Chilcot is a ticking time bomb, dormant for the moment, but still primed to explode within a few months. And then what?
Three central issues arise out of Chilcot. The first is what happens if in accordance with the known facts the inquiry concludes that Tony Blair committed without consultation to a war in Iraq 11 months before the invasion, played down intelligence briefings that evidence of Saddam’s WMD was sporadic and patchy, invented or inflated claims to show that the threat was much greater than he knew it to be, and tried to prevent the Attorney General’s judgement reaching the Cabinet that the war was illegal without a second UN resolution and then leant on him to change his mind?
After four previous inquiries dubbed unsatisfactory for different reasons, this is almost certainly the last opportunity to reach a settled judgement after such an immense debacle. The Foreign Affairs select committee was denied access to the official papers, the Intelligence Services committee saw the papers but their report was subject to editing by No.10 who appointed them, the Hutton committee was almost universally dismissed as a whitewash, and the Butler committee whilst thorough in its investigation of the facts lamely decided that nobody was ultimately to blame. Chilcot, though not the most forensically incisive, has a chance to achieve what all the others failed to secure – a fair, balanced and rigorous holding to account of those responsible.
Accountability has now become the fulcrum of democracy most notable by its invisibility. After the al-Yamamah deal BAE has escaped prosecution on charges of corruption for a quarter of a century, and has only now admitted to ‘false accounting’ with a fine the equivalent of a slap on the wrist. Trafigura, a British oil trader, dumped tons of toxic oil in Cote d’Ivoire which it was claimed killed or sickened hundreds of Africans, but rejected any redress till its use of super-injunctions to hush it up was exposed. The Nimrod crash over Afghanistan which killed 14 British airmen was in the official report unambiguously attributed to sloppy management giving priority to cost-cutting over health and safety, yet none of the 10 men pointedly named have been held to account. Health scandals in hospitals, police violence as at the G20 protests, and the more egregious MP expense claims are rarely seen by the public as receiving the penalty deserved.
The handling of the Iraq inquiry is thus not out of keeping with this insidious culture of non-culpability. Chilcot was set up quite explicitly ‘to identify lessons to be learned’, not to ‘apportion blame or to consider issues of criminal or civil liability’. Those summoned were not required to give their evidence under oath, nor were they subject to cross-examination by learned counsel. This was never intended to be an exercise in enforcing rigorous accountability, and even if not (as some have said) a sedate canter round the course, not a killer weapon either for transfixing the guilty.
So what then happens? This is a defining moment for UN institutions and the rule of law. It isn’t the first time that this issue has been faced. On 2 March 2004 BBC news online carried the story ‘Blair war crimes case launched’ and the papers reported that ‘lawyers submit war crimes petition’. It is worth noting what the result was. Two years later, on 9 February 2006, the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court at the Hague put its conclusion on its website:
“The information available constituted a reasonable basis to believe that a limited number of instances of wilful killing and/or inhuman treatment had occurred. However the crimes allegedly committed by nationals of State Parties (to the Rome Statute of the ICC) in Iraq did not appear to meet the required gravity threshold”. In other words, the Prosecutor had investigated cases of killing and torture that went beyond the prosecution of a war, but had not examined the fundamental question of the legality of the war itself, and if it was concluded to be illegal, the colossal level of casualties that only occurred because an illegal war was deliberately initiated. It could be asked whether starting a war that breached international law was not a more serious war crime than the barbarity with which a legal war was conducted.
Chilcot may still not be the last word.
Two other issues however need to be faced. One is how can a slide into an illegal war be prevented from ever happening again? As a result of the Iraq experience MPs have now been guaranteed a vote well before any future likely outbreak of hostilities, though once again the efficacy of that commitment will depend on their being given fully and frankly the evidence on which to take a rational judgement. Some, in the light of the momentous nature of the war decision and the unprecedentedly huge march of 2 million opponents on 15 February 2003 which was unceremoniously brushed aside, have demanded a referendum of the people.
The other central issue is facing up to the painful truth that the Iraq war only happened the way it did because the tight constellation of power at the top in Britain is now almost impervious to outside influence. Power has been increasingly centralised over the last 30 years so that Britain today is run by a small circle of key power-brokers – the financial markets, the trans-national mega corporations, and the media tycoons seen as controlling popular opinion – doing their various (usually secret) deals with the Prime Minister and his immediate inner circle of unelected advisers. The cabinet, parliament, political parties, and the various pressure groups now count for much less than they did.
Opening up that closed circle is perhaps the biggest single challenge facing Britain today because it underpins all the others. The Iraq catastrophe could happen again unless a Prime Minister knows that defiance of international law could land him in the ICC in the Hague. BAE will not fear the rules outlawing corrupt arms deals unless it knows it will face, unprotected by the State, criminal prosecution and if convicted, lengthy imprisonment of its top managers and directors. No.10 will continue to treat parliament with disdain unless and until the legislature takes to itself the key powers – much closer control over public expenditure, ratification of Cabinet appointees before they can take office, a House business committee to give MPs control over their own agenda, election of select committees to hold the Government to account, and the authority to set up its own committees of inquiry into murky dealings by Government – all of which are necessary to counterbalance the autocracy that at present rides roughshod over both parliamentary and electorate opinion.