The best war inquiry was into the Charge of the Light Brigade. It was conducted by the poet Alfred Tennyson in eight weeks, and reached a one-line conclusion, “Someone had blunder’d.” It has never been bettered.
Everyone knows who blundered in Iraq. It was Tony Blair. Mild interest may still attach to the question, why? But no one is sitting in an agony of suspense. No great issue turns on the verdict. Even the Labour party, whose cringing submission to the whim of Blair must mean it carries a share of blame, has purged itself of guilt. The Iraq war is yesterday. It is history.
So why the shocked headlines about “Chilcot verdict delayed”? History is always late. We do not read “Mantel’s delayed verdict on Boleyn execution”; we do not read “Starkey late with verdict on Magna Carta”. The Chilcot inquiry was a ploy of Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, somehow to get his own back. At the time, in 2009, David Cameron said it was “an establishment stitch-up”. He little imagined it would be still be there when he was the establishment, and had to defend it.
The writing of Chilcot – its hearings ended in 2011 – has become a ghostly whodunnit. It has taken longer to write than War and Peace, and at a rumoured million words is near double the length. A post-edit, called Maxwellisation, grants a right of reply to those criticised, not just before publication but, it appears, before the conclusions are written. This mechanism is a victims’ racket for delay. It compares ill with the US Congress’s laudably savage report on the CIA and Iraq, published last month with no right-of-reply nonsense. (Will Chilcot, I wonder, disclose his Maxwellisation exchanges under freedom of information?)
The chief victim, Blair, has furiously protested that he is not playing a delaying game. He now seems to regard Iraq as a personal matter between him and God. More serious objection has come from the security service. Its addiction to prying into other people’s secrets is not reciprocated when others want to pry into its own. In addition, the American friends are apparently coy about Anglo-American relations in 2002-3. In particular, the disclosure of private chats between Blair and George Bush at Camp David would mean such chats would end, for ever.
I have some sympathy with the Americans (and the Brits) on this confidentiality. But Chilcot has already said he will redact such minutes and convey only the gist of them. Besides, what is new? Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack, published back in 2004, was based on interviews with Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and 74 others, with access to “personal notes, calendars, official and unofficial records, phone transcripts and memos”. It contains verbatim calls with Blair. With that and the witness evidence from the Chilcot hearings, notably from the then attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, it is hard to believe there are still “lessons to learn”.
Chilcot is a mountain made from a molehill. No recent event has been so scrutinised as the Iraq war, with the standard bibliography running to some 200 entries. It was always an American fiasco, with Britain as a bit player. Blair’s role was summed up in the excruciating “cojones” exchanges with Bush. The truth is that Chilcot should really be investigating a personal infatuation, not an invasion.
At some stage the concept of blame and responsibility has to pass from politicians and lawyers to historians. Some people feel that as long as there are victims, such as families of dead soldiers and civilians, there must be a quasi-judicial closure. I disagree. Like the current craze for “historical” sex prosecutions and repeated Hillsborough inquests, the cost of deflecting police and court resources must be prohibitive.
Chilcot can only be a work of history. The Iraq war was a tragedy for all concerned, apart from defence contractors, and one from which that country is suffering more than ever. There was no shortage of prior warnings. Like Vietnam, Iraq was a classic folly as described by the historian, Barbara Tuchman: “one perceived as counterproductive in its own time … recognised by contemporaries.”
Inquiries into such follies are political acts, conforming to the mood of the day, usually to exonerate or whitewash those in power at the expense of their enemies. The war in Afghanistan was every bit as foolish as Iraq, but it was regarded as a “good” intervention, and one that could hardly be pinned on Blair. No inquiry is in the offing.
The Franks report on the causes of the Falklands war was meant to expiate Thatcher’s guilt for leaving the islands undefended, and thus enable her to revel in her victory. Franks was shameless in confining any guilt to the body of his report, leaving Thatcher the joy of a final exoneration. He later attributed his whitewash to “the mood of the day”.
In the case of Bloody Sunday, “guilt” was erased by the mind-numbing delay of the Saville report, eventually published 38 years after the event, at a cost of £400m. Chilcot is a peccadillo against this shocker. Each of these inquiries gets longer. Between the world wars, they took an average of two months. By the 1960s, this had stretched to 11 months; since then the average is 20 months, not counting Saville and Chilcot. This has to be dreadful governance. Legal process obliterates clarity. “Fairness to all” is code for fees. The years roll by and guilt dissolves into tedium.
A public inquiry is a lantern on the stern, not a searchlight on the bow. The longer it takes, the less it is visible and the less people care. The ideal inquiry is immediate and quick, whatever the risk of unfairness. Better still would be Alice in Wonderland: “Inquiry first, decision afterwards.” Why was there no inquiry before Andrew Lansley’s reform to the NHS? Why none today into Trident renewal, or HS2, or last year’s “return to Iraq”, or those many government decisions of which, one day, someone will ask: who was the idiot? It is reminiscent of Orwell’s Crimestop, “the faculty of protective stupidity”.
David Davis MP calls the delay to Chilcot “incomprehensible”. The SNP’s Angus Robertson calls it “an absolute scandal”. But surely it is just a very expensive history book. I can see the old timers shrugging and switching the television to Wolf Hall. That is their sort of inquiry.
Wednesday 21 January 2015 19.22 GMT Last modified on Thursday 22 January 2015 00.04 GMT
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