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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