A rotten reminder

February 23, 1996

Anyone wanting a reason for why government should be kept at arms length by the universities need only have turned up a few minutes early for Mrs Shephard's statement and taken in Sir Nicholas's 15 minutes of parliamentary exposure.

The Government defence is summed up in the title of Solzhenitsyn's short story We Never Make Mistakes - a peculiarly appropriate comparison in that the Scott report exposes a system whose openness, accountability and honesty will be readily recognisable to any erstwhile inhabitant of the Soviet Union.

Ministers assert that they have been cleared of any charge of conspiracy. But who needs a conspiracy when your culture is one whose outlines can be discerned through the opacity of Sir Richard's prose - a world whose instinct to evasion, half-truth and suppression is complemented by the utter incompetence that allows a warning letter from the president of the Board of Trade to go unread for between three and seven weeks?

We read of a minister who signed 38 letters containing an untrue statement about a policy of which he was one of the main authors, "yet did not give the impression of any insincerity" when he asserted its essential truthfulness. Assuming that, as a fellow of All Souls and former higher education minister, William Waldegrave has a reasonable memory, Sir Richard's repeated acceptance of his sincerity has the quality of Mark Antony's "honorable men" mantra in Julius Caesar. On the best possible reading Mr Waldegrave appears to have a capacity for self-deception incompatible with high office and unflattering to his alma mater.

Sir Richard also shows the extent to which the defence and trade ministries have become incapable of distinguishing the national interest from that of the arms exporters. Fair enough to assert that British jobs depend on the industry, but a bit rich coming from a Government that has cheerfully presided over the destruction and selling-off of much of British industry. Next time we wonder why such an unhealthily high proportion of research capacity is devoted to military rather than civil uses, one element in the equation will be that much clearer.

And next time a university is faced with the intrusions of, to take an entirely unrandom example, quality assessment, imposed in the name of wider accountability, its staff may be inclined to ask why they should put up with this, when our political masters are so clearly disinclined to have any form of accountability applied to themselves.

Mr Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell should undoubtedly go. But the implications of Scott go far beyond their fate to that of a system which has rotted beyond repair. Better, perhaps, that they remain as a reminder of that rotteness, lest public disgust diminish before the votes are counted, and as a spur to those - many of them in universities - who are now thinking seriously about how our constitutional arrangements might be improved: their moment may at last have come.

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