Twenty Years Ago Today: The Scott Inquiry Closes

Sir Richard Scott, a man charged with the task of finding out just how rubbish government really is Twenty years ago today, the last evidence was given before the Scott Inquiry, a judicial investigation which had grown massively in scope since it first began in 1992. Having been given a remit to look into why a prosecution against the engineering firm Matrix Churchill had collapsed so spectacularly, the inquiry had ended up examining the way in which ministers and civil servants habitually keep secrets for no other reason than to cover their own backsides.

Matrix Churchill was an engineering firm based in Coventry which had been supplying Saddam Hussein's Iraq with machine tools which could be used to build weapons. Since Iraq was an ally at the time, this was regarded as being a good and normal thing - at least until 1991, when the UK went to war against Iraq. Oops.

So of course the government launched a prosecution against the directors of Matrix Churchill for the crime of supplying the enemy with widgets that could be used against us. What transpired was that Matrix Churchill had done everything through the proper channels and had even been advised by the government on how to get the bits and bobs exported without any fuss. And just to put the icing on the cake, one of the directors claimed that he'd actually been passing information about Iraqi defence capabilities to Mi6, the British foreign intelligence service. Oops again.

The judge in the court case had some difficulty in figuring this all out, because the government issued a number of Public Interest Immunity certificates that allowed them to avoid giving evidence that they claimed was crucial to national security. And so the evidence that might exonerate the directors of Matrix Churchill could not be heard because it had been declared secret. The judge then decided that the PII certs were a load of rubbish, and forced government ministers to give evidence regardless. This led to the edifying spectacle of Alan Clark, former Minister for Trade, admitting that he'd been a bit economical with the actualité. And yes, those were his actual words. Triple oops.

After the collapse of the trial, Sir Richard Scott was charged with the job of finding out how deep the rabbit hole went. It went pretty deep indeed, and confirmed an awful lot of cynical suspicions about the interior workings of government. Much to the feigned shock of everyone, it turned out that HM Government had been so desperate to avoid accountability that it was willing to declare anything a secret which might in any way embarrass ministers or civil servants. Matrix Churchill's dealings with Iraq were an embarrassment - and so its directors were prosecuted to make sure the blame could not be laid at the government's door.

It's at this point that cynicism takes a big, happy sigh and says: "My work here is done," shortly before pouring itself a brandy, lighting a cigar and taking a few weeks off until the next political crisis.