Even now, can he admit he was wrong?

Death of David Kelly - THE BLAME GAME
Click to follow
The Independent Online

We can most of us remember what it is like to pick up a large stone and to find underneath a surprising variety of creatures, scurrying in all directions in a high state of alarm. A sudden tragic event, such as the death of Dr David Kelly, produces much the same effect in politics. For politics is a game, a very rough game, played voluntarily according to equally rough rules. When the sad truths of life impinge on it, its participants are puzzled, unsure where to turn next - just like those creatures under the stone - because the rules do not provide for such contingencies.

The primary purpose of everyone concerned is then to avoid blame. "It wasn't me that did it," or "It wasn't my fault, miss": the cry of the classroom down the years is heard again throughout the land. The estimable Mr Andrew Marr of the BBC goes back to the 1960s and proposes, in the phrase of that era, that we are all guilty.

Well, I am sorry, but I do not feel guilty. The death of Dr Kelly had perfectly clear causes and may produce less clear consequences: for the committee system at Westminster, for the organisation of No 10 and, not least, for Mr Tony Blair and his administration. But about what happened there is no great mystery, though Lord Hutton's inquiry will inevitably add some valuable detail which we do not now know.

"It were infinite to judge causes, or the causes of causes," wrote Francis Bacon. If Dr Kelly had been a different person, he would not have done what he did. Even at this stage, there is dispute about the kind of person he really was. Everyone agrees that he was a nice man, a good neighbour and a firm friend. After that there is a divergence.

According to one version, he was unused to and uncomfortable in the world of politics - an impression apparently confirmed by his hesitant, embarrassed performance before the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee. Indeed, the notion that he was giving a performance at all would have been remote from his way at looking at the world.

But he was not quite like that, other friends say. He had been to Iraq many times in the 1990s. He knew politicians. He was even used to the company of journalists. He had, for instance, met Mr Andrew Gilligan at the Charing Cross Hotel, one of the late John Betjeman's favourite resorts.

Mr Gilligan maintains that he wrote his story of the exaggerated dossier relying on only one source. That, indeed, was one reason for Mr Alastair Campbell's attack on him and the BBC: that it was "unprofessional" to proceed in such a limited way. But, as a former specialist correspondent himself, Mr Campbell must know that this is often the only way to proceed. The impression which has been created, as much by some of Dr Kelly's friends as by the Ministry of Defence itself - prop. the Macavity-like Geoff Hoon - is that he then owned up on the principle "father (or, rather, minister), I cannot tell a lie". This may have been so. Equally, there may first have been a rigorous - and, from Dr Kelly's point of view, a disagreeable - inquiry at the department which could have contributed to his death.

That was the first stage: the confession at the department, which may or may not have been voluntary but which was promptly leaked by the Government to the press. The second stage was Dr Kelly's appearance before the committee. He did not just turn up out of the blue. Nor did Mr Donald Anderson, the chairman, think it would be a bright idea simply to ask him along. The appearance of civil servants before Commons committees is carefully controlled. The whole matter would have been arranged precisely beforehand. Dr Kelly was there not because he wanted to be there - rarely, indeed, can a witness have appeared more reluctant - but because the Government wanted him to be there. Mr Anderson and the committee agreed to the Government's plan. They could hardly have done otherwise, saying, though it would have been within their powers: "No thanks, we don't really want to know what this so-called source has to say for himself."

Dr Kelly duly turned up but then things appeared to go badly wrong; or, at any rate, they did not go quite according to plan. For while Dr Kelly admitted he had talked to Mr Gilligan, he added - in response to perfunctory questioning - that he did not think he had been the sole source. A question expecting the answer Yes had been given the answer No instead.

Why do I say this? It is because, virtually as soon as Dr Kelly had concluded his evidence, No 10 was giving out that he was the guilty man and that the police were not looking for any other suspect. Quite why the Government was so keen to establish - or, rather, to assert - this continues to elude me. After all, it merely confirms what Mr Gilligan said in the first place.

What Mr Gilligan said in the second place we do not yet know precisely. This was at his appearance at a closed session of the committee, two days after Dr Kelly had given his own evidence. The secret nature of the proceedings did not inhibit Mr Anderson from giving a televised press conference in the committee corridor immediately afterwards, where he said that Mr Gilligan had proved an "unsatisfactory" witness. This, com- bined with stray revelations of other survivors of the by now summer-depleted committee, led The Times - which, in its Murdochian zeal to persecute the BBC, has behaved disgracefully throughout the whole affair - to announce that the corporation has suffered a mortal blow.

So far, the scandal has followed traditional British lines. It has turned into a game of Hunt-the-Issue. The only difference is that sudden death has replaced sex, which is a change, but a tragic one. It seems to me that during its course Mr Blair has suffered the greater blow, brought about by his pride, his refusal to admit he was - or could have been - wrong. Attributing blame after sudden death is always hazardous and often unfair. In a daisy chain of reasoning, the local MP, Mr Robert Jackson, bizarrely blamed the BBC. Most people, however, may well conclude that the Government contributed to Dr Kelly's death through its insistence on winning, whatever the cost.

In 1849 the Austrian Prime Minister said of the Russians who had assisted him in some enterprise or other: "We shall astonish them with our ingratitude." Why not have a real Labour leader while we can, in the two or three years that remain to us before the election? And, after that, who can tell? Perhaps the People's Party will now astonish Mr Blair with their own ingratitude as well.