Lord Justice Scott, the 59-year-old Court of Appeal judge appointed 10 months ago to delve into the murky waters of ministerial responsibility on 'Iraqgate', is more than halfway through his herculean task. He has read, say his aides, 70,000 documents, a lorry-load of paper files delivered to the musty suite of a former hotel where his inquiry is being conducted, hard by Buckingham Palace. He has jogged the reluctant memories of Whitehall mandarins, spooks and cabinet ministers past and present, including an intemperate Baroness Thatcher. Tomorrow, he puts John Major on the stand.
The Prime Minister will be asked, 'among other things', about his knowledge - during his brief time as Foreign Secretary - of the meaning of guidelines on exports to Iran and Iraq. He will also be asked about the briefings he received as Prime Minister and the answers he gave about the operation of the guidelines.
Major is likely to be nervous. Lord (formerly Sir Geoffrey) Howe's deliberate ambush of the inquiry last week - his written evidence accused the judge of being 'detective, inquisitor, advocate and judge' all at the same time - suggests that ministers are deeply anxious that what was intended as an exculpatory operation has run out of control. Lord Justice Scott, bridge-player, opera lover, fox- hunter, conservative with a small 'c', whose soubriquet in the Court of Appeal is 'the human dynamo', and who was once described as a graceful adornment of the Establishment, is exhibiting an independence and intellectual rigour that has evidently surprised and alarmed the politicians.
They should have known better. The judge who tried the Spycatcher case and made the landmark ruling in 1987 that ministers could not gag forever the loquacious former MI5 agent Peter Wright (a judgment now overtaken by secrecy legislation), was scarcely a man to do the Cabinet's dirty work. He was the choice of the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor, but Downing Street approved the appointment. Now they are huffing and puffing over his investigative style, hinting that it was not what was intended - and that perhaps it is not even just. The rubbishing of the Scott Report seems to have begun even before it has been written.
THIS may be good sport, but it is unlikely to be wise politics. Richard Scott is a product of the old school, the gentlemanly one that pre-dates the current brand of Conservativism. He was born on 2 October, 1934, in Dehra Dun, a British army garrison town in the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India, where his father, Tom Scott, was a lieutenant-colonel in the 2/9th Gurkha Rifles. Both Richard Scott's grandfathers had been clergymen in Bedfordshire. His early days were spent in Peshawar, near the North West Frontier, during the Indian summer of the Raj. His father, a brilliant horseman, rode Lucifer to victory in the Lucknow Grand National. The family spent summers in the coolness of the mountains of Kashmir.
The imperial idyll was interrupted in 1942, when Tom Scott, a veteran of the campaigns of Gallipoli and Mesopotamia, where he had been wounded, quit the Indian Army on medical grounds and migrated with his family to South Africa. They settled on a 500-acre dairy farm at Mooi in Natal province, and young Scott was sent to Michaelhouse College, a public school on the English model, where he proved a first-rate scholar and sportsman. He boxed, played rugby, sprinted, excelled in debating and appeared as Antonio in The Tempest.
He went to Cape Town University (where he met a student destined to become Lord Justice Hoffmann, another Court of Appeal judge) and then, on a Commonwealth Scholarship, to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took a first and won a rugby Blue - wing forward - in 1957. A year teaching at the University of Chicago followed. There he met Rima Ripoll, a flamenco dancer born in New York and whose Panamanian mother was a former Ziegfeld girl who had danced in the Paris Folies. On his return to Britain, they married in 1959, after he landed a studentship at Denis Buckley's Inner Temple chambers. They have two sons and two daughters.
Scott joined the Chancery Bar, took silk in 1975, and within seven years had been elected Chairman of the Bar at 48. During his term he introduced ethnic monitoring to the profession, with the aim of increasing the numbers of black barristers. He became a Chancery judge in 1983. A year later, the Government took the Guardian to court to compel the return of a confidential ministerial memo leaked by Sarah Tisdall, a civil servant. Scott found for HMG, on the grounds that the document was government property. Ms Tisdall later got six months in jail for breaching the Official Secrets Act.
But it was the Spycatcher case that made Mr Justice Scott famous. The Guardian and the Observer were acquitted after they had published extracts from the book. Press freedom to report allegations of scandal in government, declared Mr Justice Scott, is 'one of the bulwarks of our democracy'.
This was the libertarian judge - who cycles daily to the hearing from Euston station - thought to be the right man for the inquiry into arms sales. A fellow Court of Appeal judge observes drily: 'I had a feeling that when they set up the inquiry it was a better alternative to the Prime Minister having to answer questions in the House of Commons. It was put through in a tremendous hurry, and by the time Prime Minister's Questions came he was able to say that Lord Justice Scott had been appointed, and we would have to wait until he had completed his inquiry. If that is the strategy you adopt, the chickens may come home to roost.'
One after another, ministers, mandarins and officers of MI5, MI6 and the government spy station, GCHQ, have been put through the wringer. But it was not until Lord Howe articulated the anxieties of the Conservative hierarchy, past and present, that the true scale of political apprehension began to emerge. The usually unflappable judge became 'very, very agitated', according to one observer at the hearing. 'He did flush a little. Normally, he's very buttoned-up.'
In defiance of protocol, there had been no advance warning of the former Foreign Secretary's assault on the very basis of the inquiry. Lord Howe claimed to be speaking for a number of ministers, former members of the government and senior civil servants, and the talk at Westminster supports his assertion. But Lord Justice Scott immediately dismissed as 'ludicrous' his critic's argument that witnesses should be allowed legal representation and the right of cross-examination. At the outset of the inquiry, he had demanded, and won, from John Major the right to make his own ad hoc rules of conduct, on the lines of the Bingham Inquiry into the BCCI scandal.
Lord Justice Scott is unlikely to be deterred from getting to the bottom of the scandal by his savaging at the hands of 'the dead sheep', any more than he is likely to be irritated into being harder than he would otherwise have been. As Major glumly conceded in the Commons last week, he has been given a free rein, and that cannot now be withdrawn.
The Scott Report is due to be published in August. Last month, the judge wrote to Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, saying he had almost completed the gathering of evidence about government policy on the export of defence equipment and dual-use goods to Iraq, and the extent to which the Government operated in accordance with that policy. He added: 'This has raised important questions about the relationship between ministers and parliament, and between civil servants and their ministers.'
He needed three more months to investigate 'perceived breaches of the export control regime' - including consideration of the use of public interest immunity certificates in the abortive Matrix-Churchill court case that gave rise to the inquiry. This is a potential minefield for a number of ministers, including Mr Heseltine, who is due to give evidence next month, William Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Kenneth Clarke, Chancellor of the Exchequer, who believes that the inquiry will disclose 'that we did not lie to Parliament'. First Clarke and then Heseltine said last week they would resign if the Scott Report finds that they acted improperly, and Labour is seeking similar assurances from other ministers.
Those who know Lord Justice Scott are confident that this is one fox he will not allow to get away. Described by friends as an 'easy- going, open sort of person', he is none the less thorough. As his fellow member of the Appeal Court bench insists: 'He hasn't got any agenda of his own, except to do the job. He genuinely doesn't care what the consequences may be - provided he thinks he has done it fairly and in the right way.'
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content