Rats flee a sinking rat

The Chilcot inquiry into the government's conduct around the Iraq war is speaking volumes about our inability to hold state authority to account, argues Alex Nunns

January 31, 2010
4 min read


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns

Tony Blair must have really pissed off the British establishment. Sir John Chilcot’s Iraq inquiry has seen them acting most uncharacteristically. From generals to lawyers, ambassadors, mandarins and even spies, Britain’s ruling elite has spent the past few months dumping on a former prime minister in an unprecedented way. All are putting distance between themselves and Tony Blair.

Whatever the inquiry’s eventual conclusions, the evidence that has been dripping out has now established pretty much as fact that Blair committed Britain to joining the US invasion of Iraq in spring 2002 – a full year before the war began – without saying a word to parliament or the public. Moreover, the objective was regime change rather than disarmament.

That will come as no great revelation to Red Pepper readers. The surprise has been to hear the establishment effectively confirm that everything the anti-war movement said at the time was right.

So we’ve had Britain’s former ambassador in Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, setting out the chronology and saying Blair threw away any leverage he might have had by pledging British involvement so early. This made the UN route a sideshow – the war was planned on an ‘unforgiving’ US military timetable that paid no regard to the work of chief inspector Hans Blix and his team.

We’ve had Sir John Scarlett, former head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, finally dropping Blair in it over the dossier on Iraq’s alleged WMD. Contrary to claims by Alastair Campbell when he appeared at the inquiry, Scarlett did not endorse Blair’s infamous foreword, which falsely claimed ‘beyond doubt’ that Saddam had continued to produce WMD. Rather, Scarlett said, ‘I saw the foreword as quite separate … The foreword was an overtly political statement.’

We’ve had the military top brass expressing their frustrations: how Admiral Lord Boyce couldn’t properly plan because of the charade that war was not inevitable; how post-war preparations were a shambles, according to General Tim Cross, and run by ‘amateurs’, in the words of General Sir Freddie Viggers.

The willingness of these and other usually tight-lipped witnesses to point the finger at the former prime minister is a measure of the scale of the Iraq disaster. Certainly witnesses have dropped their bombshells with minimal prompting. The inquiry panel was hand-picked to deliver very little – outrageously, it even includes Sir Lawrence Freedman, author of Blair’s most significant foreign policy speech, delivered in Chicago in 1999, which sought to justify liberal military intervention.

Despite this, Chilcot is probably now wrestling with how to deliver an establishment stitch-up when the establishment is using his proceedings to settle a score. Each small revelation at the inquiry forms part of a mosaic that is gradually becoming clear. It shows a gung-ho PM who decided to go it alone and pledge British lives and resources to a US war that he knew would be illegal without a clever ruse at the UN. When that failed, he went ahead regardless.

The inquiry is exposing something else, too. A leader bent on illegal regime change faced an establishment made up of men who, despite holding doubts, were incapable of exerting any contrary influence. They are all now keen to blame anyone else, be it the White House, the Pentagon or Tony Blair, but they give no hint of their own culpability. A case of rats fleeing from a sinking rat.

The fundamental problem this inquiry is illuminating is that at every stage the mechanisms of accountability in the British state have been feeble or non-existent. Chilcot has said his inquiry is not a court. Even if the final report pins all the blame on Blair, which it won’t, there will be no way of sanctioning him even for harming the interests of Britain, let alone for sacrificing the lives of Iraqis.

Chilcot’s stated aim for his inquiry is to ‘write the narrative in order to learn the lessons for the future’. It is probably too much to expect the inquiry panel to meet this modest aim – but the unexpected wealth of evidence might allow the public to do so.


Alex NunnsAlex Nunns is Red Pepper's political correspondent. He tweets at @alexnunns


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