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The Scott Report

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Here is a little story that illustrates how politics works in the UK. It is all true.

Once upon a time there was a company, Matrix Churchill by name, that was, among other things, a tools manufacturing company. However, what they were exporting were machines that could be used to manufacture weapons. This is not a surprise: Britain is one of the biggest arms-manufacturing nations in the world. This company was going about its business selling hardware to whoever would buy it, including Iraq. Not a nice company, then, but one that was not necessarily doing anything illegal.

Now, in order to sell arms to countries like Iraq (then at war with Iran) one needs permission from the Government. The company had this permission, following a relaxation in export controls in 1988 that, crucially, had not been announced to Parliament (President Hussein is not a terribly nice man, and selling him weapons was thought unlikely to go down well with the public).

Then one day Her Majesty's Customs and Excise paid a visit to the company. 'You have been shipping parts of weapons to Iraq,' they said. The company said they had permission from the Government (which they did), but this was contrary to the 'official' position. An investigation was launched.

The Lie

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was asked in Parliament if the rules had been relaxed - he said they had not. Of course, all politicians lie, but they are not supposed to lie to Parliament - so that's quite a serious matter.

As the Government had denied giving permission, and the last properly-announced policy supported this denial, the directors of the company were prosecuted by Customs and Excise. Fortunately for the directors they had documentary proof of the Government approval, so all looked safe, until...

The Cover-up

Governments dislike being caught out, especially governments under pressure with a small majority in Parliament and facing deep unpopularity in the country (the Home Secretary had been found by the courts to be acting illegally a record number of times in that Parliament). The Attorney General was sent to court to get a Public Interest Immunity Certificate to prevent the crucial evidence being presented in court.

A Public Interest Immunity Certificate is something used by Governments to prevent publication of things that would compromise national security. In this case, it would have proved that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was a liar, but this was also perceived as not being in the public interest by the Government of which he was a part. It is usually known as a gagging order in the press, for obvious reasons.

So, knowing full well that the directors of the firm were innocent, the Government tried to suppress the evidence that would clear them. They did so by claiming 'public interest' - and if the public interest includes sending innocent men to prison to protect the backs of lying politicians, then so it was.

In any case, the trial collapsed when a former minister contradicted himself in his evidence.

The Whitewash

Sooner or later it was bound to come out. In the usual way admissions were wrung from ministers bit by bit, and Private Eye1 made much of it all. Eventually the Government bowed to pressure and launched an enquiry under Mr Justice Scott.

Scott's report was damning, essentially saying what you read here: the minister had lied, and tried to withhold evidence in a criminal case to cover it up. That wasn't quite what the Government had in mind, so a bit of news management was called for.

Preparation was twofold: a sustained attack on the process of building the report - apparently ministers were not allowed lawyers to represent them when presenting answers to questions for which they had been given weeks to prepare - and a careful summary in a 'press pack' that included the few phrases moderately favourable to the Government and presented them as though they were a fair summary.

As some of the press were friendly with the ministers in most danger, this was quite effective. Coupled with the launch of the report at 3:30pm, giving no time for more detailed analysis of its million-plus words, this drew the flak for a couple of days.

The Debate

A government with an absolute majority in Parliament never loses a confidence motion any more than a flock of turkeys is likely to vote for Christmas, so the Government said that this was a confidence motion - but only if they won. If Parliament voted in their favour over the report, that was a vote of confidence, but if they voted against it was not a vote of no confidence. An exercise in self deception which fooled just about nobody outside the right-wing press.

The report, which had cost several million pounds of taxpayers' money, was prepared in secret. It would have to be debated in Parliament so those ministers criticised were given sight of key sections on which to comment and request revisions, and the Government briefed ministers extensively on their defence against the report's criticisms. The Opposition, by contrast, were given a few hours to examine the document before a full set-piece debate. A few hours in which a small and rigidly-controlled number of people were allowed to read a document running into thousands of pages and over a million words, without taking copies, and under the supervision of Government officers. All in the name of the 'public interest' again.

It was like something out of a banana republic.

The Opposition front bench put up a fine and spirited display, showing the government for the craven liars they were. But of course, with an overall majority in Parliament, small though it was, the Government's bill exonerating them of any wrongdoing was passed by a slender margin.

The Aftermath

Governments that try to send innocent people to prison to cover up their own double-dealing are rarely popular for long. In 1997 the party in question was swept from power by the biggest landslide in living memory.

The Bishop of Ely said of the report:

... in the judgment of many independent commentators, it provides evidence of an obsession with secrecy, disregard for the truth, and a willingness to mislead Parliament.

Left-wing journalist Paul Foot said 'There has been, quite literally, nothing like it before'.

1A British satirical magazine founded in the 1960s.

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