The Chilcot Report – bigger than Tony Blair, bigger than the chorus of disapproval
Chilcot disturbs me. Not because of the rationale for the report, or even because of the conclusions.
What unsettles me is the reaction to it. It seems that the attention of the print and broadcast media, the politicians, the social media Greek chorus and the families of the armed forces personnel killed and injured are focused almost exclusively on one person: Tony Blair.
Basically, the dominant voices are of those who want him hung, drawn and quartered. Nothing else and no one else seems to matter as much. Not the planning (or lack of it). Not the inadequate Snatch Land Rovers. Not the disastrous decisions by the Coalition Provisional Authority that arguably created the conditions for the chaos that ensued. Not the fact that war would have taken place with or without Britain’s participation. Not the fact that if there was an arch perpetrator of the war of aggression against the saintly Saddam Hussain, it was one George W Bush.
Do we see calls for Bush to be taken to The Hague and tried for war crimes? Is he required to check with his lawyers when travelling abroad to make sure that a prosecutor in his host country is not liable to arrest him, as opinion suggests Blair will have to do?
Tony Blair, according to Chilcot and by his own assertion, did not lie to Parliament when making the case for the war. He claims that he – and his colleagues, it should be remembered – acted in the best interest of his country. Unfashionable as this opinion is, I accept that he didn’t lie, and I believe – unless the details of Chilcot can subsequently convince me otherwise – that he acted in good faith.
My belief in Blair’s motives doesn’t imply a lack of compassion for the bereaved relatives, as well as for the millions of Iraqis whose lives were destroyed by the conflict and its grievous consequences. I, and surely everyone else in Britain who has followed events in the Middle East before and after the 2003 war, feel deeply for them.
Perhaps now is not the time to make a few supplementary observations that might upset a few people. But here goes anyway.
First, the political motives of Jeremy Corbyn in condemning Blair seem pretty transparent to me. Tony Blair is at fault. The Labour MPs who voted with him in 2003 are at fault. I, Jeremy Corbyn, didn’t vote with him. Many of the current MPs who want to get rid of me as leader did vote with him. Ergo their views on the current leadership should be discounted. Ergo I should remain in place because I have been given a mandate by the party, not the MPs. And, by the way, the “Blairite faction” should be rooted out of the Labour Party by any means necessary, including intimidation by the membership and ultimately deselection. They bear the mark of Cain.
I’m sure Corbyn would not publicly condone intimidation, but I feel confident that he would privately acquiesce in it if achieves the end result he desires. Am I being overly cynical in suggesting that he – or at least his praetorian guard – sees Chilcot as his means to hang on to his office? Subsequent events will surely prove me right or wrong.
Second, there may be reasons for incompetence on the part of the politicians, generals and civil servants, but no excuses. Each owe a duty of care for our armed forces. But the fact is that those who serve as soldiers, sailors and airmen know when they sign up that their profession is riskier than others. To put it bluntly, they know that they can be killed or wounded in action. If we were to examine each and every conflict involving British troops from the Napoleonic Wars onwards, we would find equally reprehensible failures of political and military leadership, of logistics and of tactical command. There were no inquiries into the Somme, Arnhem, Suez and Helmand. Perhaps there should have been.
Today’s wars – at least those involving Western powers – are carried out in the full glare of media coverage that didn’t exist at the time, say, of the Somme. The seeming destruction of Blair’s reputation will surely make any Prime Minister extremely leery about proposing any kind of military action at least in the near future. They will be fearful of the consequences – not just of the war itself, but for their personal reputations.
All well and good, you might argue. That’s central plank of Chilcot – that these decisions should be rigorously justified and expertly planned. But the trouble about some wars fought in the face of aggression – be it real or implied – is that they are fought in reaction to events. Some events can be foreseen to the extent that the military can make contingency plans, which basically what NATO has been trying to do since 1949. But others come out of the blue. Stuff happens.
So my concern is that we don’t put measures in place to prevent another Iraq so stringent that they prevent us from reacting with military force to ANY situation. If our future is to become a nation of conscientious objectors, then that should be a matter of debate even more profound than the one that is currently taking place over EU membership. It raises the question of why we need to be a member of NATO, and why we need to maintain a military capable of doing anything beyond protecting our borders from small-scale, non-state incursions. It would also call into question the viability of our domestic defence industry, on which thousands of jobs depend. If we don’t buy the weapons we build, why should anyone else? And if we are no longer to be part of the European Union, will we be content to see ourselves not sheltered by any alliances than those motivated by trade?
If that’s the future we see for ourselves, fine. But we should walk towards it, not stumble upon it as an accidental consequence of Chilcot. I don’t see such an extreme outcome taking place. But then again I didn’t see the Leave decision coming either.
Finally, we should consider our faith – or otherwise – in our politicians. I find it ironic that our nation is consumed with the question of Tony Blair’s good faith at a time when lies and bad faith seem to have become common currency. I’m not just talking about my country, and the shameless embroidery that has been traded on both sides of the EU argument. In the United States, Donald Trump has made a career out of exaggeration and outright lies. Hillary Clinton’s reputation has taken a blow over her attempts to sex down the email furore.
In both countries there is a level of cynicism about politicians and mistrust of their motives that has not been seen since the end of the Second World War. The current crisis in confidence exceeds even Vietnam and Watergate on the US side. In Britain – at least in my memory – the only comparable event has been the miner’s strike and the three-day-week in 1973.
We should welcome the findings of the Chilcot Report, and the fact that it was commissioned in the first place. But the timing of its publication, by accident rather than design, means that there is yet another reason for us to be repelled by our political establishment. In the United States – perhaps because of an ethos of “my country right or wrong”, and perhaps because of the shock of 9/11 – the debate over Iraq has never been as damaging to George W Bush and his administration as it has been to Tony Blair and his colleagues.
Yet on both sides of the Atlantic, the cumulative effect of 9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan and the 2008 financial crisis has been to replace prostitution with politics in the public’s perception as the world’s oldest profession. And distrust of politicians goes hand-in-hand with lack of faith in our political institutions. Faith in the integrity and sovereignty of Parliament in the UK, and in the effectiveness of the checks and balances enshrined in the US constitution.
The ability of the British government to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty by royal prerogative rather than by Act of Parliament threatens to create dangerous paralysis in the months to come. In the US, many argue that partisan Republicans in Congress have repeatedly blocked legislation and executive actions put forward by the president, not on the merits of the proposals, but out of a visceral hatred of the president himself.
What makes the current situation extremely dangerous is that if reforms to political systems are needed, how can they gain popular acceptance if the politicians who propose them are not to be trusted?
Chilcot adds yet another brick to the wall of scepticism that currently surrounds public life in my country. Commendable though the headline findings of the report seem to be, will it ultimately help to make Britain less governable? That would be an irony, considering the sorry state of Iraq following the war it was commissioned to examine.
Yesterday’s publication was not about the destruction of one man’s reputation. That happened long ago. It’s far bigger than Tony Blair. It’s also about what kind of a country we want to live in, and how we wish to be governed.
And those questions are what we, and our cousins in America, should be thinking very carefully about over the next few months. We live in interesting times.