Leading Article: Arms and the Iron Lady

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The Independent Online
HAD THE questions at yesterday's Scott inquiry into arms sales to Iraq been put to Ronald Reagan, the answers would have been less surprising. Enough is known about that gentleman's work habits as US President to make it believable that he knew little, and cared less, about such matters. But Margaret Thatcher was a prime minister famous for working until the wee hours, whose mastery of her own brief was beyond question, and whose interest in the work of her Cabinet colleagues was so relentless that many of them felt obliged to resign as a result.

Yesterday, Baroness Thatcher presented a different picture of herself. Dressed in non-partisan dark green, she claimed to have 'no recollection' of whether she had been kept up to date with momentous developments in the arms-to- Iraq saga. She made out that the 'snowstorm' of papers on the matter was too much for her to keep a grip on; and she described as a 'change in circumstances' a succession of actions by ministers and civil servants that most people would describe without hesitation as a change in policy.

In short, Lord Justice Scott and his counsel, Presiley Baxendale, succeeded where a thousand pages of memoirs and four television programmes had failed: they elicited a new picture of a prime minister whom the public thought, until yesterday, it knew rather well. A prime minister with a bad memory, with only a feeble grasp of policy detail - and one quite unable to distinguish the essential from the trivial.

As regards the primary purpose of the Scott inquiry - to find out whether Parliament was misled on the arms-to-Iraq affair, and if so, how - Lady Thatcher's testimony was of little use. But it did more than shed new light on her character. Her evidence made more compelling than ever the case against the kind of secretive government that withholds information from Parliament about sensitive aspects of foreign policy.

Looking back, the former Prime Minister admitted that when the Government decided to amend its civil service guidelines on arms sales to Iraq, it 'might have been better' to say so in public rather than to keep the matter secret for 11 months. Had she been willing to draw a wider moral from the affair, she might also have endorsed that it is not just a matter of good manners to tell the truth to Parliament. That principle is an essential protection against the twin dangers of tyranny and incompetence.

The realities of foreign policy - and the tendency of public opinion to take impractical moral stands - may make it hard to debate the details of arms sales openly on the floor of the House of Commons. But outside the glare of publicity, there can be no excuse for keeping policy secret from two or three trustworthy and senior members of a parliamentary committee overseeing policy on intelligence or foreign affairs. If yesterday's evidence succeeds in impressing this lesson on Lady Thatcher's successors, the Scott inquiry will have more than justified its considerable cost.