LEADING ARTICLE : And still they can't come clean

Tuesday 27 February 1996 00:02
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That the Government scraped through in last night's vote on the Scott report was further testimony to John Major's ability to fight his way out of a Westminster corner. Mr Major's skills in doing just enough to win a narrow vote are considerable. They will need to be well honed because this is what political life will be like for the next few months. The Scott affair has inflicted long term damage on his government that last night's victory does little to repair. More importantly the Scott report's detailed account of the arrogance and secrecy at the heart of British governance, still goes largely unaddressed. Mr Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman was right when he warned the House of Commons that the quality of British democracy was under scrutiny in the debate. At the end of the debate most of the public will be no more satisfied than they were at the start that the shortcomings uncovered by Scott are going to be dealt with.

The real triumph last night for Mr Major - and it is not to be underestimated - was not just that he won the vote. It is that he won the vote and yet kept alive, just, the Northern Ireland peace process. Mr Major remember is proposing elections in Northern Ireland as a way into all-party talks. Had he offered the Ulster Unionists a form of elections to their liking - votes in the provinces' 18 separate constituencies - he may have won their support. However to have done that would have been to jeopardise any chance of winning the support of the nationalist SDLP. That in turn would have thrown indoubt this week's summit with the Irish premier John Bruton which may be the last chance of keeping the peace process going.

Mr Major could have traded-in the peace process for a safer parliamentary majority. That Mr Major chose a way to win the vote while keeping alive even a glimmer of hope for peace (by offering a deal to suit the Reverend Ian Paisley's DUP as well as the SDLP) is to his credit.

The second main ingredient of the victory was a list of detailed concessions on the Scott report's recommendations. Sadly these hardly amount to the response that was required, to allay public conerns, although they were enough to buy off some back bench opposition.

Mr Rupert Allason, the maverick back bencher was won over by a vague sounding promise on reforms to the infamous public immunity certificates. Measures such as the review of the way parliamentary questions on arms sales are answered are sensible.

But on the central questions raised by the report, the government was unyielding. The Scott report found that ministers systematically misled parliament. Yet all Mr Ian Lang, the President of the Board of Trade could offer was that the government would look positively at some of Scott's ideas of the issue. It is very generous of the government to think positively about ministers telling the public what is going on in their name.

As for Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General whose judgement was found to be so wanting, he is to be rewarded by having his responsibiltiies expanded to include examining the way that Customs and Excise pursues its prosecutions. We will all rest happier that justice will be efficiently and fairly administered. No sign still that the two ministers most discredited by the report - Sir Nicholas and William Waldegrave - might take responsiblity for their failings by resigning. No sign that Sir Robin Butler, the cabinet secretary who is at the heart of the corrupting concentration of power in Whitehall might be held to account. It is still a culture of government which likes unfettered power but doesn't believe in taking the blame for anything.

The Scott report has left an indelible stain on this government's reputation. It's initial reaction to the report was cynical. Last night it was calculating. It has never been honest or open enough to inspire trust in a public it appears to disdain. And for that it deserves to pay a heavy price indeed when the real vote comes.

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