Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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


  share     tweet  

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

David Beetham is associate director, Democratic Audit


Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency

Empire en vogue
Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

Grenfell Tower residents evicted from hotel with just hours’ notice
An urgent call for support from the Radical Housing Network

Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the leader of the opposition – he has become the People’s Prime Minister
While Theresa May hides away, Corbyn stands with the people in our hours of need, writes Tom Walker

In the aftermath of this disaster, we must fight to restore respect and democracy for council tenants
Glyn Robbins says it's time to put residents, not private firms, back at the centre of decision-making over their housing

After Grenfell: ending the murderous war on our protections
Under cover of 'cutting red tape', the government has been slashing safety standards. It's time for it to stop, writes Christine Berry

Why the Grenfell Tower fire means everything must change
The fire was a man-made atrocity, says Faiza Shaheen – we must redesign our economic system so it can never happen again

Forcing MPs to take an oath of allegiance to the monarchy undermines democracy
As long as being an MP means pledging loyalty to an unelected head of state, our parliamentary system will remain undemocratic, writes Kate Flood

7 reasons why Labour can win the next election
From the rise of Grime for Corbyn to the reduced power of the tabloids, Will Murray looks at the reasons to be optimistic for Labour's chances next time

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 25 June
On June 25th, the fourth of Red Pepper Race Section's Open Editorial Meetings will celebrate the launch of our new black writers' issue - Empire Will Eat Itself.

After two years of attacks on Corbyn supporters, where are the apologies?
In the aftermath of this spectacular election result, some issues in the Labour Party need addressing, argues Seema Chandwani

If Corbyn’s Labour wins, it will be Attlee v Churchill all over again
Jack Witek argues that a Labour victory is no longer unthinkable – and it would mean the biggest shake-up since 1945

On the life of Robin Murray, visionary economist
Hilary Wainwright pays tribute to the life and legacy of Robin Murray, one of the key figures of the New Left whose vision of a modern socialism lies at the heart of the Labour manifesto.

Letter from the US: Dear rest of the world, I’m just as confused as you are
Kate Harveston apologises for the rise of Trump, but promises to make it up to us somehow

The myth of ‘stability’ with Theresa May
Settit Beyene looks at the truth behind the prime minister's favourite soundbite

Civic strike paralyses Colombia’s principle pacific port
An alliance of community organisations are fighting ’to live with dignity’ in the face of military repression. Patrick Kane and Seb Ordoñez report.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for a political organiser
Closing date for applications: postponed, see below

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

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