A waste of time?

by Chris Ames

Writing on Comment is Free, Deborah Orr says that:

“Chilcot is a waste of time, money and energy. Thus far, it has merely confirmed an interpretation of events that was perfectly apparent even as those events were unfolding. Blair was ­obviously, from the start, a ­messianic hawk, thrumming with the slick self-belief that helped to make him such a powerful vote-winner.”

She expresses disdain for “the righteous indignation of those who hang on every word uttered at the Chilcot inquiry – looking in vain for the revelation powerful enough to puncture Blair’s awesome sense of personal rectitude.”

I’ve no idea who she could mean. But her argument depends on the idea that pretty well everyone agrees with her criticism of Blair but that this made no difference on the last election, where Blair was re-elected. It is by no means clear that everyone does agree with the criticism, which could be why Iraq was bad, but not fatal, for Labour during the last election.

If the effect on voters is an important test of the Inquiry’s usefulness – and I am not saying that it is – it may prove to be very useful. Despite Sir John Chilcot’s best efforts, it is giving the opposition a stick with which to beat the government and could – as many Labour MPs are said to fear – have a significant impact on the coming election. So a comparison between a pre-Inquiry election and a post-Inquiry one would not support Orr’s thesis.

10 comments to this article

  1. Lee Roberts

    on February 4, 2010 at 1:58 pm -

    What are “Chilcot’s best efforts”, and how would one recognise them if they happened ?

  2. Anthony

    on February 4, 2010 at 2:36 pm -

    I think the Chilcot enquiry is a lot better than nothing. What I find hard to understand is the expectation in some circles that it was going to be a no-holds-barred, no-stone-unturned expose of the Blair/Brown government and all of its lies and incompetence. A first step towards Blair’s prosecution for war crimes.

    How could anybody have ever expected that? The inquiry was established by Gordon Brown. He didn’t need to do it, but he did it because he thought he would gain from it. Iraq was the worst thing the Labour governments have done in the eyes of the electorate, so draw a line under it so as to have a platform for Labour to be reelected under its glorious Blair-free leader, Gordon ‘it wasn’t me’ Brown.

    So the membership, the remit, the timetable, the criteria for the release of documents, all were carefully designed to serve the interests of Gordon Brown. It hasn’t *quite* worked out that way, another of his little misjudgements, but that was the intention. Why has any realistic person ever expected it to be hard-hitting?

    The opinion poll published after Blair’s performance showed that 80% of the population don’t think he tells the truth and 31% think he should be prosecuted for war crimes. I don’t know if Chilcot has contributed much to those percentages, but I think they are an answer to Debora Orr. In the circumstances of that state of public opinion, an inquiry like Chilcot is a necessity. It is only a lessons-learned exercise, not a whodunit, but even so it will make officialdom think twice before going along with anything similar in the future and that is worth more than nothing. The mere fact that there are serious lessons to be learned is a repudiation of Blair, so the report will damn him, no matter how mildly-worded it turns out to be.

  3. John Bone

    on February 4, 2010 at 2:44 pm -

    In a piece that I wrote for this Digest in October 2009, I wrote

    “The position of the political establishment appears to be that there is nothing more to be said about the UK’s participation in the invasion of Iraq; outside the political establishment there is considerable unease on this score. ……It isn’t just that they disagree; it is difficult to identify what they disagree about because their perceptions are so different.”

    If Barbara Orr is talking about people outside the political establishment when she says that it was apparent what was happening even the events unfolded, then I think she is correct. She is also correct, I think, that the Inquiry has merely confirmed many people’s perceptions of events. The official narrative, though, was very different and what we have heard so far from the Inquiry makes it even more difficult to make that official narrative stand-up. Those parts of the political establishment who were saying that there was nothing more to be said about the invasion of Iraq appear to be slowly changing their tune. The Inquiry is like a group therapy session for our political elite, so that they can come to terms with some of the facts, with the anger in certain sections of the population or the fact that there are people who will give a marginalised political figure like Clare Short a long round of applause.

    It remains to be seen what lesssons will be learnt from all this. Barbara Orr has a point that Blair’s slick self-belief helped to make him a powerful vote-winner but also helped him to push support for the invasion with insufficient questioning. (I’m unsure what she means by “thrumming” though!) However within our political system there still seem to be quite a lot of people who think that a Blair-like figure is what is required. Cameron has some of the attributes of a Blair, and there are still some in the Parliamentary Labour Party who go around saying that Brown is terrible and that things would be better if they’d stuck with Blair. After defeat, it is quite possible that there will be a row in the Labour Party between those who think it was Blair’s fault and those who think it was Brown’s. So maybe no useful lessons will be learnt by our political elite, or maybe some will. Let’s wait and see.

  4. Lee Roberts

    on February 4, 2010 at 2:51 pm -

    Anthony: I dont think that anyone would disagree with your characterization of Chilcot, but for most people such a characterization isnt a virtue. With you, it appears to be. It is a lot worse than nothing, because if the inquiry manages to classify all the really damning evidence against Blair, it will prevent efforts now under way to indict him.

  5. Anthony

    on February 4, 2010 at 6:02 pm -

    Lee, I know nothing about attempts to indict Blair. If it can be done, all well and good, but I doubt whether there is a sufficient case. But you are surely unjustified in accusing Chilcot of classifying documents. Documents have been declassified that would have remained classified if not for Chilcot. You may regard as a sham the noises they are making about the Government’s refusal to declassify some documents, but I still don’t see that Chilcot is classifying documents.

    If there is a potential case to be made against Blair, Goldsmith must have been even more delinquent than we have seen. His highest duty was to advise the Prime Minister about any action that might have rendered him open to prosecution. Are we really saying Goldsmith didn’t bother? Or that they agreed that it didn’t matter because they could classify all the evidence that would be needed for a prosecution? I really doubt it. The whole skill of people like Blair and Goldsmith is to get away with things, to push the envelope as far as it will go without bursting. I doubt if they would have proceeded even though there was evidence there that could convict Blair of war crimes, as they could never be sure that it wouldn’t leak.

  6. Lee Roberts

    on February 4, 2010 at 7:10 pm -

    The role Chilcot will play in the classification of evidence will be through the secret sessions he has announced he will be having with Blair. A secret session allows him an opportunity to introduce whatever documentation he wishes, explore whatever evidence, get Blair to tell him what Blair wont say in public…and then it will all be classified. Yes, Chilcot wont do the actual classification…that will be the Cabinet Secretary (ie Brown and Straw); but Chilcot will be the device.

    We know that there cannot possibly be any sensitive state security left in this affair, so there is no need for a secret session unless it is aimed at providing Blair (Brown and Straw) protection.

  7. barb bishop

    on February 4, 2010 at 9:26 pm -

    Deborah Orr: ““the righteous indignation of those who hang on every word uttered at the Chilcot inquiry – looking in vain for the revelation powerful enough to puncture Blair’s awesome sense of personal rectitude.””

    Chris Ames: “I’ve no idea who she could mean”.

    Gorgeous, Chris! xxx

    The other thing Deborah could have mentioned was that going into the 2005 elections Tony Blair endlessly opened himself to public questioning in television and other forums stacked with his opponents. He repeatedly explained his reasons for it and also how he perceived the reponsibility of himself and his government post 9/11. He did this reasonably, not aggressively, and he always used reflective listening to acknowledge his questioners’ deeply felt concerns. He never changed their minds about his policy, but he changed sufficient numbers of minds as to his integrity. And that’s what I think made the difference at the election.

  8. Anthony

    on February 4, 2010 at 11:09 pm -

    If we’re still talking about Deborah Orr’s article, can we not bear in mind that Blair got reelected on 5 May 2005. Not long after the glorious democratic elections in Iraq that demonstrated beyond doubt the infinite wisdom of the Bush/Blair duo etc.

    Seriously though, by 5 May 2005, especially with all the spin about underlying progress and the denial that anything constituting a civil war was building, it was still possible for somebody with tunnel vision to view the invasion as potentially a success. It was only later that the civil war gradually deteriorated until it became so atrocious that it was impossible to deny. Even then it wasn’t until the Iraq Study Group report of December 2006 that it really started to sink in with the wider public that the Iraq war was a complete disaster for all concerned.

    So the fact that Blair got elected in May 2005 is irrelevant any judgement on the Iraq war that we might make now. In any case, with Michael Howard as leader of the opposition and the economy in decent shape, Labour couldn’t possibly have lost that election. Deborah Orr’s point is vacuous.

  9. Anthony

    on February 5, 2010 at 10:18 am -

    Actually I had forgotten that Labour only beat the Tories by 35-32 anyway, it was just the weird electoral system that gave them a huge majority.

    So Deborah Orr’s point is worse than vacuous. For the Tories under Michael Howard to come within 3% of winning the popular vote, there must have been a significant anti-Blair component in the vote. And the anti-war Libs had their most seats since whenever, so she ought to check her facts before CIFing.

  10. John Bone

    on February 5, 2010 at 12:10 pm -

    Both the Labour and Conservative party front benches in the House of Commons voted for the invasion of Iraq. The Labour and Conservative parties dominate the polls in most constituencies, so the effective choice for most voters in 2005 was between two parties who had voted for the invasion. Voters could have voted for a smaller party that opposed the invasion but the most likely result of this would be to let in a Conservative instead of Labour or vice versa, unless the voter was able to coordinate his/her vote with hundreds of others. (The Lib-Dems did well in seats with large numbers of students who possibly were able to signal to each other in some way their voting intentions.)

    So voting is a very ineffective way of signalling your views on an issue like this. In early 2003, opinion polls showed that about half of voters thought that the UK should be involved in the invasion only if there was a UN resolution, about a quarter though that there should be no support to the invasion in any circustances and another quarter thought that the UK should invade without a UN resolution. The majority of voters would find it difficult to register their opinion through voting. Orr seems to be suggesting that the only accountability in our democratic system is a vote every 5 years; if you win that vite you can do anything. That’s a frightening thought.