The Iraq inquiry, which the PM announced today, is obviously welcome, but just about eveything about the way it is to be conducted is wrong. It is far too late, since it should have been set up shortly after hostilities finished on 30 April 2003, i.e. at leat 5-6 years ago. It is being established in the time-honoured way by the PM, without proper prior consultation with the leaders of the other parties, and without any real likelihood that Parliament can alter either the chair, membership or terms of reference of the committee the PM has personally approved. We can be quite sure that the civil servant drafters made their choices in the manner they thought most likely (which had to be approved by the PM) would lead to an uncontroversial, even consensual, conclusion which would enable the Gopvernment to slip round the outstanding issues on the floor of the House and thus gain the space finally to move on. On that score the conclusion must be that the PM succeeded, by often evading the question and constantly repeating his well-rehearsed defensive mantra, in sloughing off several threatening lines of scrutiny. But that will not fend off the determination of the majority to get at the truth, wherever it may lead, on many still outstanding issues.
If the purpose of this inquiry is finally to lay to rest the deep scepticism that still persists on the main outstanding issues – how far the intelligence on WMD was politically abused, why the Attorney General suddenly swotched sides on the legality of the war, how the Downing Street memorandum came to believe that the facts were being woven to fit the policies, and why the caveats in the raw intelligence were all dropped while the threats were magnified – then against that background an inquiry behind closed doors will certainly not clear away all the miasma of suspicion. Brown’s ace card was to keep repeating that he was providing a replica of the Franks Inquiry of 1983, which was exactly what William Hague for the Opposition had constantly demanded. But it is the wrong precedent. The right one should be the Scott Inquiry into Arms to Iraq which was an open public inquiry and very effective at getting at the real truth.
That this Brown inquiry is being closely managed precisely to limit access to the truth is indicated by the membership chosen, the terms of reference, and the ominous reference to national security exclusions. Sir John Chilcot, the chairman, is a classic Whitehall safe pair of hands, Sir Roderic Lyne was foreign affairs private secretary to John Major, Sir Martin Gilbert is a historian and Brown favourite, Sir Lawrence Freedman allegedly wrote most of Tony Blair’s pro-military intervention speech in 1999, an Baroness Usha Prashar is a cross-bench peer without any obvious expertise in Iraqi, military or political matters. Not much killer instinct there for a ruthless forensic cross-examination, more a sedate canter round the course with predictable conclusions.
The terms of reference are equally fixed to divert attention away from the central issue of legality. Brown said the main purpose was to “identify lessons learned” rather than to “apportion blame or consider issues of civil or criminal liability”. With one phrase what should be the main objective of the inquiry has been knocked away. And if “that which is essential to our national security” is excluded from the report, then No.10, which will receive the report and be able to edit it prior to publication, will be able to put a very wide subjective interpretation on just what counts as ‘national security’.
What is most sad, indeed deplorable, about this classic Whitehall stage-managing of this inquiry is that after the PM’s triumphal announcement of major Parliamentary democratic reform only last week, he has so quickly reverted to type. What should have happened is that the Opposition parties should have been fully consulted beforehand, then the PM’s nominations for chair, members and terms of reference should have been referred to the appropriate Select Committee (probably in this case a joint session of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees) for ratification or amendment, and then a public inquiry conducted openly with the report made unedited to Parliament directly, not through No.10. When will we ever get some real democracy in our national affairs?