Dining on data

February 16, 1996

The Scott report and its evidence promises to be a real feast for university departments to binge on. Joe Jacob examines the courses

So at long last Sir Richard Scott has reported on the arms-to-Iraq scandal. When the politicians have had their say and all the rows and the gossip have gone away, what will remain of The Inquiry?

For the spring, we are promised a compact disc and microfiche of the 200,000 pages of evidence. We can then be grateful that vast quantities of new material will be provided for social scientists now and in the future.

Even Sir Richard and his team might be surprised at the list of university departments that will binge themselves on the evidence. Obviously, the political scientists and contemporary historians will be overfed with information. Two prime ministers gave evidence about what they knew about the supply of military equipment to Iraq and Iran. In the longer term, what will be more important is what they had to say about the way any information reached them. If we assume, as Thatcher and Major did, that their offices were running as they were supposed to, what are we to make of the distinctions between policy, its implementation and its interpretation?

Lawyers have long regarded civil servants as the alter egos of ministers - what a civil servant does in the name of a minister is the minister's own deed. To some extent, that doctrine was blown away during the various sleaze allegations which led to the Nolan Inquiry. The very top of the civil service is apparently given a responsibility to mediate on the conduct of ministers. With Scott, the integrity of that mediation has been brought into question. If that integrity cannot be trusted, what governmental machinery can replace it? This is not a question to be answered lightly or quickly.

So, too, academics in political science departments are well used to descriptions of relationships between ministers. What otherwise is the point of reading all those otherwise tedious self-explanatory autobiographies? What we are getting from Scott is an account of how they have behaved when they thought what they were doing was private and how they wriggled to justify themselves when they found it was not. In a similar way, Scott tells us in greater detail than ever before, but our colleagues will have to remember only at one point and in relation to only one issue, what exactly is the relationship between senior and junior ministers and their civil servants, between civil servants within one department and the relationship between departments. Textbooks will have to be updated.

There is one area where the evidence is likely to prove less useful and more frustrating: what is the relation between all these politicians and officials, members of parliament and the wider democratic process? To be sure, it was obvious even before Sir Richard was plucked from the obscurity of the Court of Appeal that trust was a commodity in short supply. Scott has shown how empty the cupboard is. It is unfortunate that the evidence to Scott has been short of much that is new about the nature of the wider democratic process. Despite this, in the light of the evidence, it seems unlikely that we can have the same confidence as hitherto in the utility of select committees.

There is something wrong with a system of accountability in which those who know what the facts are, civil servants, are prevented from saying so to the people's representatives on these committees on the grounds that sometimes the giving of truth is contrary to government policy and they owe their first loyalty to ministers. There is something even more wrong when what was technically an informal inquiry is allowed to receive information denied to Parliament.

Maybe what Scott has found to say about Whitehall and Westminster will be seen to have some profundity. More likely, academics teaching political philosophy will adopt their general demeanour when the rest of us touch their grail - what is truth? Certainly, in a variety of ways Scott forces us to reconsider the question as a practical issue of government. First, what is the value of inquisitorial proceedings as opposed to adversarial proceedings? As soon as it seemed that the inquiry was likely to become critical - Lord Howe, the former Foreign Secretary, voiced concern at Sir Richard's methods. As a lawyer-politician Lord Howe should know better. No one is accused of wrong-doing as a result of Scott's work. Quite the contrary. Scott was established to explain to an incredulous public why informers to our secret service had been placed on trial in our courts. In large measure, Scott's inquisitorial methods have proved more successful than the adversarial methods used to such spectacular lack of effect by the Serious Fraud Office's failure to secure convictions in major fraud trials.

Second, and deeper, what is the difference between political, legal, historical and philosophical truth? Scott does not answer the question, but he provides material to think about.

Law academics will have a field day. Two things stand out. At last, we have a description and a critique of how public interest immunity certificates (the so-called "gagging orders") come to be written. Previously, the only documentation was some rather formal statements reported in affidavits. Now, in copious detail we have written and oral accounts of their production.

The second thing our legal colleagues will learn more about is the role of the attorney-general. It has been easy enough to criticise Sir Nicholas Lyell. He has been running an office under rules developed for a gentler age when the volume of work going through was vastly less. How best can those rules be adapted to the new age?

Even economists may find the report of interest. The contribution of our defence industries to the national economy is great. What the Scott report details is the nature of the links between private sector firms and a largely secret diplomatic strategy of government underpinned by the activities of the security services. What the economists may puzzle about is how far these firms can be called genuinely private (subsidised as they are by the security services) and how far does or should the morality of not encouraging killing intrude into the business of making profits or providing employment?

The last issue is who recommended the appointment of Sir Richard in the first place? For that we have to wait the historian's tedium of the 30-year rule at the Public Record Office. More than likely it was the lord chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. If this is so, it is a most powerful answer to the criticism that he has become an executive lackey.

Joe Jacob is in the law department at the London School of Economics.

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