When truth is the first British casualty of a foreign war

The abuse of democracy by governments of all parties is the real issue behind the Scott report, argues Teddy Taylor
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The Independent Online
The fact that Sir Richard Scott is clearly a perfect gentleman has not made life easier for the Government, as it deals with the implications of his massive report on the issue of the supply of equipment to Iraq. His report sets out in detail the way in which Parliament was misled and deliberately confused on the equipment sales, and Sir Richard expresses concern and alarm about the implications for democracy.

However, at the same time, he interprets the activities of ministers directly involved in such a way that it can be argued, as Ian Lang did with such gusto last Thursday, that nobody is really to blame for the outrage against democracy. He appears to accept without question that William Waldegrave genuinely and sincerely was unaware of the change in policy on arms sales and he further maintains that Sir Nicholas Lyell was in no way responsible for seeking to imprison the executives of Matrix Churchill by urging ministers to sign certificates known as PIIs designed to deny the defendants the evidence which could prove their innocence.

Having read with care the actual wording in the report, it seems to me abundantly clear that there is no way in which the Prime Minister or Parliament could reasonably demand that the ministers should be sacked if they preferred to stay in office. Of course, tearful and pious resignations would help to remove the political problems created by the devastating information in the report, but there is no doubt that it is not something which could be demanded.

Although I have no specific information about what exercised the mind of Lord Scott, I have a suspicion that in declaring the "not proven" verdicts on the two ministers he may just have been seeking to urge Parliament to consider the basic issue of government responsibility rather than taking the easy way out of the problem by dismissing two ministers and then proceeding to close the file on this worrying issue.

And, of course, the basic issues are worrying. I was one of the many MPs who plagued the Government over its policy on Iraq during the appalling war between Iraq and Iran, and Sir Richard Scott has been kind enough to place in his report one of the questions which I raised, together with its ambiguous and misleading reply from Alan Clark.

I, like other MPs, suspected at the time that the Government was showing preference to Iraq and supplying them with the means of securing victory and my belief was that this was designed to relieve the rather pathetic sheikhdoms in the Persian Gulf, with which Britain had a "special relationship", from experiencing the revolutionary fervour of the new Iran. Both Britain and the United States traditionally preferred to have all Middle East nations under their control and developments like democracy or revolution were not conducive to stable relationships.

I, and some others, did everything we could in Parliament to challenge the new policy, but on every occasion our objections were simply swept aside with the ludicrous and untruthful statement that the Government was wholly impartial and that the last thing in the world they would consider would be showing preference to any party in the "regrettable conflict".

What on earth can elected MPs do in such a situation? Of course one can understand that in certain acute and embarrassing international issues, ministers would have to show discretion in what could be revealed, but the peddling of deliberate falsehoods is another matter. Looking back to this tragic time, the only achievement that I can identify was a splendid and punchy article which I wrote and which the Guardian kindly published. It gave me pleasure to hand copies of this to Foreign Office ministers, but of course their reaction was simply amused contempt.

If a government is pursuing, for badly founded and counter-productive reasons, a policy in a vital area of international affairs, it is surely wrong that Parliament should be given no opportunity to challenge the basis of that policy. However, the traditional role of the Foreign Office to present alleged facts as they seek to interpret them is little more than an insult to democracy.

However, the other vital issue which the Scott debate has not yet dealt with is that the circumstances set out in the report are nothing new. They have been repeated time and time again under governments of both parties.

When I hear the comments of the unimpressive Robin Cook on television, I wonder exactly what he would have said during the debates on the tragic and bloodthirsty events in Biafra during the Nigerian troubles, when Harold Wilson was the Labour Prime Minister and when the Foreign Secretary was Michael Stewart.

They told the Commons day after day that the Government was not involved in the conflict in any way, that they grieved for the victims of the war, and that they prayed for peace to be restored.

But almost every night, from a remote corner of an airfield in Kent, planes took off stuffed with arms and ammunition, being sent to the federal government in Nigeria. The manifests stated that the goods being transported were "furniture", "spares" and even "antiques". Seconded British pilots flew the planes in Nigeria used in the conflict, and while this was authoritatively denied, it became more sensitive when one of them was killed. "D notices" were issued to gag the press when embarrassing stories came to light. And the many UK nationals and nationals of other nations working to relieve suffering in Biafra still, to this day, speak with horror about the events there. An estimated three million people died in this war. Britain poured arms into the conflict. But officially, any participation was denied.

The issues raised in the Scott report are not an issue of a simple expose of the sins of Conservative government but relate more to a tragic and worrying conspiracy of the Foreign Office under governments of all parties. If we do not face up to this and take steps to resolve it, I am afraid that all Sir Richard Scott's endeavours will have been in vain.

The writer is Conservative MP for Southend-on-Sea.

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