I disagree with some of my colleagues on The Independent about the Iraq war. I disagree, therefore, with the assumptions behind this morning’s front-page lead story. I am not sure that it is strictly “news” that the United States, as all countries do, regards confidential communications between heads of government as confidential.
To report this as the US “blocking” the publication of notes between Tony Blair and George Bush, and of the transcripts of their telephone conversations, is an inversion of the question. No freedom of information law anywhere in the world includes private communications between leaders, for obvious reasons: it would be impossible to conduct any diplomacy in public. What is curious about Sir John Chilcot’s inquiry into the Iraq war is why he, of pure-bred mandarin stock, should expect such documents to be published.
The same applies to the minutes of Cabinet meetings. We have all learned at the knee of Professor the Lord Hennessy the sacred creed of Cabinet government: collective responsibility; impartial civil service; confidential discussion. Strange how the guardians of constitutional propriety, many of whom were against the war, are silent when it is proposed to breach the principle of confidential Cabinet debate.
The curious thing about this story is the other way round: why does Sir John think that constitutional convention should be breached to allow the publication of documents that he and his panel have already seen?
Maybe the Chilcot panel does not think the convention matters. Having seen the documents, they may have seen that Blair and Bush said the same things in private that they said in public. Maybe the Chilcot panel thought 10 years was long enough. Maybe it is. But that is not the rule.
The rule, having been recently reviewed by Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail (one of Gordon Brown’s better jokes, that review), was 30 years and is now being reduced in stages to 20. If we think it should be 10, let Sir John, Lord Owen and Sir Menzies Campbell argue for 10 instead of - in the case of Lord Owen and Sir Menzies - crying conspiracy and libelling Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. It was Sir Jeremy’s predecessor, Lord O’Donnell, who told Chilcot that he could not publish Cabinet minutes or communications with President Bush. He was enforcing the constitutional principles which Lord Owen and Sir Menzies would rush to defend if they agreed with the policy. But now, because they disagreed with anything Tony Blair did, they claim that Sir Jeremy has a “conflict of interest” because he was a civil servant at the time of the Iraq war.
The second assumption behind today’s story, though, is more fundamental. It is that, by a secret handshake, or an encrypted message in the presidential toothpaste, Blair secretly agreed that the UK would take part in military action in Iraq. The important word in today’s report is “covert”, as The Independent claims that the draft Chilcot report is “highly critical of the covert way in which Mr Blair committed British troops to the US-led invasion”.
It would be surprising if the Chilcot report criticised Blair on those grounds, given his public support for US action against Saddam Hussein, should it prove necessary, for more than a year before the invasion, and given his need to secure the approval of the Cabinet and the House of Commons. Never mind that securing the consent of the Commons was a constitutional innovation brought in by Blair, of which sticklers for constitutional convention might be expected to disapprove, it required a vote of MPs that could not - and indeed was not - taken for granted by the Americans or anyone else.
Finally, The Independent also reports the recent comments of Lord Butler, Cabinet Secretary until 1998, in which he repeated the view expressed in his report into the failure of UK intelligence on Iraq that Blair kept important documents away from the Cabinet in the run-up to the decision to join the US military action.
Again, this makes sense only if one takes the view that the Iraq decision was so unreasonable that no reasonable person could have taken it unless there had been some gross procedural cheating. This is not the case. Robin Cook wrote in his memoir about a discussion of Iraq at Cabinet on 7 March 2002:
“This was the last Cabinet meeting at which a large number of ministers spoke up against the war. I have little sympathy with the criticism of Tony that he sidelined the Cabinet over Iraq. On the contrary, over the next six months we were to discuss Iraq more than any other topic, but only Clare Short and I ever expressed frank doubts about the trajectory in which we were being driven.”
The practical reason documents were not circulated much before Cabinet meetings is that they tended to leak, but any minister could ask for whatever briefing they wanted. The real reason that many ministers did not see what Lord Butler calls the “very good official papers” that were prepared is that they agreed with the policy.