If a week is a long time in politics, 27 years has left our political landscape unrecognisable.
In October 1992, four men were put on trial for obtaining export licenses by deception. They were alleged to have pretended that components intended for military use were actually being exported for civilian purposes. Their trial collapsed just a few weeks later when Alan Clark, a minister in the Department of Trade and Industry at the time of the alleged offence, admitted the government had known the intended purpose all along. Clark’s infamous description of his behaviour during the Supergun affair reworked a phrase that was coined during the Spycatcher trial: ‘economical with the truth’ became ‘economical with the actualité’.
What was government’s reaction? It established the Scott Inquiry, under Lord Justice Scott, which resulted in the publication in 1996 of the Scott Report, one of the most exhaustive examinations of the functioning of government ever.
I remember its publication well.
15 February 1996 was a Thursday. The excitement in Westminster was feverish. I had been working in Westminster for just six weeks. Sittings then had not been reformed and Thursday was a day of full government business, commencing with departmental questions at 2.30 pm and statements at 3.30 pm, business continuing until 10 pm. Prime Minister’s Questions was still a twice-weekly affair, with 15 minutes allocated at 3 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
As a junior researcher, I was pressed into action by the Whips’ Office I would later head, running down the stairs to the Vote Office to collect one of the huge boxes that contained all 1806 pages of the multi-volume report. Whilst ministers had eight days to prepare themselves for publication, the Opposition were given just two hours, under intense scrutiny. Publication was accompanied by a press pack giving choice quotes and positive spin, mitigating the worst of its impact.
Days of intense speculation led up to the next moment of parliamentary ‘high noon’ on February 26. The debate saw one of the finest parliamentary performances ever, from Robin Cook. This is a line with particular contemporary resonance:
The Government are fond of lecturing the rest of the nation on its need to accept responsibility. Parents are held responsible for actions; teachers are held responsible for the performance of their pupils; local councillors are held legally and financially responsible; yet, when it comes to themselves, suddenly, not a single Minister can be found to accept responsibility for what went wrong.HC Deb 26 February 1996, 272, col. 604
John Major made the vote on a motion for the adjournment a matter of confidence in his government. He won on a knife-edge vote, by 320 votes to 319, my first moment of parliamentary drama.
The Conservative Party declared the report a victory as it exonerated ministers of the most serious charge of a cover-up that could have seen innocent men go to jail.
So why return to a report that was written, published and debated before the youngest member of the House of Commons was born and which many regard as a failure?
I was prompted by a tweet from Anne Applebaum about Esther McVey, who has repeated a notorious tweet regarding the EU and the Lisbon Treaty, long since debunked. Applebaum stated: ‘There are just no consequences for lying anymore, for anyone.’
She is right. Lying has become the new normal at every level of our democracy.
The Scott Report highlighted three areas of immense concern, lost in the jubilant spinning of the government:
- The use of secondary legislation not properly scrutinised;
- Lack of ministerial accountability;
- Government withholding information necessary for proper decisions.
This quote summarises it neatly:
The main objectives of governments are the implementation of their policies and the discomfiture of opposition; they do not submit with enthusiasm to the restraints of accountability … governments are little disposed to volunteer information that may expose them to criticism … The enforcement of accountability depends largely on the ability of Parliament to prise information from governments which are inclined to be defensively secretive where they are most vulnerable to challenge.
The experience of the Scott Inquiry reminds us how little – in some regards – the experience of government has changed:
- Ministers misleading the public;
- Ministers misleading Parliament;
- Ministers selectively quoting from reports to shore up a deceitful narrative;
- Ministers withholding information that would undermine their position on the grounds of national interest;
- Parliamentarians unable to scrutinise the executive as information is withheld;
- The national interest subordinated to the interests of the governing party;
- Government refusing substantive votes in favour of the meaningless.
But there are differences between then and now, particularly in terms of the responsibility taken by ministers and the Prime Minister for their collective actions – a responsibility that even back then the Scott Report found wanting in the ordinary processes of government.
In the 1990s, the Prime Minister was so concerned by the allegations of deception levelled against his own government that he established a judicial inquiry. Such was its seriousness that the sitting Prime Minister and his predecessor Margaret Thatcher gave evidence. Following publication of the report, and despite the inadequacy of the parliamentary motion, the government of the day accepted that its future would be decided by the result of that single vote.
In summary, a single instance of the government misleading the country and Parliament on a discrete area of policy was regarded as so significant as to require a three-year process that led to a report and a single parliamentary moment that all sides accepted was pivotal to the government’s entire future.
Today, everything that was true of government conduct highlighted by the Scott Report is also true today – but so much worse:
- Ministers obfuscate and lie to Parliament with abandon;
- Former ministers circulate misinformation to the public without a second thought;
- Information is brazenly withheld from Parliament without even the pretence of national interest, precisely when parliamentarians are debating decisions that will affect the national interest for decades to come;
- Parliamentary votes are disregarded and given little weight unless they support the government narrative;
- Secondary legislation is being used on an industrial scale, with little if any meaningful scrutiny;
- Factional party interests playing out shamelessly, with warring factions of the government and opposition seeking positional advantage;
- Any honourable sense of ministerial responsibility for decision-making is abandoned.
Satisfying the unparliamentary monster that is ‘the will of the people’ has led politicians to give themselves permission to lie to voters and Parliament in order to shore up a narrative that is demonstrably untrue on pretty much every conceivable metric. In doing so, they have wrecked the proprieties that ensure functional parliamentary democracy, removing any sense of the constitutional markers by which such momentous decisions can be navigated. Perhaps the most shocking sign of how desensitised we have become to this lack of constitutional propriety is that a quick Google could replace any of the links above with a multitude of alternatives.
When you realise this is how a government acts when it has no majority, it makes you wonder about the level of contempt it would show for Parliament if it could get its own way on everything. If Brexit risks a catastrophe for our economic future, what it has done to the architecture of our democracy is even worse.
I can only imagine the speech Robin Cook would have made.