Lord Hutton and all that

Anyone who comments on the proceedings of the Hutton Inquiry, and the mountain of documentation it has produced, is in danger of succumbing to the same loss of a sense of proportion that the inquiry itself represents. So, to keep things in perspective I think it would be useful to recall some basic facts.

October 1, 2003
6 min read


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit

The issue of Iraq has dominated the political agenda for 15 months or more now. There has long been significant concern about both Saddam Hussein’s disregard for democracy and the deadly consequences of the indiscriminate use of sanctions against Iraq. But British politics have been driven during this period by the foreign policy of the White House.

Since Bush’s reasons for going to war could never be sold to a sceptical British public, a more acceptable justification had to be found. Hence the supposed weapons of mass destruction, the new UN arms inspection process, the dodgy dossiers, etc. It is the gap between the actual reason for going to war and the flimsiness of the public justification for doing so that has subjected the Blair government to both enormous internal pressure and widespread public distrust.

Going to war not only involved deception; it has proved an act of enormous folly. The casualty list of the war is long and growing – not only in terms of human life, property and infrastructure destroyed in Iraq.

Instead of bringing democracy to Iraq, war has created a new “axis” of terror and anarchy. It has intensified, not resolved, the conflict in Palestine. It has given the green light to governments everywhere to suppress opposition in the name of the war on terror. It has weakened the UN, divided the EU and damaged Britain’s standing abroad.

At home it has undermined trust in government, in Parliament and in the credibility of the intelligence services, diverted attention and resources from the government’s domestic agenda and provoked a damaging conflict with the BBC that will only bring comfort to the corporation’s enemies.

Enter Lord Hutton to investigate the death of an arms inspection expert in the Oxfordshire countryside. Given the scale of the damage outlined above, it is not surprising that the narrowness of Hutton’s brief should be seen as a diversion from the real issues.

Yet, despite the government’s attempt to circumscribe His Lordship’s enquiries, the larger issues have kept breaking through. We have been treated to a rare glimpse into the secret heart of government. Much of what has been revealed by the inquiry only confirms what we knew already about Blair’s drive to war. But other revelations – about how our “executive democracy” behaves when under pressure – have surprised even the most hardened government watchers.

We have seen, for example, how highly politicised the intelligence services are. The services were used not to provide information to help decide whether to go to war, but to support the government’s presentation of a decision that had already been taken. Worst-case scenarios were served up as hard fact for public consumption.

John Scarlett’s claim that the September dossier was all his work as head of the Joint Intelligence Committee is belied by the many memos from Number 10 urging a trawl for more evidence and a toughening of the wording. The fact that, in any case, the intelligence provided has been proved wrong seems not to concern Scarlett at all.

Then there is the ruthlessness with which Blair’s image of personal rectitude has been defended when under challenge. The pressure to “out” Dr David Kelly, and make him appear before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and refute Andrew Gilligan’s story for the Today programme, clearly contributed to his death. We have also been treated to another threat by Blair to resign should his integrity be questioned. Despite being couched in the retrospective mode (“if I had been guilty of exaggerating the danger, I would have had to resign”), the threat is clearly designed to put pressure on Hutton as well as (once again) Labour MPs. Responsible for everything, guilty of nothing, m”lud.

Similarly, we have glimpsed the obsessiveness with which Number 10 controls every government department’s publicity and presentation. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon may have his reasons for avoiding responsibility for and even knowledge of the Ministry of Defence press briefing that led to the “outing” of Kelly, but it is clear that it was scripted under the supervision of Alastair Campbell.

The attempt to manipulate the questioning of Kelly by the Foreign Affairs Committee, so that he did not embarrass the government, has also been a revelation. In contrast, the shock expressed at the discovery that Gilligan primed a member of the committee seems wholly misplaced. Select committees are at an informational disadvantage in scrutinising government, and are surely entitled to get leads from wherever they can.

Finally, there is the extent of the government’s bullying of the BBC. Whatever the errors of Gilligan’s note-taking (which are still not clear), the pressure on the BBC chairman Gavyn Davies by Blair personally to retract the story and apologise was intense, and included blackmail by underlings in relation to the forthcoming review of the corporation’s charter.

What all of this has revealed is a government that, while attempting to control everything, has a complete lack of self-control in the face of a crisis entirely of its own making. Whatever the outcome of Hutton’s inquiry, no political closure of the Iraq affair is in prospect.

Many people have compared the Iraq invasion to Suez. Yet Suez was rapidly wrapped up with the withdrawal of UK troops and the departure of prime minister Anthony Eden on indefinite sick leave. No such resolutions are in prospect today.

Yet the fact remains that we went to war on a false prospectus, and the outcome has proved disastrous (and is continuing to do so). Until the individual responsible leaves office, there can be no political closure, nor any chance of addressing the systemic defects of our representative democracy exposed once more by the Hutton inquiry.

We will carry on with a system in which the electorate has no effective right to information about what the government it pays for is doing in its name, and in which there are no controls on a political leadership enjoying a hugely inflated parliamentary majority.Professor David Beetham is director of the Centre for Democratisation Studies at the University of Leeds


David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill

Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility

Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports

From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices

How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed

In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design

Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform