The Chilcot Inquiry Revisited

A very long time ago – in a different historical period – I attended the Chilcott Inquiry, on one of the sessions during which Tony Blair gave his evidence.

The first blog below explains the circumstances; the second blog gives my impressions.

Both blogs appeared on the Channel 4 website.

I remember arriving at the QEII Centre in Westminster. There were hundreds of angry people outside. To enter, I had to pass through security measures that amounted to passing through check-in at Heathrow three times. Policemen with extremely large guns stood in the room next to the lecture room-sized room where the Inquiry was held. We – the attendees – were repeatedly told not to shout out. These orders were obeyed, although there were low rumbles of extreme distress from the relatives of those who had died in Iraq. The room – so very English – was full of suppressed screaming.

That is what I remember most of all – being in the room with so much silently screaming grief.

Tony Blair entered, sat with his back to the relatives, and did not – so far as I saw – acknowledge them.

He was a well dressed, impressive, determined man; a bit wrecked, but good for his age; sheen-y; only passing through this space – heading for more important meetings. The relatives hated him as much as you can imagine, but they were also desperate for him to make a gesture of true sorrow that would enable them to begin not hating him. To make that gesture, though, would have been a political move for Tony Blair. He was unwilling to make it, because it would have been a concession. His righteousness was, and remains, impeccable.


27 January 2010

What I expect of Tony Blair

The golden ticket – in fact, it’s pale yellow – came through the door last Friday. I’d put in for the postal ballot almost without thinking: print out the form, fill it in, send it off, forget it. Chances were, my name wouldn’t be picked out. Chances were, like everyone else, I’d watch the highlights on TV. Instead, reading the small print on the ticket’s reverse, I saw that I was going to be – for three hours – in the most focussed-upon, most discussed location in the world.

The tone of the ticket’s small print is that of a Form Teacher addressing his rowdy sixth formers before the final big assembly of term. We, the members of the public but also the relatives of soldiers and civilians killed in Iraq, are expected to observe ‘Standards of Behaviour’. We are told that ‘Types of behaviour which will not be tolerated include the interruption of witnesses or Committee members, the display of offensive logos or banners, the throwing of objects or the physical disruption of the hearing.’ And this will come after we’ve ‘been required to undertake airport style security checks’. So maybe it’s not going to be like final assembly after all.

Instead, I think, it will be a bit like ringside seats to someone else’s Purgatory. Tony Blair has already spent quite a lot of time kicking around in the Waiting Room of history. As events play themselves out in Afghanistan and Iraq and elsewhere, he is able to watch the consequences of his decisions whilst in power. He has been trying to catch glimpses of the verdict of future generations. And among the evidence the unborn will be examining most closely, his words to the Iraq Inquiry may prove decisive. Because he will, I hope, be asked very directly the exact questions that those future generations would have him answer. If he squirms now, he squirms forever.

In a sense, I think Tony Blair must realize that the rest of his existence – alive and dead – will play itself out in front of a perpetual Iraq Inquiry. That’s his Purgatory.

What else do people remember, already, of his time in office? That he invited Noel Gallagher to Number 10? That he looked distraught and coined the phrase ‘people’s Princess’? That he and Cherie had another baby? That he and Gordon Brown were themselves at war?

Within this context, all his achievements, which people have forgotten, can serve only to infuriate him. So, what I expect to see on Friday morning is a man desperately trying to keep his patience. He would like to be able to say, and he probably will say, ‘I made the decisions I made, on the evidence I had, and I believed that evidence to be credible, and I believed those decisions to be right, and I still believe those decisions were right.’ And he would like the matter to end there. When you are Prime Minister and you say a subject is closed, it’s closed. That’s a big part of your power. A power it’s impossible not to get used to.

But the endless people with their endless questions won’t go away. Not now; not ever.

And all the ‘Types of behaviour’ that are banned in the Inquiry room are banned because they are what the ticket-holders will be desperate to do. To shout. To accuse. Perhaps some of them will do these things. But those who don’t will sit quietly, their eyes on Tony Blair, waiting to see if he squirms. And, for him, their eyes will surely be the worst part of his Purgatory.

30 January 2010

Tony Blair at the Iraq Inquiry, Morning Session

When Tony Blair strode in to face the Iraq Inquiry, he looked grim, groomed, business-like, nervous. Without a glance at the members of the public or especially at the relatives of those who died in the war, he sat down to face Sir John Chilcot and the other committee members.

The Inquiry room is the kind of blue-chaired, over-air-conditioned, headachy space that politicians and public servants inhabit for most of their working lives. When there isn’t a security threat, or a few hundred angry protestors outside, they’ll maybe get a window with a view, and there won’t be a hard-muscled guy with a curly wire behind his ear eyeballing the public gallery. But all the main participants were more than comfortable with this kind of thing.

Tony Blair particularly seemed to want to give off a definite sense of, ‘Look, guys, you’re not going to faze me because I’ve been here before, okay?’ Right from the start, he wanted – as much as he could – to control the agenda of the meeting. (That he’s been successful in this hundreds of times before is one of the reasons he was able to make the climb from MP to Cabinet Minister to Prime Minister.) Repeatedly, he said that something was ‘really important’, as if deciding what was really important were up to him alone. When he could, he attempted to quote from his own public statements – speeches, press conferences – as if anyone still believed that his public statements had been an expression of his private convictions.

Generally, the committee were patient with this. They could have been more challenging on Blair’s logical errors, but, as Sir John Chilcot has repeatedly made clear, this isn’t a trial.

The big problem here, I think, is that because the questions were being put in such a bureaucratic setting and generally in such bureaucratic language, Blair was able to answer them in a bureaucratic manner. Sitting [as I was] directly behind mothers of soldiers who had died in Iraq, it was hard to hear Blair saying, ‘I ended up taking military action…’ without thinking, ‘No, you didn’t. You sat in committee rooms and made decisions that led to people dying and suffering.’ And it was hard not to wish for someone to stand up and shout out, passionately, in a different, non-bureaucratic language. Whenever Blair began to speak like a lawyer – to make any kind of fine distinction – the relatives shook their heads. What they wanted from him was emotion, remorse, tears.

Quite a lot of the time, though, Tony Blair was smiling, almost smirking. Not when discussing WMD or American Foreign policy, but when, for example, describing his attempts to get the French to agree to anything. The real disconnect in his mind seems to occur between what he emphasizes was the need to make a decision and the human consequences of that decision. Everything else could be portrayed as fluid – a question about WMD could lead to generalizations about the region, evolving geopolitics, the inner workings of the UN. But whenever he wanted, the fluidity could be crystallized into a simple Yes or No. This was Tony Blair as Tony Blur, and he was far too fast for the committee.

The most crucial moment came when asked Blair was asked by Baroness Usha Prashar what had passed between him and President Bush when they spoke privately, unminuted, at Crawford in April 2002. Before he answered, Blair again had to stop himself smiling. Something in the memory seemed to amuse him. He went on to avoid the question, instead saying more generally that ‘when you’re dealing with other leaders, if you’re the Prime Minister of Great Britain and the President of the United States,… you establish a close and strong relationship…’ And this, beyond all the bureaucracy, and all the piled up files and pernickety questions, is what I think Blair was remembering of that time. He was remembering dealing with President Bush – remembering having to deal with President Bush. Bush the comedian. Bush the cowboy. And he was thinking of how Bush would have shoved all this Inquiry bullshit to one side, probably with a yawn.

To stay in that room in Crawford with Bush, and to hold his attention, and not to alienate him, Blair knew he’d needed to be a little bit of a cowboy. Everything else that’s come since – dishonesty, incompetence, war – has been as a direct result of Tony Blair’s decision that it was his duty, as Prime Minister, to be George Bush’s best mate. To laugh at his jokes. To tell him some good ones. Not to come across as some committee-cosy bureaucrat.

But cowboys don’t have best mates. Best mates, to them, seem a bit British, a bit gay.

Given the choice, I’d rather be governed by a bureaucrat than a cowboy. At least bureaucrats keep minutes.


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