More from: Opinion

Sir Martin Gilbert 1936-2015

by Chris Ames

The Guardian, the Independent and the Telegraph, and others, have obituaries of panel member Sir Martin Gilbert, who died on Tuesday. The Guardian piece, written by a long-standing friend and colleague of Gilbert, says that “in March 2012, he suffered an arrhythmia of the heart from which he never recovered.”

Although Gilbert’s background and previous views led to criticism of his inclusion on the panel, his contribution to the Inquiry should be judged on its own terms, without prejudice or allegation of prejudice. My impression of him from the public hearings is that he was often gentle with witnesses and inclined to pose questions that gave them the benefit of the doubt and assumed good faith rather than challenging them. Whether his approach to the report would have been more challenging we will never know.


Waiting for Chilcot – or not

by Chris Ames

The Guardian reports that:

Labour will on Monday promise to embrace the results of the Chilcot inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war and say that the repeated delays to the report’s publication have paralysed British foreign policymaking, including the ability to restore public trust.

In his major pre-election speech on foreign policy, the shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, will argue that the unforeseen delays to the report have acted as a barrier to building a consensus on future UK foreign policy.

But the article also says that:

Alexander will go further in his criticism of the war than just the fundamental error of the absence of weapons of mass destruction, arguing that long-term repercussions were not considered.

“What has also subsequently emerged is that removing Saddam and empowering the [Shia] majority, without ensuring adequate safeguards for the Sunni Arab minority, exacerbated sectarian frictions within the country. Iraq became seen as a country supporting Iranian ambitions, rather than balancing them, thereby further destabilising an already volatile regional power-balance.”

Not for the first time, someone argues that we need to see the Inquiry’s conclusions but simultaneously sets out what they have concluded without the help of the Inquiry.


Today’s debate

by Chris Ames

During this afternoon’s debate, Respect MP George Galloway slammed MPs for, amongst other things, a very poor attendance. In particular, he said, only 7 Labour MPs were present.

Here’s a shot of Tory MP Dominic Grieve being interrupted by colleague Bernard Jenkin. In the background Rory Stewart is playing with his phone paying close attention.

 

debate


Inquiry delay to be debated in London and Edinburgh today

by Chris Ames

In addition to the well-publicised debate in the House of Commons this morning, the Scottish Parliament will be discussing the Inquiry this afternoon.

According to the UK Parliament website:

The debate will take place in the House of Commons Chamber on Thursday 29 January 2015 and will begin from around 11.15am – 11.30am. Any timings are approximate and Parliamentary business may be subject to change, for example if any Urgent Questions or Ministerial Statements are granted on the day.

The motion to be debated is:

“That this House regrets that the Iraq Inquiry has decided to defer publication of its report until after 7 May 2015; and calls on the Inquiry to publish a timetable for publication and an explanation of the causes of the delay by 12 February 2015.”

You can watch the debate here.

Interestingly, the Scottish debate will still focus on calls for the report to be published before the election. The motion in the name of first minister Nicola Sturgeon is:

That the Parliament calls for Sir John Chilcot‘s official inquiry into the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent war to publish its findings and all evidence ahead of the UK general election; acknowledges that the Iraq war resulted in the deaths of 179 UK service personnel and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians; notes that the cost to taxpayers of the war is estimated at £9.6 billion, and believes that, six years after the inquiry was established and three years after hearings concluded, it is in the interests of transparency, accountability and democracy that the report is published as soon as possible and that any further delay in publication is completely unjustifiable.

According to the Herald Scotland website:

The First Minister is expected to receive cross-party backing from the Greens, Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in arguing that the findings of the inquiry, which began in 2009, should be published ahead of May’s General Election. Labour will also back the Scottish Government’s motion.

That debate should begin some time after 2pm and you can watch it online on the Scottish Parliament t.v. channel.


What’s the story?

by Richard Heller

There was an interesting development at yesterday’s session of the Commons public administration committee, which grilled Sir Jeremy Heywood on the delays to the Inquiry report. I had previously put to the committee my Yorkshire Post article, suggesting that Parliament subpoena the report as it stands and publish it in time for the election. Labour MP Paul Flynn put this to Sir Jeremy,  who said that this would be a matter for Parliament but suggested that it would be preferable for everyone to wait until the complete report was published, as Chilcot and his team intended. (That of course would mean, after they have agreed to any watering down of their conclusions in response to the Maxwellees.)

However, I had also put an alternative proposal to the committee. Chilcot could publish a “narrative verdict” on the Iraq war, as an interim report by the end of February, that is to say a full account of all the key decisions and events in the relevant period, citing all the sources they had used as far as they were allowed. This report would not pass judgment on any individual. The British people could then draw their own conclusions. Of course, all the political parties and the media could try to exploit this narrative verdict during the election campaign, but at least they would all be using a common, authoritative source and those who obviously misused it could be quickly exposed. The Inquiry would complete the Maxwellisation process and submit its final report, with its judgments on individuals, to the new Parliament after the election.

This idea was put to Sir Jeremy by Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland and it seemed to cause him some discomfort. He suggested that Chilcot and his team might find it impossible to “disentangle” their judgments from the factual passages in their report. I disagree – assuming that he and his team have done their job properly, and based their judgments on the full evidence that they have studied and presented. Their report is written: they have identified the critical passages and put them into Maxwell letters. All they need to do is remove those critical passages from the report and publish all the rest. (The excisions might conceivably create some discontinuities or non-sequiturs in the report, but these should be easy to remedy). I suggested to the committee that preparing this “narrative verdict” would not be too onerous a task for Chilcot and his team – who currently have nothing to do but wait for Maxwellisation responses. They could be given additional temporary staff. As Mulholland pointed out, this proposal circumvents all the delays created by the Maxwellisation process, whether these are reasonable or deliberately obstructive.

I believe that such a narrative verdict could be a valuable resource for British voters before the election. It could go some way to meeting the feelings of the victims of the Iraq war, who have waited so long for Chilcot.

The video of the session is here.


Not the Chilcot report

by Chris Ames

The Independent has taken the admirable approach of publishing a series of articles setting out what it calls “the nearest thing that you’ll get to a definitive report on Britain’s involvement in Iraq”. It begins with a piece by Andy McSmith on September 11 and the Road to the Iraq war.

The other pieces are:

The Iraq Report – Part 2: Invasion and occupation of Iraq
The Iraq Report – Part 3: The aftermath
The Iraq Report – Part 4: Timeline of events
The Iraq Report – Part 5: The key protagonists
The Iraq Report – Part 6: A summary of the Iraq War by numbers

 

My first impression of McSmith’s piece is that it isn’t very good, isn’t anything like rigorous enough, and relies on gossip and what key participants have said both at the time and since to spin the story their way. It seems to skip straight past everything that happened in March 2002, as revealed by some of the Downing Street Documents, which are actual contemporaneous evidence. If we are going to have a substitute for Chilcot, it is going to have to be a lot better than this.

The lack of intellectual rigour is demonstrated in McSmith’s evaluation of whether Tony Blair lied over WMD:

in order to have lied, Blair would have had to have known that Saddam Hussein really had ordered the destruction of Iraq’s stockpile of illegal weapons.

This is simplistic in the extreme. Had Blair, for example, claimed that the intelligence that Iraq had WMD was conclusive when he knew it was not, that would have been lying. McSmith pretty well sets out that scenario, without reaching the obvious conclusion:

But just as the Prime Minister could not know for certain that there were no WMDs left in Iraq, neither could he have known that there were any. He was not lying. He was presenting to Parliament a series of guesses made by the intelligence services – but he dressed them up as if they were hard facts backed by solid intelligence.

 


The Herald gets it

by Chris Ames

An excellent editorial in the Sunday Herald really gets the point that a lot of the national UK media have missed – that Cabinet Office minister Lord Wallace has directly contradicted David Cameron.

For a while, it appeared David Cameron was on the side of the angels, voicing his hope last year that the report would be out by Christmas. However, he now seems part of the problem.

Last month, after the US Senate published its chilling account of CIA abuses after the attacks of ­September 11, 2001, Cameron threw up his hands in despair on Chilcot.

He said: “I am not in control of when this report is published. It is very important in our system that these sort of reports are not controlled or timed by the Government.”

But earlier this month in the House of Lords, the Cabinet Office minister Lord Wallace of Saltaire flatly contradicted Cameron.

Wallace said that, although it was a matter for Chilcot to decide when to submit his finished report to Downing Street, it was then up to the Government to decide when to publish it.

“The Government have committed that if the report is not available for publication by the end of February, it will be held back until after the election,” he said, as a lengthy period would be needed to digest and debate the report.


Time’s up, Guardian says

by Chris Ames

In an editorial, the Guardian says that:

It is utterly preposterous and massively unsatisfactory that the inquiry remains unpublished nearly 12 years after the Iraq invasion.

Ironically, the article is a little bit behind the curve. It doesn’t mention the controversy over the government’s deadline, although it links to the Observer article, and says:

Yesterday the Conservative MP David Davis, with backing from across the Commons, pressed the backbench business committee to schedule a debate, this month if possible, on a motion calling for Chilcot to be published in February. That debate should take place. That motion should be carried. And the report should be published as a priority.

While the argument is a good one, the debate has already been secured.

I can’t help recalling the Buzzcocks song with the same title as the article (Time’s up):

waiting for you’s like waiting for the man in the moon


Voters’ right to know trumps reputations

by Chris Ames

In a comment piece in the Telegraph, my colleague Peter Oborne criticises David Cameron for supporting Tony Blair in general and particulaly over the suppression of details of Blair’s contacts with George Bush. To make matters worse:

Now comes word of a fresh delay. Those criticised by Chilcot have hired (at taxpayers’ expense) hugely expensive lawyers to challenge the conclusions of the inquiry. Bear in mind that Chilcot is the first major investigation into a political/military fiasco since the Gallipoli disaster 99 years ago. Its purpose is not to protect reputations, but to get at the truth and enable lessons to be learnt for the future.

Meanwhile, a letter to the Times (paywall) returns to the paper’s story yesterday:

Your front-page story (“Whitehall shockwaves over Chilcot draft report”, Dec 17) clearly indicates that the outcome of this important but inordinately protracted inquiry will not be known before the general election. That represents a disservice both to democracy generally and specifically to voters’ right to know, in what will inevitably prove a finely balanced election result.

While it remains speculation that the report might not be published before the election – something will initially depend on how long the lawyers drag it out – it is hard to agree with the sentiment. Any talk of deliberately withholding information from voters is profoundly undemocratic.

 

 


Enough is enough

by Chris Ames

Writing on Politics.co.uk, Richard Heller also says that voters should be able to see the Inquiry report before the election.

The public are left to imagine a stately game of bureaucratic ping-pong as drafts of “gists and quotes” are batted back and forth.

The first simple step to speed publication of the Iraq inquiry report is to call time on this ping-pong match.  Chilcot and his colleagues should abandon any further pursuit of agreement on “gists and quotes”, or any other form of reduced citations for any outstanding documents. Where it has reached agreement the inquiry should make use of the resulting formula in its report. Otherwise, it should make a bare citation of a relevant piece of material (as it might be, “the record of the telephone conversation between the president and the prime minister at 1900 BST on 31 April 2003″) and tell readers that it has not been able to agree any means of quoting from it.

Such a power is expressly given to the inquiry by the protocol. Its use might disappoint a number of readers, particularly scholars and experts. But the overwhelming majority of the public, especially victims of Iraq, simply want to know what conclusions the inquiry has reached. They will be satisfied by the knowledge of the evidence it considered, even if some of this evidence is withheld from them.

I disagree with this suggestion. I do not want the Inquiry’s conclusions so much as to see the key evidence. Given the history of establishment inquiries siding with the establishment, I am not prepared to trust an establishment inquiry’s assertions about evidence I have not seen. I do not want to be told, for example, that what Tony Blair told George Bush in July 2002 did not, as has been alleged, amount to a blank cheque without seeing the words that Blair actually used.

Heller is however spot on when disputing the government’s seemingly arbitrary February deadline for publication of the report.

Withholding the report in a general election campaign would reflect a profound contempt by Britain’s ruling establishment for the democratic process and for the good sense of British voters. It would be a gift to all the anti-establishment parties in the campaign – Ukip, the nationalist parties, the Greens. It might well backfire on those criticised in the report, and on the establishment generally, by allowing the public to imagine that the report is much fiercer than is actually the case.

The report must be presented to parliament and the last possible date for this would be March 30th next year, when parliament will be dissolved.

If David Cameron receives the completed report, he should lay it before parliament and have it published at any time up to the last legal minute. That may well allow him no time to prepare a government response to it or arrange any parliamentary debate. Too bad. The British people have waited too long for this report. Our politicians should trust them to read it.