Leading Article: So many lies, so many liars

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The Independent Online
THEY have no shame. Now that the Scott report has been in the public domain for 10 days, we can see that the Government's original account of it, as presented by Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade, was a gross distortion, and yet ministers are still busy twisting and torturing it. Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been caught red-handed, and Mr Lang has had his knuckles rapped by Sir Richard Scott for "selective quotation" and "out-of-context, one-line answers". It does not, by any means, stop with these two. Here is the Prime Minister in the Commons last Tuesday: "What Sir Richard says is that the reason for the decision not to inform Parliament was because of a concern that to do so might be detrimental to British trading interests. That is to say jobs." Is that true? Does Sir Richard Scott accept that the reason for the Government's secrecy over arms sales to Iraq was a desire to protect British jobs? The answer is no. He does not say it was the reason but one among several, and he makes clear, from an abundance of evidence, that the principal reason was a fear of public opposition. Mr Major, like Mr Lang and Mr Clarke, is telling us that black is white.

Why, in any case, was the Government so secretive if its only motive was the apparently blameless one of protecting British jobs? Think back to the 1980s. The regime in Baghdad had used chemical weapons on its own Kurdish minority. It had executed the British journalist, Farzad Bazoft. It was widely believed to be working towards the development of its own nuclear bomb. It was in favour of this regime that the Government wanted to interpret British policy flexibly. Lord Howe, in his evidence to Sir Richard, explained that in placing such issues before the public "the scope for misunderstanding is enormous", and that we should not forget "the extremely emotional way in which such debates are conducted". What this means is that we, the electors, are not sufficiently calm or mature to judge in such matters, that we are incapable of weighing the need to protect jobs in defence industries against the danger of encouraging a foreign despot. This proposition would be more insulting if events had not proved it risible. Who was right about Saddam Hussein? Was it the Government, which for nine years struggled to sell him all sorts of military hardware short of the things that go bang? Or the British public, which disliked such sales? The invasion of Kuwait provided the answer. And worse, we are not even left with the profits from the arms sales to console ourselves: the Government underwrote many of the export contracts to Iraq and, when Saddam defaulted, his debts to British firms had to be met by taxpayers. The final cost will be pounds 652m.

Much breath and ink have been wasted on the question of whether, given the judgements passed upon them, William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell should be sacked. Certainly they should but the argument about their fate is a distraction. A dozen other senior Tories who are now out of office - a number of them ennobled - have been found equally at fault. This is not a matter of one or two bad apples, but a barrel-load of rot. Scott describes a whole government which for years has treated public opinion and the House of Commons as mere irritants and has come to regard truth as a substance of infinite elasticity. Lord Howe told Scott there was "nothing necessarily open to criticism in incompatibility between policy and presentation of policy". In other words, the Government thinks it has a licence to lie. Ministers lived by it in the 1980s, they have been living by it since the Scott report was published and they will no doubt go on living by it until they are stopped. Perhaps they can no longer distinguish between the truth and whatever version of events will keep them in office. The only solution for the electorate is to doubt the veracity of anything they say, on the grounds that any words uttered may be the mere presentation of policy and not necessarily the policy itself. Who is to know what ministers are up to, or what they may be tempted to do? Chopping off a Waldegrave or a Lyell will make no difference; government secrecy has become a beast with many heads. Tory backbenchers are slowly learning that, for years, they have been duped as systematically as the rest of us. We should hope that, in tomorrow's Commons debate, enough of them will find the pride and the courage to inflict the defeat that the Government deserves.