He's fit, but can he beat the scrum?; PROFILE: Sir Richard Scott

The former rugby player now faces the supreme test of his political skill, says Chris Blackhurst

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The whispering campaign has begun in earnest. It is all the fault of Lord Mackay of Clashfern, the Lord Chancellor. If he had not recommended Lord Justice (now Sir Richard) Scott to head the arms-to-Iraq inquiry, we would not be in this mess.

Not only that, a Tory MP in the Commons tea room said pointedly last Thursday: this is not the first time the Lord Chancellor has fouled up; he also chose Lord Nolan, you know.

That remark says it all. Judging from the arch of his eyebrows, this MP did not necessarily believe what he was saying. Nevertheless, the fact that it is being said at all shows just how far Sir Richard, and Lord Nolan before him, have got under the Government's skin.

The reason has little to do with the labyrinthine and increasingly datedsaga of turning a blind eye to companies arming Saddam Hussein, or a widely acknowledged decline in standards of public life. It is all about unflappable judges with a strong sense of purpose who will make up their own minds and do not need politicians to tell them how to behave.

The burning frustration felt by members of the Government as they await Sir Richard's verdict is palpable. Their instincts are telling them to destroy him by Thursday. But he is not a politician, he is an objective judge - and worse, their appointee.

Blame the hapless Lord Chancellor. In November 1992, in the fury over the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial, the Government was reeling. Ministers were being accused of having conspired to deny a fair trial, to send innocent men to jail. In the panic, the Prime Minister seized on an independent judicial inquiry. Mackay was dispatched to find a suitable candidate; Scott's name was put forward.

Scott himself has reportedly said it was "strange that they picked me".That remark, allied with rumours in Whitehall that Mackay had got the wrong Scott (Peter Scott QC is more familiar with Whitehall), does him a disservice. In truth, there was plenty to recommend Richard Rashleigh Folliott Scott to Mr Major.

He was born 61 years ago, in Dehra Dun, northern India, into a privilegedbackground. His father was a colonel in the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles, home was in Peshawar. The family, though, was not a military one - the Scotts hailed from Bedfordshire clergy stock.

When Richard was eight, his father retired from the Army and took his family to South Africa, to settle on a 500-acre dairy farm in Natal. It was here that the young Scott developed a lasting passion. He learnt to ride, not only to trot and canter, but to gallop, hard and fast. Today, Tories who knock him as an anti-Establishment renegade struggle when presented with his abiding love of fox-hunting - he hunts most weekends and is by all accounts a brilliant horseman.

School was Michaelhouse, one of the most elite in South Africa. He brought to rugby the same intensity he exhibited at riding. Prowess on the sports field underpinned an outstanding intellect. These qualities, together with his comfortable home life, gave him a sense of confidence and well-being that his enemies find disconcerting.

His chosen career was law; the South African brand of Roman-Dutch, with its emphasis on the inquisitorial rather than the adversarial. To the fury of Scott's opponents, a firm belief that it is the role of the inquisitor to get at the truth, to not allow it to be masked by legalistic sparring, has governed his conduct of the inquiry.

He came to Britain in 1955 on a Commonwealth scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge - not a trace of South Africa remains in his voice, which is pure Home Counties. He was a cut above the rest, a brilliant scholar, excellent at rugby, good at bridge.

When government supporters snipe that Scott is unworldly, what they really mean is that he has not been schooled in the petty bureaucracies and power plays of Whitehall. He has never worked for anyone except himself, at the Chancery Bar in the Inner Temple. He cares little for self-promotion. He believes people should be able to do their own thing, provided it does not harm others.

There are personal aspects to this libertarianism that provide ammunition for his detractors: one of his four children converted to Islam and he still gets along with him famously; he rides a bike to work.

This last is trotted out ad nauseam, in pictures, printed words and behind-the-scenes sniggers, as some sort of proof that he is "eccentric". He counters, fiercely, that he is merely being pragmatic; it gets him from A to B on time. These petty inferences he finds hard to fathom.

Scott became a QC in 1982 andchairman of the Bar in 1982. He moved to the judges' bench a year later. Those Tories lining up to berate him now might like to reflect on the following: he tried the Sarah Tisdall case in 1984, forcing the Guardian to return to the Government a document leaked by the former Foreign Office clerk; and in 1985 he granted an injunction against mass picketing in the miners' strike, in the process creating a new tort of "unreasonable harassment".

On the other hand, he presided over the decisive Spycatcher judgment in 1987, when he dismissed government attempts to get Peter Wright's MI5 revelations banned and was severely critical of unnecessary Whitehall secrecy.

If the judge has an Achilles heel, it is probably his political naivety. Having spent all his life immersed in the law, he has never been exposed to the dirty tricks of politicians. Until now. When last June an extensive section of his draft report dealing with William Waldegrave was leaked, Sir Richard was furious. He had genuinely believed that no leaks would take place.

Rather than attack him for his lack of knowledge of Whitehall and the machinery of government, his critics should perhaps concentrate their fire on this lack of political nous. In an effort to be seen to be scrupulously fair, he has allowed witnesses to contradict in writing what they had previously said to him at the public hearings. For politicians such generosity was a godsend. For the rest of us it kept his inquiry going on more than three years.

Sir Richard is genuinely hurt by attacks now being made on him, even before his report is published. While no one can doubt his legal acumen, only on Thursday will we discover if he has been sufficiently politically astute as well.

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