contract for BAE to supply Eurofighter aircraft, if the SFO pursued its investigation. BAE, in arguments accepted by the then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, had said that the inquiry would have seriously damaged UK-Saudi relations and so jeopardised national security.

The High Court replied with a lengthy written judgment which essentially dismisses this argument as rubbish. It said there was no proof at all that British national security would have been put at risk by anything the Saudis threatened to do. The purpose of the threat was simply designed "to prevent the SFO from pursuing the course of investigation he had chosen to adopt". In that, the judgment went on tersely, "it achieved its purpose".

This would have been ample condemnation in itself. But the final paragraph of the judgment goes further. The director of the SFO, it says, had submitted too readily to the Saudi threat because he, "like the executive" – i.e. the Government – "concentrated on the effects which were feared should the threat be carried out and not on how the threat might be resisted". It went on, in words that should be inscribed over the entrance to No 10 Downing Street: "No one, whether within this country or outside, is entitled to interfere with the course of our justice. It is the failure of Government and the defendant to bear that essential principle in mind that justifies the intervention of this court."

It is not clear what further judicial steps might be taken. Equally, it is apparent that there should be some – and the more swingeing and authoritative the better. For what the High Court found here is what very many people had suspected all along, that the Serious Fraud Office, at the prompting of the Government and under threat from a foreign country, flunked its duty to uphold the law.

The court's specific references to the Government and its responsibility only make its ruling all the more damning – and, it must be said, all the more frustrating. Tony Blair looks more and more the escape artist with every month that passes since he left office. As Prime Minister, he was the head of that Government; he is reported to have intervened personally in the decision to halt the SFO investigation. His Attorney General devised the justification.

Not for the first time, it appears that Mr Blair behaved as though the law did not apply to him if it obstructed the policies he wanted to pursue. Legality could be moulded to suit. We saw a similar slipperiness in the legal advice – given by the same Attorney General – to justify the war in Iraq. Yet both men are now out of office. Even with an impeachment procedure, they would now be beyond the law.

It seems unlikely that either will be called to account as they should be. And at least some of the mud that they have sloughed off so effortlessly will stick to Gordon Brown by association. Once again, he appears the unluckiest of politicians.

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