The invasion of Iraq, as Tony Blair now accepts in private, is the great cloud that lours over his premiership and the New Labour Government, despite every effort to push it into the margins of history. It was the most divisive issue of a generation, and perhaps more, which could find no resolution either in the regimented debates of Parliament or two successive inquiries, by Lord Hutton into the death of Dr David Kelly and by Lord Butler into the use of intelligence.
Did the Prime Minister commit his country to war in a complicit deal with President Bush even before the debates in the UN took place? Did he mislead the public over the reasons for war and the intelligence on Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? Was he advised that the war was illegal under international law? These and other questions about the invasion and the conduct of the occupation afterwards continue to dog the politics of this country, as much because of the unsatiated anger that we went to war so casually and pursued the aftermath so badly, as due to doubts over the causes.
Will the long-awaited "independent" inquiry announced by Gordon Brown yesterday help to achieve "closure", to use the fashionable phrase? You'd have to be extremely optimistic, or naive, to believe so. This is not an exercise designed to reconciliate divided views or a means of establishing the truth in a comprehensive way that can satisfy the opponents of the war.
Its hearings are to be held in private. Its completion has been scheduled for beyond the next election. Its terms of reference – to "learn the lessons of the complex and often controversial events of the last six years'' – are drawn so broadly as to guarantee a report submerged in generalities. Add to that a committee made up of two knighted historians, a Labour-created peer and a former ambassador, which is headed by a former civil servant, Sir John Chilcot, who has spent much of his career handling the police and intelligence, and the one thing you can be certain of is that it won't ask, let alone answer, the hard questions.
The Government did the same thing with Lord Huttonand Lord Butler. It's not that the Government thought they would do its bidding, any more than Sir John Chilcot will. It's just that they knew they would always step back from what was challenging.
The inquiry, said the Prime Minister announcing it yesterday, "does not aim to apportion blame". You bet your life it doesn't. Blame is the last thing that ministers, or Tory front-benchers, want bandied around to their detriment. Gordon Brown went along with the war, as did the rest of the Cabinet with one notable exception in Robin Cook (plus John Denham, then a minister of state). Brown kept quiet at the time but seems to have been responsible for persuading Robin Cook to resign before the debate on the war instead of on the day, and to have dissuaded Clare Short from resigning at all – decisions that drew much of the sting from the opposition to the war.
The aim of this is inquiry, said Brown yesterday, is to do exactly what Lord Franks did in his report into the Falklands War. Then the establishment chose a "distinguished public servant" to carry out an investigation in private, which produced a report full of damning evidence but concluded with what was generally dismissed as a complete whitewash. And that report, it should be remembered, was about a war that had the broad approval of the British public and ended with a clear victory.
The invasion of Iraq did not have full public support, it has not ended in victory and it is impossible to deal with the questions it poses without apportioning blame. This inquiry is a classic establishment exercise in driving a thorny subject into the long grass – par for the course, yes; predictable, no doubt; but nonetheless an insult to the public and to Parliament for all that.