The political class closes ranks

by Chris Ames

The Daily Mail carries a tremendous piece by John Kampfner on the current government’s use of the Freedom of Information Act veto to block disclosure of the pre-war Cabinet minutes:

The decision not to release official papers on the Iraq war exposes yet again how the political class thinks it is above public scrutiny.

Which is very much what I have been thinking. After reciting the well-known struggles of the Iraq Inquiry, Kampfner observes:

But there is no shortage of information publicly available about what happened, thanks to books, politicians’ memoirs, newspaper articles and documentaries.

Many of those involved, from Blair to his aides Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and Peter Mandelson, have put their self-justifying defences into the public domain first — earning handsome publishing and newspaper serialisation fees. In doing so they have used the same spin tactics they deployed in government. Meanwhile — irony of ironies — Blair is paid millions to travel the world telling foreigners how to resolve their conflicts.

The hypocrisy of all this is extraordinary.

At the same time as cashing in on their accounts of the war, successive members of the political class have closed ranks to stop the public from finding out the truth of what went on.

Dominic Grieve is just the latest name to be added to this list which includes Labour’s Jack Straw, who also banned the release of Cabinet minutes covering the Iraq war.

Most sickeningly, there seems to be one law for politicians and another for everybody else.

As Chris Lamb, who has twice used FOI to try to get the Cabinet minutes released, has pointed out, what is being protected is not good government in a safe space, but a complete failure of Cabinet government to give sufficient discussion to a massive issue. That is what the political class is concealing.

21 comments to this article

  1. chris lamb

    on August 5, 2012 at 4:48 pm -

    Very impressive article by John Kampfner- cannot add anything to his analysis, which is spot on.

    I have quite an indigestible bone to pick with the ICO about the interminable delay in posting the remainder of 4 July Decision Notices, from which mine was vetoed.

    I have become more than a little suspicious about this because its effect- deliberate or not- has been an adroit piece of news management by the Attorney General’s/ Cabinet Office. If the Decision Notice had appeared before the veto completed its passage, it would have no doubt generated media interest and questioning of Cabinet politicians about their intentions regarding the veto. Instead of that, the ICO delay in posting the news item about the Decision Notice and veto until August has allowed the whole process to be managed (from the Government perspective) with the minimum of fuss and publicity and Cabinet politicians guilty of the most rank hypocrisy- notably the Lib Dems- to slink off- to the Olympics or wherever- without further question.

    Is it ICO acknowledged practice, I wondered, to delay posting Decision Notices for a whole month or is it explained by an accidental concurrence of events or did the Government somehow exert influence over the ICO time-tabling even before enforcement of the veto was legitimately completed?

  2. John Bone

    on August 6, 2012 at 9:07 am -

    These issues bring head-to-head two diametrically opposed visions of government. In one the public votes for political parties who then do more or less what they want (whether it is in their manifesto or not, whether the explanations make sense or not, whether it is well thoought-out or not). In the other, politicians are accountable for their actions to the public – they have to be able to give a logical account of what they are doing and they get removed if the results of their actions are the opposite of what they claimed they would be.

    In practice we have the former. The invasion of Iraq was one of the issues in the last decade that showed public dissatisfaction with that. One of the lessons that Chilcot could draw is that there is now a large section of the public who are well-educated and well-informed (even about foreign affairs) and who won’t accept illogical explanations of policy and who won’t accept claims that a policy is correct when the outcomes are very different from those claimed beforehand.

    The Liberal Democrats channeled some of that feeling that governance should be more transparent and accountable. The leverage they had two years ago was that the Conservatives could not govern without them, Clegg had performed well in the televised debates and the Lib-Dems got a significant number of votes in the 2010 general election (that did not translate into an equivalent number of seats). The last two factors are no longer relevant two years later. There is also no sign that the Lib-Dems are willing to remind the Conservatives that they rely on the Lib-Dems to stay in office. There is no willingness to use their one instrument of leverage, the threat to walk away. In fact, listening to a discussion on the radio last night, I got the distinct impression that the only element of the Coalition Agreement that has any meaning is the agreement that the government will last until 2015, a point that negates most of the potential influence of the Lib-Dems on the direction of government. Not only have particular reforms that would reduce the grip of the two main parties fallen by the wayside but the whole narrative of greater public scrutiny of government has fallen off the agenda of party politics. John Kampfner was one of those who hoped that the Lib-Dems would succeed in opening up government to public scrutiny; I guess that he must be very disappointed.

  3. Anthony Miller

    on August 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm -

    Reading the latest documents on the website carefully where it says “The Inquiry has advised the Prime Minister that it will be in a position to begin the process of writing to any individuals that may be criticised by the middle of 2013”. Does this mean Salmon letters have not yet gone out and the report may in fact be delayed even longer than a year or a year and a half? According to my calculutations this puts a realistic report publication date somewhere around early 2014 at the latest.

  4. John Bone

    on August 7, 2012 at 8:53 am -

    Yes, the way I read it is that it may be nearly two years before there is a report from the Inquiry. I don’t think the mainstream media have taken this in yet.

  5. Bobm

    on August 7, 2012 at 3:52 pm -

    The concluding paragraphs of the FAQ on the Inquiry site, regarding the reporting timetable, have not been updated. They still say:
    “The Inquiry has advised the Government that it will need until at least summer 2012 to produce a draft report which will do justice to the issues involved.”
    Even allowing for the ongoing “dialogue with the Cabinet Office”, as Chilcot puts it in his July letter to the PM, it isn’t really clear what exactly is in Chilcot’s mind. If he is saying that he cannot report until he has “resolved” the central “issues”; and if the political establishment is determined to keep them unresolved, how can Chilcot have confidence in any delivery date? Or is he giving a veiled ultimatum of some sort? Has anyone decoded this letter?

  6. andrewsimon

    on August 7, 2012 at 10:42 pm -

    If SJC and/or the Inquiry committee were to refuse to report without full disclosure he – or they – could potentially drag the whole process out for at least another eleven years.

    Starting next year 30-year rule document releases (usually going to the National Archives) are being done in two year chunks to eventually bring the overall period down to 20 years.

    This is how it will work:

    Documents from year 2003:

    2003 year 0 (original full 30-year release 2033)
    2004 1
    2005 2
    2006 3
    2007 4
    2008 5
    2009 6
    2010 7
    2011 8
    2012 9
    2013 10 (two year releases begin to enable the transition to new 20-year rule)
    2014 11
    2015 12
    2016 13
    2017 14
    2018 15
    2019 16
    2020 17
    2021 18
    2022 19
    2023 20 (completion of the transition to the new 20-year rule)

    Essentially, this means that if (likely) successive governments continue to maintain the veto the documents should see the light of day sometime in 2023.

    Could they possibly drag it out for this long?

  7. chris lamb

    on August 8, 2012 at 5:59 pm -

    Andrew Mason is evidently correct that no government of any Westminster party will now permit the disclosure of the 13 and 17 March 2003 Cabinet minutes (unless the veto is quashed by a judicial review process). It is also likely that a veto will be applied to the Blair/ Bush phone records should the Foreign Office take it through all the appeal mechanisms and lose- although, the absurdity of this should not be lost in the context of Alistair Campbell publishing his own version.

    It is my understanding that the Chilcot Inquiry is seeking declassification rather than disclosure of the pre-invasion Cabinet minutes, the difference being that declassification may apply to extracts documenting the case made in the report rather than the full text. Chilcot’s July letter to Cameron indicates that this- discussions occurring in Cabinet- is an issue still outstanding and to be addressed with the Cabinet Office (along with records of Blair’s meetings/ correspondence with international statesman). This, I guess, means that permission for declassification, or the exact form it will take, has not been concluded yet.

    The Chilcor Inquiry expects to begin the Maxwellization process- with salmon letters- about the middle of 2013, on the assumption that the draft report will be largely concluded by then.

    On re-reading Dominic Grieves’s Statement of Reasons and his absolute reliance on the most profoundly ironic extracts from the Straw veto (2009)relating to protecting the confidentiality principle of Cabinet collective responsibility, it strikes me that a hidden agenda for both vetos- John Rentoul will like this- is the concealment from public scrutiny of the domain and workings of Prime Ministerial power and the abuses arising from it.

    Upholding the convention of Cabinet collective responsibility (even as a fiction) is a necessary corollary to maintaining that effective constitutional checks and balances are in place to prevent unacceptable excesses of Prime Ministerial power. Prime Ministerial power is thus checked by free, full and frank discussions with his Cabinet colleages- primus inter pares.

    The evidence we have already- notably from the Butler Report- completely undermines this fiction. By February/ March 2003, according to Butler, ‘effective Cabinet government’ was nowhere apparent as ‘sofa government’ took its place.

    Yet, both Straw and Grieve seek to justify their vetoes primarily on the grounds of safeguarding ‘effective Cabinet government’.

  8. LindaW

    on August 8, 2012 at 8:11 pm -

    Most politicians don’t seem to worry about the medium term and longer term problems their actions cause. That said, the democratic deficit they’re building up weakens their power as well as making voters angry and disengaged.

  9. John Bone

    on August 9, 2012 at 10:18 am -

    Steve Richards made an interesting comment in an article in the Independent on the 2nd August.

    “Similarly, Tony Blair was trapped by Iraq. If he had opposed the war, he would have seemed in advance a weak leader in the eyes of many, or the many he cared about. By supporting the war, he showed how weak he was, too fearful of challenging the US, too determined to show that a Labour Prime Minister could work with a Republican President.”

    In my opinion that comes close to how the decisions were made to get involved in the invasion of Iraq. The decisions were made by Blair and those around him, but they were made in the context of the mind-set of elite politics and Blair was not a PM who was going to challenge that mind-set. It was a decision taken without thought for the long-term consequences and, if we could see the discussions within the “safe spaces”, we would probably find that they were rarely discussed. We already know that the question of international law was dealt with by ignoring it and ignoring the AG: the question of whether there were adequate preparations for the occupation, for example, were also probably dealt with by being ignored. The US Security Strategy of September 2002 was mainly ignored, even though it has profound implications for close allies of the USA.

    Blair correctly assessed that the Conservative front-bench and much of the mainstream media would swoon over him for standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Amercians, and that the Conservative front-bench and much of the mainstream media would ignore the number of times Blair said that he would get Bush to do something and failed. He correctly assessed that the Conservative front-bench and much of the mainstream media would join in the ridicule of any opposition and would be just as anxious to draw a line and move on if things went wrong.

    Blair was wrong to assume that opposition could be marginalised. Large sections of the public were annoyed at the outrageous spin and at the claims, when things began to go wrong, that could not have been foreseen. Opposition continues almost 10 years after the event and it hasn’t been possible to draw a line under it. The result is an impasse: a democratic deficit. Voters are angry and disengaged from what passes as politics (though not necessarily disengaged from the issues that politicians should be dealing with).

    Can Chilcot’s report help to resolve this? One of the problems is that some of the things that the report needs to say are more or less unsayable in an official public document. The central dilemma for the UK political establishment in 2002 was the close relationship with the USA while the US administration was intent on reckless military interventions outside the framework of international law; I doubt, though, whether the FCO or the American Embassy would allow Chilcot’s report to say that. But lessons can not be learnt of how to deal with that dilemma unless it is written out in full.

  10. Bobm

    on August 9, 2012 at 9:27 pm -

    “One of the problems is that some of the things that the report needs to say are more or less unsayable in an official public document. The central dilemma for the UK political establishment in 2002 was the close relationship with the USA while the US administration was intent on reckless military interventions outside the framework of international law; I doubt, though, whether the FCO or the American Embassy would allow Chilcot’s report to say that. But lessons can not be learnt of how to deal with that dilemma unless it is written out in full.”

    JB’s distillation surely reflects the view of successive contributors to this [Chris’s] site.
    John Chilcot and his fellow members are in a position do something historic, and confound assumptions, to the longer-term advantage of Britain and humanity. It is hard to believe that the Inquiry membership is not acutely aware of the choice that confronts it: are they to be whited sepulchres, or Thomas Paine’s successors?

    So, with apologies, I return to my previous post. Who is going to venture a direct answer to my question: What is the subtext to Chilcot’s letter of 13 July to the Prime Minister?
    Chilcot is surely not planning to live out the schedule set out by Andrew Simon. So what is Chilcot’s plan?

  11. andrewsimon

    on August 10, 2012 at 6:03 pm -

    Bobm –

    It is hard to believe that the Inquiry membership is not acutely aware of the choice that confronts it: are they to be whited sepulchres, or Thomas Paine’s successors. So, with apologies, I return to my previous post. Who is going to venture a direct answer to my question: What is the subtext to Chilcot’s letter of 13 July to the Prime Minister? Chilcot is surely not planning to live out the schedule set out by Andrew Simon. So what is Chilcot’s plan?

    My simplistic reading (possibly between the lines) of the text of the letter is that SJC is saying – this is our plan as it currently stands – this is what we intend to accomplish – but…

    If we return to the expected timescale for the release of cabinet documents going back some time and considering the 30 to 20 year rule change the following picture begins to emerge:

    Documents from 1973 – Normal 30 year release date 2003
    From 1974 – release date 2004
    From 1975 – release date 2005
    From 1976 – release date 2006
    From 1977 – release date 2007
    From 1978 – release date 2008
    From 1979 – release date 2009
    From 1980 – release date 2010
    From 1981 – release date 2011
    From 1982 – release date 2012
    (Two year releases begin to enable the transition to the new 20-year rule)
    From 1983 and 1984 – release date 2013 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of Iraq’s initial use of CW in the Iran-Iraq War)
    From 1985 and 1986 – release date 2014 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of the ‘Arms to Iraq’ affair)
    From 1987 and 1988 – release date 2015 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of Iraq’s CW use during the Anfal campaign and at Halabja)
    From 1989 and 1990 – release date 2016 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of Iraq’s planning for and the invasion of Kuwait)
    From 1991 and 1992 – release date 2017 (including cabinet documents relating to possible knowledge of Iraq’s CW use during the 1991 Gulf War and the drawing up of Res. 687 etc)
    From 1993 and 1994 – release date 2018 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of UNSCOM’s early work in Iraq)
    From 1995 and 1996 – release date 2019 (including cabinet documents relating to knowledge of UNSCOM’s continuing work in Iraq, the planned CIA coup plot (DBACHILLES) and the defection of Hussein Kamel al-Majid)
    From 1997 and 1998 – release date 2020 (including cabinet documents relating to the events surrounding Operation Desert Fox)
    From 1999 and 2000 – release date 2021 (including cabinet documents relating to the setting up of UNMOVIC)
    From 2001 and 2002 – release date 2022 (including cabinet documents relating to Iraq’s final December 7th declaration)
    (Transition from the old 30 to the new 20 year rule complete)
    From 2003 – release date 2023 (expected release of the March 2003 cabinet minutes etc)

    All bar the last few entries above are, strictly speaking, outside the remit of the Inquiry.

    One of the great unknowns is what is going to happen after the Maxwellization process begins. Are those in receipt of the Salmon letters going to thereafter tie up the Inquiry with legal arguments for years on end? And in any case is this all just a smokescreen, designed to allow the Inquiry to draw itself out such that it will not compromise the principle of the 30 and 20 year rules?

  12. Anthony Miller

    on August 16, 2012 at 10:28 am -

    Well, as it really is going to take forever here’s our page on the JIC which we had given up on but I decided I may as well complete it now …

    ..there may be a few transcripts we haven’t read but I think I’ve ploughed through most of it now … although there’s not much entertaining remaining to be extracted… certainly trying to make this page interesting was like pulling teeth.

  13. andrewsimon

    on August 16, 2012 at 11:28 pm -

    Anthony –

    On behalf of everyone here at the Digest I’d like to thank you for your perseverance in continuing to produce these pages. I’ve got to say that I found very little pure comedy material in those transcripts that I’ve read for myself. The experience of going through them was something akin to watching an extremely tedious circus perform whilst always waiting for an unexpected moment of outrageous joy, which sadly never quite comes to pass.

    Right now I think it is difficult to see where exactly the Inquiry is at with it all that it has seen, heard and read, and equally hard to predict how long this is all going to take to reach a conclusion. In the meantime, assuming you might be persuaded to continue your series, you perhaps could consider a page about TB and the French position – you know that almost sounds smutty – I know it means going back to at least some of the transcripts again and that you already said:

    Think this really is the end – I cant be bothered to read another transcript – ever ever ever ever ever again

    but you’ll probably enjoy doing it – this part of the story is not so tedious and AC’s latest tome will help you quite a lot.

  14. LindaW

    on August 17, 2012 at 8:24 am -

    I was marginally encouraged by Australia’s decision to investigate how its government embroiled it in the Iraq war. The review will at least keep the issue live.

  15. John Bone

    on August 17, 2012 at 11:13 am -

    The comedy is in the way in which this band of highly paid, distinguished and richly decorated individuals time after time fail to draw obvious conclusions and fail to draw attention to the lacunae in the information. Except, of course, that we’re talking about going to war which makes it all tragedy.

    One example. How was the judgement made that Iraq was hoodwinking the inspectors? Scarlett cannot tell us. Apparently it was a policy decision, nothing to do with JIC: so does that mean that it was politicians who decided that the scrappy information from MI6 trumped what the insepctors were finding? We don’t get to find out, because Chilcot decides that it’s tea-time! (even though the justification for going to war depends on the assertion that Iraq was hoodwinking the inspectors).

    Maybe Chilcot et al will reveal all in their report and show that they had noticed these gaps in the logic. Or maybe we will find out that they have got where are today by deliberately not noticing that sort of thing.

  16. Anthony Miller

    on August 17, 2012 at 5:17 pm -

    Andrew – there is a bit about the French question on page 2 of the original Iraq Inquiry pages
    The problem with researching the TB French position (apart from the information being scattered about many many different transcripts and documents) is that I dont speak very good French. I’m sure there’s a lot of information in the French press that could throw a lot of light on what actually went down but what the digest needs for this is a French speaker … there’s a limit to what I can do with bablefish…



  17. andrewsimon

    on August 17, 2012 at 9:23 pm -

    Anthony –

    I did read through your earlier work but I think this is one of the meatier chunks of the Iraq affair and there’s plenty more to bite into.

    Dunno if you would actually need to read or speak French – I think it’s much more about TB’s attitude towards the French rather than the other way around – AC does a good job of explaining the various positions which break down to represent those of the majority of both the Security Council and the permanent members thereof against those of the minority.

    I’m sure SJC&Co is going to (eventually) give us a good rendition of all this lot in any case.

  18. andrewsimon

    on August 17, 2012 at 10:36 pm -

    John Bone –

    One example. How was the judgement made that Iraq was hoodwinking the inspectors?

    A very good example. Probably one of the key questions in fact. I’ve just been through AC’s Pt4 trying to find mention of anything relating to this and there really wasn’t anything there. All there was were a few profound fears that Saddam would actually use WMD but that was it. Any detail about the weapons themselves, and what they might conceivably be, never got a look-in – not in any proper regard.

    Elsewhere, in TB’s testimony, he says that for him it was the intimidation of the Iraqi scientists (by the threat of being declared a spy) and the ability to get them out of Iraq that did it for him. I can’t find real evidence of this intimidation anywhere else. And the scientists were mostly refusing unaccompanied (or unrecorded) interviews, far less being forcibly handed over to foreign third-parties in any case.

    Blair though does tell us that they had December ’02 ‘information’ that still remained valid about the spying bit. I haven’t seen (or perhaps noticed) anything about this anywhere else. Maybe this is what SIS 8, 9 and 11 talked to the Inquiry about?

    (Maybe they also ran the 45-minute man?) :smiley:

  19. John Bone

    on August 20, 2012 at 9:21 am -

    Another absurdity in the Chilcot session with the JIC is when someone says that they were being bulldozed by the military timetable. The reason supposedly why there are these mind-numbing discussions about the minutae of the operation of the intelligence agencies is that it will give us some insight into why the UK was part of the invasion of Iraq. Yet suddenly someone admits that the decision for if and when Iraq gets invaded was completely separate from considerations of weapons’ inspections, intelligence and WMD – there was a separate timetable that bulldozed these considerations. Which makes the hours and hours of nit-picking about the how the intelligence services work more or less irrelevant. It would just be nice of Chilcot gave some sign of recognising the significance of some of the things that are said.

    BTW: a lot of the session with the JIC is going over ground already covered by the Butler Report. Is anything new going to come out of Chilcot? That may depend more on the way the report is written than on new facts and analysis. As Richard Norton-Taylor pointed out back in 2004 there is a lot of damning material in Butler’s report but this wasn’t fully appreciated.

    “Moreover, the Butler report makes clear, “officials” – they are not named but certainly they must have been senior advisers to the prime minister – cautioned that for Goldsmith and Blair to rely, as they did, on an earlier UN resolution to claim Iraq was in breach of its international obligations, the proof “would need to be incontrovertible and of large-scale activity”. We know not only that it was nothing of the kind, but that Blair did not even bother to find out.”

    Will Chilcot’s report highlight these points or will he allow them to be lost in irrelevant detail about who does what in the intelligence services?