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Inquiries and the deformed state

The British State’s attitude to inquiries is like the Hapsburg’s attitude to marriage – who cares if the outcome is deformity and an inability to function properly. So long as we don’t let outsiders meddle in our affairs we’ll still be Kings of the World., even if we can’t see and our fragile skeleton will no longer sustain our weight.

Today it is abused Iraqis and mistreated miners. It could be corrupt bankers and police spies in the environmental movement. Or the illegal rendition of Syrian dissidents and politicised policing by the Met. Or the commercial use of insider knowledge by former Ministers and tax avoidance by large multinationals. Oh wait, that one is in the news today. Who can keep up?

A strong editorial in the Herald sets out the importance of the al-Sweady inquiry into a case of possible murder by British soldiers in custody of young Iraqis. We will presumably be hearing more of it but as far as I can gather it seems to come down to two possible tales – either British soldiers angry at losing comrades to insurgents defended themselves and then took 20 dead bodies (with injuries such as eyes gouged out) back to their base with them, or they took back 20 Iraqis and tortured them for revenge (by doing things like gouging their eyes out). If the latter story turns out to be true then it would also appear that the Army hierarchy did everything it could to cover up the atrocity.

Then in the Scotsman there is the story about Neil Findlay’s attempts to get the case of miners’ convictions reviewed in the face of widespread belief that many (if not most) of the convictions were politically motivated and unsafe.

The important facts for the purpose of this piece are the dates; the miner’s strike was more than 30 years ago, the ‘Battle of Danny Boy’ (as it is harmlessly nicknamed) took place in 2004. The reports of corporations largely or almost wholly avoiding tax date back at least to the 1990s – the Guardian ran a special feature on it almost ten years ago. The police spies who were adopting the identities of dead children to spy on peaceful environmental groups were doing it in the 1990s. The bankers who crashed the world economy have faced not a single serious inquiry or criminal investigation in Britain more than five years since it all began. It is only now that decade-old cases of illegal rendition are reaching our courts. The Met is still rolling along largely untouched by a string of scandals including corrupt payments, violent officers, highly political practices in policing demonstrations and so on (though at least there is some sort of process of ‘holding to account’ for bits of this). The corrupt merger of insider and outsider interest in government has been discussed for years. Unsurprisingly, the Ministers with a future eye on personal riches show little interest in messing with their retirement plan.

The point about all of this is that the British State is in what we now have to accept is a state of crisis. In the last decade we have moved seamlessly from scandal to catastrophe to atrocity. The Iraq War arrives to obscure the accountancy-corporate scandal (who even remembers Enron these days?) and melted easily into a revelation of almost ubiquitous financial corruption which had barely exhausted our outrage before we learn that MPs see Parliament as a procedural entity devised to pay for lifestyles just like the bankers they were protecting, which we suddenly forgot when it turned out that Fleet Street was policing the police and not the other way round, the aftermath of which disappears as it turns out we’re all eating horse.

This would be a seamless history of crisis and catastrophe on its own. But when you realise that this is only the blockbuster stuff, not the petty little corruptions and scandals like Tony Blair halting legal proceedings for corruption against BAE because. You thought there was going to be a justification for that last one, right? Supermarket price-rigging, energy supplier price-rigging, PFI price-rigging. The undue influence on political parties of corporate party funding, the inability of the MoD to procure so much as a paperclip without managing to screw it up to the benefit of big arms manufacturers, the revelation that lobbyists have almost unlimited access in endless numbers of conflict-of-interest ways, the blacklisting of workers in the construction industry.

Each of you will have your own list of scandals from the middle-distance. What unites them (almost) are four things:

  • All the effort of the British State will be put into hiding these scandals, not into revealing them
  • If that doesn’t work, it will have at least delayed matters enough that either an inquiry feels pointless or it can be set up in an atmosphere ‘decontaminated’ by the anger and shock of the original scandal
  • When there is no way to avoid an inquiry it will be established by the state, according to terms of reference set by the state, will then be run by members of the state, and the information flow will be controlled by the state
  • More often than not the report will avoid apportioning blame on the basis that ‘it was a while ago’, ‘everyone acted in good faith but made mistakes’ and ‘only gentle reform is needed’. The watered-down conclusions will then be watered-down further or ignored altogether.

The major outcome of this is that we learn nothing and improve nothing. This smacks of a state in a state of serious decline which is more interested in hiding the existence of the decline than it tackling it.

We need to begin a serious discussion about an alternative approach. It can no longer be the case that entities investigate themselves. I include in that judicial aspects of the state – if the judiciary wishes to be seen as acting in the public benefit it should denounce Lord Hutton for his utterly discredited report on the Iraq War and explain to us how it happened. The military should be allowed nowhere near investigating itself – take your pick of brain-scrambling judgements that it is impossible to believe (like no-one hit Baha Moussa 98 times, killing him, no-one heard or saw, no-one was responsible, no-one could reasonably have known and so on). And it is hard to have trust in the wider legal establishment, given that the announcement of an inquiry is greeted in much the same way as the announcement of a chicken is to a hungry fox – sometimes we might not be wrong to doubt about whether it is justice that is being salivated over.

This is something I hope will become part of our final report from the Commission on Fair Access to Political Influence. For now, my suggestion is simply to take control of watchdog responsibilities out of political hands. We should have some independent office of national complaint. It must not be appointed by Ministers, it must not be part of a civil service career structure, it must not be a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Scottish legal establishment. Perhaps it should be elected, with each member campaigning on a platform of who will be most independent. It should be allowed to receive complaints on any national issue where any of a number of key principles appear to be contravened (public integrity, conflict of interest, legality and so on). It should then be free to establish any form of inquiry it sees fit, but that inquiry should be based on jury principles with final decisions being made by some cross section of Scottish citizens, not some cross-section of the Scottish establishment. Ministers would no longer have the power to set up inquiries – they would have to submit complaints like everyone else. Conclusions couldn’t be binding (it is a democracy after all) but they could be unavoidable.

Whatever we do, we can’t keep doing this. The large-commercial, military, security, governmental and legal communities cannot be allowed to continue to define what we know or don’t know, who is prosecuted and not prosecuted (in big public interest matters), decide who gives judgement and on what terms and so on. It is the public policy equivalent of in-breeding – each failure to address these mutations in good government are passed down, become embedded until the whole state becomes retarded. The opinions of the elite are like genes – left on their own to intermingle without any injection of the new or the external they become increasingly damaged and corrupt.

The British State is probably already there. It is like some deformed Hapsburg King, recognisable as what it is meant to be but obviously not quite right and clearly incapable of carrying out its responsibilities. It could be saved, though it is hard to see how this is going to happen. In the meantime, we could stop the very same downward spiral accelerating in Scotland.

Robin McAlpine