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2 October 1996

After Scott: Judges Rule

With the coming publication of the Scott report into the 'arms-to-Iraq' affair, the conflicts within the British state will be exposed, but don't expect a victory for democracy, warns James Heartfield.

Lord Justice Scott's long-awaited and much-leaked report was commissioned after the collapse of the Matrix-Churchill trial due to the apparent complicity of government ministers in exporting arms to Iraq. The Matrix-Churchill directors had been charged with breaching restrictions on the sale of arms to Saddam Hussein's regime - then at war with Iran - but were released after making clear that senior government ministers were fully aware of the exports.

It is expected that the report will accuse the government, and in particular William Waldegrave and Geoffrey Howe, of lying to parliament about the secret relaxation of restrictions on the sale of arms to Iraq. The report will reinforce the view that the government is corrupt, putting British export orders before human rights by hawking military hardware to Third World dictators.

The real revelation of the Scott report, however, is the divisions in the machinery of the British state itself.

There is nothing new about the fact that Britain's one industrial success is the export of arms, or that her foreign policy is bent towards that goal. That is what Margaret Thatcher meant when she said that her job on foreign trips was 'batting for Britain'. But what used to be seen as good business practice is today exposed as corruption. Why?

In the past, the government could rely on the courts and the judiciary to cover up any hint of impropriety, but today judges are no longer willing to be so amenable. When it appeared that the government was prepared to let the Matrix-Churchill directors go to prison rather than admit that their trade with Iraq had been sanctioned from above, the courts refused to go along with it and released the men.

That was bad enough, but the Tories got an even worse deal when they appointed Scott to investigate the issue. On past practice, the government could have banked upon a senior judge to perform a speedy cover-up. But such is the dissatisfaction of the legal establishment with the government that Scott refused to play ball. Now, years later, the Tories are faced with a report that is likely to ruin them. In anticipation, senior targets of the report, like Geoffrey Howe, have attacked Scott as unreliable - further exacerbating the divisions between the government and the judiciary.

At the heart of this conflict is the inability of the British establishment to present a united front or a coherent strategy to the country. Lacking a common direction, the different wings of the establishment - the Tories, the judiciary, the civil service - are all flapping in different directions.

Opponents of the British ruling class could be forgiven for thinking Christmas has come early. But unfortunately the consequences of the Scott report, and the consequences of the establishment conflicts that have given rise to it, are likely to be more authoritarian government and less democracy.

The Tory government is doubtless corrupt and deeply unpopular. But there is one important difference between the government and the judiciary: you can vote the Tories out of office, but you cannot get rid of a judge.

Critics of the government are heartened to see justice Scott expose the government. But that should be their job, not the judges'. The government's opponents have so little faith in their own ability to take on the Tories that they hope someone with real power, like a judge, will do it for them. But increasing the power of the judiciary over elected government only accelerates the drive towards authoritarian rule.

If, as the Labour Party hopes, Scott's report becomes effectively binding on the government, democracy is yet further constrained. Judges will have won themselves the power to sack elected governments.

Appealing to the judiciary to sort out its problems was already an indication of the breach between the government and the electorate. The government hoped that Scott would lend them the authority that it lacks in the polls. Instead Scott is threatening to damage the government permanently. That might seem like good news, but in fact it only makes things worse. Once the judges have rights over governments, the current damage to the authority of parliament will have become a permanent part of the British constitution. And however imperfect parliament is, that would be a blow against democracy. Living Marxism Conference:
The Myth of Empowerment and the Reality of State Power Conference

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