With their backs to the wall, but resisting still, are the politicians and civil servants who seek to block the inquiry led by Sir John Chilcot into the calamitous Iraq war. A deal between Sir John and the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, was announced on Thursday.
It allows extracts from exchanges between Tony Blair and the former US President, George W. Bush to be published but the full texts will remain secret.
No wonder the political establishment is worried. It is about to be shown as the ineffective, shortsighted, borderline dishonest group of people that it is. A study by the authoritative Royal United Services Institute released this week gave this opinion: “Far from reducing international terrorism … the 2003 invasion [of Iraq] had the effect of promoting it”.
The Iraq war was indeed the worst error in British foreign policy since the unsuccessful invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956.
Confronting the political establishment, pressing on, desperately seeking the truth are, in first place, the families of the 179 British troops who were killed in the conflict and of the 6000 who were wounded.
They cannot come to terms with their losses until they know whether their loved ones died and suffered for a worthy cause. Reginald Keys, whose son Lance Corporal Tom Keys was killed at the age of 21 in 2003, said on BBC2’s Newsnight programme on Thursday: “I need to draw a line under this and until I know the whole truth I can’t. It will be an open wound until the day I die”.
Pushing forward with the families are the many people who want to understand whether Tony Blair and his administration should answer to something like the ancient accusation of “high crimes and misdemeanors”.
It used to be employed in cases involving breaking promises to Parliament, obstructing justice, cronyism and wasting public money. Even now, in the 21st century, the subject matter of Sir John’s inquiry is, in effect, a contemporary version of the antique charge.
Consider the terrible accusations directed against Mr Blair and his colleagues. Here are two from the 15 grounds for complaint often cited. The first is misleading Parliament. Members were told that Britain could legally join an invasion.
We now know, thanks to what the Chilcot Inquiry has already discovered, that the Prime Minister’s chief legal adviser, Lord Goldsmith, did not agree with this assertion.
Next is the charge of misleading the nation over weapons of mass destruction. In a dossier on Iraq published in September 2002, Mr Blair stated in a foreword that it had been established “beyond doubt” that Saddam Hussein was producing WMD. None has ever been found.
In that same month, the Prime Minister informed the Commons: “[Saddam's] weapons of mass destruction programme is active, detailed and growing. The policy of containment is not working.”
When the Inquiry team told Mr. Blair that it had not seen evidence indicating that the threat from Saddam was growing at the time of the invasion, the former prime minister conceded this was true. “It wasn't that objectively he had done more. It was that our perception of the risk had shifted.” In other words, what Mr Blair thinks is true is, by definition, true.
Then there is what witnesses to the Inquiry have revealed about the working of the Government. I don’t think of these revelations as being in any way dated or typical of one particular political party. They are the way things have worked for a very long time. The former head of UK armed forces, Admiral Lord Boyce, commented that he suspected that if he had asked half the cabinet whether we were at war, “they wouldn't know what I was talking about”.
Lt Gen Frederick Viggers, Britain's senior military representative in Iraq, said we had been “putting amateurs into really really important positions and people were getting killed as a result of some of their decisions.
It's a huge responsibility and I just don't sense we lived up to it.“ Without naming individuals, he said he blamed those at the highest levels of government. ”I am not talking about the soldiers and commanders and civilians... who did a great job. But it's the intellectual horsepower that drives these things [which] needs better co-ordination,“ he said. Better co-ordination? Is that all that was lacking?
The political establishment began to build its defences on the day the Inquiry was announced by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown. The proceedings would take place in private, he said. This decision was subsequently reversed after receiving criticism in the media and in the House of Commons.
Then the establishment got back to work. It was decided that the Inquiry would be unable to receive evidence under oath. Care was also taken with the membership of the Inquiry.
Although the subject matter was war, there would be nobody on the team with first-hand military expertise. Nor would there be anybody with legal experience even though legality had been an issue from the beginning. One of the members, the historian Sir Martin Gilbert, had once compared Bush and Blair to Roosevelt and Churchill.
Having reached a decision in principle with the Cabinet Secretary, arduous discussions will now take place regarding which documents can be put into the public domain and in what manner. There will be detailed consideration of the so-called “gists” and quotations.
From this will emerge a draft final version of the report – “draft” because the last step is to show it in confidence to those who find themselves criticised in order that they may have a chance to make representations before publication if they think they have been unfairly treated.
However, I don’t think the seekers after truth should be too disheartened. The Chilcot/Heywood deal represents an advance, even if it does not go as far as many of us would wish.
It is possible that the gap that remains between what the establishment finds it inconvenient to disclose and what genuinely touches on national security or on the freedom of heads of government to write frankly to each other is not very wide. We just don’t know whether that is the case or not at the moment.
Yet we live in an age of whistleblowers. We have before us the example of the unauthorised disclosure of literally thousands of classified documents by Edward Snowden, who worked for US intelligence. There will be more leaks. We shall get there in the end.