It is hard to recall the fanfare and – yes – the excitement, that attended the early weeks of the Iraq inquiry. The inquisitorial manner of the chairman, Sir John Chilcot, raised hopes that the truth, the whole truth, about Britain’s greatest foreign policy disaster since Suez would finally be told. Thanks to television, panel members found themselves recognised and praised in the streets.
Six years on, the inquiry has still not reported. One of its members – the historian, Sir Martin Gilbert – has died. MPs are unhappy. The Prime Minister has sent a letter expressing his frustration. Relatives of soldiers killed in Iraq are mooting a lawsuit to force a deadline for publication. The great and the good are offering advice from the margins. And the beleaguered Sir John – now seen more as an establishment fuddy-duddy than a doughty fighter for truth – has issued a statement of his own, saying in essence that it will take as long as it takes.
Maxwellisation, the process whereby those criticised have a pre-publication right to respond, is not the only reason. Disputes within government and the Civil Service, and between the UK and the US about which documents can and should see the light of day, have also contributed, with Sir John reportedly fighting for more openness than the custodians of state secrets wanted to give. If this is true, then some of the public dissatisfaction may be misplaced.
The increasing focus on Sir John and the evident shortcomings of this inquiry, however, may perhaps be obscuring a more useful and radical conclusion. How many inquiries – with whatever status, drawn up under whatever format – can honestly be adjudged successes in recent years? Might it not be time to jettison the lot, and look for another solution?
Arms for Iraq, published in 1996, but relating to the early 1980s, left much of the evidence secret and was widely condemned as a travesty. The 1998 public inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation became known for Sir William Macpherson’s conclusion about “institutional racism” in the police, but serious gaps in the findings have subsequently emerged.
The Iraq War: A timeline
The Iraq War: A timeline
1/16 11 September 2001
Terrorists belonging to al-Qaeda use hijacked aeroplanes to kill 2,996 people in attacks on the east coast of the US.
2/16 12 September 2001
Tony Blair promises George W Bush that the UK will support the US, whatever the President decides to do.
3/16 25 March 2002
Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary, warns Blair that invading Iraq would be legally dubious.
4/16 June 2002
Tony Blair asks defence officials to outline options for UK participation in military action against Iraq.
5/16 24 September 2002
The government publishes a dossier about the threat from Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. A foreword by Tony Blair states that Saddam Hussein’s “military planning allows for some of the WMD to be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them”. It is subsequently alleged that this dossier was “sexed up” for political reasons.
6/16 2 October 2002
Congress authorises President Bush to use military force against Iraq.
7/16 8 November 2002
UN Security Council passes resolution 1441, insisting that weapons inspectors be allowed back into Iraq and calling on the regime to give up its WMD or face the consequences.
8/16 18 July 2003
David Kelly, an expert in biological warfare, is found dead after being named as the source of quotations used by the BBC’s Andrew Gilligan to suggest that the dossier of September 2002 had been “sexed up”. Lord Hutton is appointed to chair a judicial inquiry into his death.
9/16 13 December 2003
Saddam Hussein is captured near Tikrit, after nine months in hiding.
10/16 2 March 2004
Bombings in Baghdad and Karbala kill nearly 200 people: the worst attacks since the fall of Saddam.
11/16 14 September 2005
Bombs in Baghdad kill 160 people and injure more than 500.
12/16 30 December 2005
Saddam Hussein is executed.
13/16 28 May 2009
The last British combat troops leave Iraq.
14/16 24 November 2009
The Chilcot inquiry holds its first public hearing.
15/16 2 February 2011
The Chilcot inquiry holds its final public hearing.
16/16 21 January 2015
Sir John Chilcot confirms that his report will not be published before the general election in May 2015.
The Saville Report (2010) into Bloody Sunday was praised by David Cameron among others for its thoroughness – but took 12 years to come to fruition, and its significance was always at least as political as historical. Hutton and Butler, the previous two inquiries into the Iraq war, were so narrowly framed as to create the need for a third: Chilcot. We await the conclusions of the Litvinenko inquiry, but it was convened a full eight years after the Russian’s death and much of the evidence has been heard only by the judge.
And how many months and false starts did it take for the promised inquiry into historical sexual abuse to get under way? In the end, the Home Secretary brought in a judge from New Zealand, and the proceedings are expected to take years. The police investigations, already mired into acrimony, hardly provide a promising backdrop. I can think of only two inquiries that really justified themselves: Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the 1981 Brixton riots – which has stood the test of time remarkably well; and, more recently, the 2010 inquest into the 7/7 London bombings, under Lady Justice Hallett. The latter was technically an inquest rather than the public inquiry many had demanded, but it fulfilled essentially the same function.
The two have several features in common. They were conducted by senior judges, who received wide discretion as to their brief and stood no messing. They met a strict timetable: Scarman was convened the day after the April riots and reported in the November of that year; the 7/7 inquest took seven months from start to publication. Most crucially, though, they involved many ordinary members of the public, who gave their authentic view. They were not just about institutions and policy.
Most of the unsatisfactory inquiries – and Chilcot qualifies here, if only for the delay – are primarily about failures of institutions, and failures of policy. They are called by the government of the day, largely in response to a public clamour, to show that “something is being done” and to offer some assurance that lessons will be learned. Invariably, they do neither. They are no more than a formalistic last resort, open to specious legal argument and manipulation.
What is more, the alternative is staring us in the face. When government fails, as it clearly did over Iraq – or ministers, as they did in the “arms for Iraq” scandal, or the Army over Bloody Sunday – there should be no need for an inquiry of any sort. We have an institution that is supposed to hold power to account, and that institution is Parliament. It is Parliament, as a body or through its committees, that should represent our interests. And if that fails, there are the courts – and now the Supreme Court.
It is true that the UK does not have the same clear separation of powers as the United States, but the clout of parliamentary committees has been increasing, and special commissions, including MPs and peers, can be convened to consider specific questions. The Banking Commission has set an example of thoroughness, straight-talking and recognition of the public interest. What Parliament lacks is the power of sanction, including dismissal, impeachment, or referrals to court. This is where change should happen.
Considered internationally, the UK has a lamentable record in learning from policy mistakes. Our adversarial system for everything may be partly to blame – an inquisitorial system, as preferred on the continent, could produce better results. But passing the buck to ineffectual and interminable inquiries, often years after the event, should now be seen as a tried, tested and ruinously expensive way of making bad mistakes worse. Can we learn at least this from Chilcot?Reuse content