Paul Foot

What Have They Got To Hide?
Tories, arms and the Scott report

(19 August 1995)

From Socialist Worker, No.1456, 19 August 1995, p.10.
Copyright Estate of Paul Foot. Published on MIA with the permission of the Estate. Paul Foot Internet Archive ( 2005.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

THE TORIES have again delayed publication of the investigation into politicians involvement in arms deals. The Scott report will now not be published until next year. What will it reveal and why are the Tories so anxious to keep its findings hidden from us?

We print extracts from PAUL FOOT’S recent speech at the Marxism 95 conference in London this summer on the scandals that have already emerged.

PEOPLE ASK what is so important about the Scott report. Isn’t it a report by a high court judge who learnt law in white South Africa and helped to sequester the miners’ funds in the 1984-5 miners’ strike?

I can sum up in the answer in a single word, “secrecy”.

One of the reasons the ruling class in this society survive is because they keep from us what they do in spite of parliamentary institutions. The ruling class have to protect themselves against democracy and that’s what this story is about.

The Scott inquiry is the most important public inquiry ever held in the history of British politics for this reason.

It was set up in a tremendous panic. The government had their backs to the wall, and in order to convince people that it wasn’t just another whitewash they insisted all the old rules about previous inquiries would be dispensed with.

There was a circular from Sir Robin Butler, the head of the civil service, saying the Scott inquiry is paramount. A large number of civil servants responded.

THE STORY begins with Iraq declaring war on Iran in 1980.

The foreign office immediately said it was absolutely opposed to war of every description. And in no circumstances should “lethal equipment” – that was the expression – be exported from Britain to either side in the conflict.

But at the same time British businesses were determined to make money.

So, while the foreign office was putting out that statement, John Nott, the secretary of state for defence, wrote to the Iraqi ambassador in London about a contract to build an entire munitions complex in Basra, Iraq, in which British firms played an enormous part. He said if anything goes wrong we will pay for it.

This difference between selling them arms and saying they were not selling lethal equipment went on until three politicians – Sir Richard Loose, Sir Adam Butler and Paul Channon – decided that something ought to be done about it. These three had all – by complete coincidence – been at university together and they were the ministers of state at the foreign office, the defence ministry and the department of trade.

They drew up a series of guidelines. The first was that we should maintain our consistent refusal to supply any lethal equipment to either side. The second was that, subject to that overriding consideration, we will attempt to fulfil existing contracts and obligations. Huge sighs of relief went through all the big companies which sell arms equipment. The third added we should not in future approve orders for defence equipment which in our view would significantly enhance the capability of either side to prolong the conflict.

Then a curious thing happens. Having decided on these guidelines, the three decide they are not going to publish them. Why?

The guidelines went to the prime minister – Margaret Thatcher – and she said, “Hold on a minute. I am negotiating the biggest arms deal in the history of the world with Saudi Arabia, and Saudi Arabia are friendly with Iraq.”

They didn’t publish the guidelines for a whole year until Thatcher and Michael Heseltine – who declares himself completely clean on all these matters – signed the £20 billion contract.

They set up a working group at the Ministry of Defence to interpret the guidelines. It was controlled by an organisation called the Defence Export Sales Organisation (DESO). DESO was set up by a Labour government and was a part of the Ministry of Defence whose sole purpose was to flog weapons abroad.

At one arms working group meeting – it has emerged in the Scott inquiry – there were seven people, of whom six were marketing directors for specific arms companies, deciding who gets an export licence.

So how much – in terms of arms – went to Iraq from 1985 until the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988? The government always say very little – only £226 million of military equipment. But they left out of their calculation what I call “the plucky little king” syndrome. Every time you hear the “plucky little king” it only ever applies to one person – the King of Jordan, their oldest ally.

Alan Clark – the nutter who lives in a castle – was a minister throughout all this period. Because he is mad he blurts out things. He told the inquiry half the stuff went through Jordan. All the trickier items – that was his expression. “Were they nuclear?” he was asked. But he didn’t know.

AT THE end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 there was enthusiasm In the West because Saddam Hussein was building up a whole armoury in Iraq. There was a tremendous opportunity to make money.

The problem was the guidelines. So in December 1988 three ministers of state – Waldegrave at the foreign office, Alan Clark at the Ministry of Defence and Trefgarne at the department of trade – held a secret meeting to devise new guidelines.

They changed the rules so it was alright to send arms for defence. As a result the amount of equipment that went to Iraq grew by ten times in the first year and by 100 times by the time the scandal came to light.

These three ministers decided not to publish the fact they had changed the guidelines.

When anyone in parliament asked, “Have you changed your policy because the fighting is over?” the answer was no. There was systematic lying to parliament all through 1989 and 1990. It would have gone on forever if it hadn’t been for two terrible events in 1990.

The first terrible event was encountered by Nicholas Ridley, then secretary for trade, when he was enjoying his Easter holiday. Someone told him that customs had seized some rather unpleasant goods – vast cases of what appeared to be the biggest gun ever built, for export to Iraq.

This was lethal equipment even by Ridley’s definition. It had been made in two of the biggest engineering factories in Britain, who were in constant contact with the department of trade.

Ridley congratulates customs in the Commons and says, “We knew nothing about it.” But very embarrassingly up jumps a Tory MP who says. “Oh yes, you did. I told you about it in 1988.”

The second embarrassing event was that Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Suddenly the whole public attitude is whipped up against Iraq. Everyone is in favour of prosecuting the merchants of death.

Customs arrest the engineer in charge of the supergun project and the managing director. Guilty as hell of breaking the export law, a straightforward conviction is expected.

Except that customs are called in by the attorney general, Sir Patrick Mayhew, who says it is not a good idea to prosecute. He told customs they were free to do it but he would stop them going ahead with the prosecution. Customs withdrew – but they proceeded against another company called Matrix Churchill.

The directors were appalled. They said we did this in concert with the government and intelligence. One of the key intelligence agents in Iraq at that time was a man working for Matrix Churchill. Paul Henderson. He was managing director and a government intelligence agent.

They started to leak documents. One document leaked to the Sunday Times said that Alan Clark, when he was minister of defence, held a meeting of all the machine tool manufacturers. He said from now on when you want to sell arms to Iraq put it under general engineering.

It was leaked the first Sunday John Major was in Downing Street. Before he got into the office on Monday there had already been a meeting in the cabinet office to discuss the leak. There was not an elected person in sight. They decided that what Clark had said was true, but they were going to deny it. When they saw Major they said it’s quite untrue and Major says it’s quite untrue.

All of this was revealed in Scott’s investigations.

THE SITUATION staggers on until 1992 when there is tremendous panic growing in the ministries about the Matrix Churchill case.

It is obviously going to come out that the defendants did what the government told them to do. They were guilty of selling arms to Saddam Hussein, but not half as guilty as the people who were cooperating with them in the government.

When the defendants wanted to prove the government had known about their illegal exporting, the government issued a public immunity certificate. Most people think this certificate has something to do with security. It has nothing whatever to do with security. It defends the discussions between civil servants and ministers from any revelation or disclosure.

But at the trial the lawyers forced the government documents out, the trial collapsed and the Scott inquiry was set up.

There has been the most tremendous attack against the Scott inquiry from the establishment. The ruling class is trying to protect itself from the revelations. Many of the people named in the Scott report have been promoted.

I will end with two quotations which sum up what I’ve said.

The first is from the prime minister speaking to the Scott inquiry:

“One of the charges at the time of course was that in some way I must have known because I had been the chancellor, because I had been the foreign secretary, because I had been the prime minister. And therefore I must have known what was going on, but I didn’t.”

The second quote is from the Russian revolutionary Lenin:

“Bourgeois democracy, although it is a historical advance in comparison with medievalism, always remains, and under capitalism is bound to remain, restricted, truncated, false and hypocritical. A paradise for the rich and a snare and a deception for the exploited, for the poor.

“The whole point is that a bourgeois state which is exercising the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie through a democratic republic cannot confess to the people that it is serving the bourgeoisie. It cannot tell the truth and has to play the hypocrite.”

That is still happening today.


Last updated on 12.2.2005