Chilcot Inquiry: Why should the conversations of Blair and Bush be made public?

No freedom of information law includes private communications between leaders

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
RuPaul interview: The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head

RuPaul interview

The drag star on being inspired by Bowie, never fitting in, and saying the first thing that comes into your head
Secrets of comedy couples: What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?

Secrets of comedy couples

What's it like when both you and your partner are stand-ups?
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
The best swimwear for men: From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer

The best swimwear for men

From trunks to shorts, make a splash this summer
Mark Hix recipes: Our chef tries his hand at a spot of summer foraging

Mark Hix goes summer foraging

 A dinner party doesn't have to mean a trip to the supermarket
Ashes 2015: With an audacious flourish, home hero Ian Bell ends all debate

With an audacious flourish, the home hero ends all debate

Ian Bell advances to Trent Bridge next week almost as undroppable as Alastair Cook and Joe Root, a cornerstone of England's new thinking, says Kevin Garside
Aaron Ramsey interview: Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season

Aaron Ramsey interview

Wales midfielder determined to be centre of attention for Arsenal this season
Community Shield: Arsene Wenger needs to strike first blow in rivalry with Jose Mourinho

Community Shield gives Wenger chance to strike first blow in rivalry with Mourinho

As long as the Arsenal manager's run of games without a win over his Chelsea counterpart continues it will continue to dominate the narrative around the two men
The unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth - and what it says about English life

Unlikely rise of AFC Bournemouth

Bournemouth’s elevation to football’s top tier is one of the most improbable of recent times. But it’s illustrative of deeper and wider changes in English life