Alex Carlile: Blair should answer to Britain, not Britton

There are serious questions over whether the inquiry into the Iraq war will succeed in bringing to an end this tragic chapter

Related Topics

The curse of Bloody Sunday hangs over the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war and the removal of Saddam Hussein. About £200m spent, lawyers in every cranny, a very demanding judge, a methodological behemoth – these are the spectre of the Bloody Sunday inquiry behind the entirely different Chilcot structure. In the Iraq inquiry, amid a media free-for-all on live television, there is no legal representation, no cross-examination by expert advocates trained to expose humbug, prick egos and draw out the truth.

There is no doubting the distinction of the inquiry members. Two are notable retired mandarins, two leading academic historians (one a professor of war studies) and a respected independent public servant: they may well be an appropriate replacement for judges in the particular circumstances. However, there are real questions about the form of their inquiry, the confidence in its outcome and whether – with so much of the meatiest evidence to be heard in camera – it will provide the cathartic and definitive closure required for so important and historic an issue.

A mark of the reservations held about the inquiry is implicit in the decision of Tony Blair to reveal not to Chilcot but to Fern Britton broadcast on BBC1 today that he would have regarded regime change in Iraq as justifiable anyway, even had there been no intelligence of weapons of mass destruction at the time when he told Parliament that they could be deployed in 45 minutes. Mr Blair recognised that different arguments would have been deployed, in a debate I believe he almost certainly would have lost in Cabinet, despite his pre-eminence at the time. Had he gone down that road, I have no doubt that his intellectually rigorous attorney general Lord Goldsmith QC would have resigned in what would have become a sore and open discussion of the war's legality.

My reservations about Chilcot are reinforced by Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg's successful ambush of the current Prime Minister at Prime Minster's Questions on 25 November. Mr Clegg exposed nine separate protocols, none plainly or immediately available via the inquiry's website. Obviously current national security must be protected; however, the protocols give the Government, civil servants, and potentially even witnesses, nine separate grounds on which to block the publication of documents which may refer to past national security issues with no current damage. The rules on the release of information were agreed between the Government and Sir John Chilcot; I doubt if they would have been agreed by a judicial inquiry.

Since 24 November a succession of key figures has given evidence to the inquiry. Sir Christopher Meyer, a large ego in full flight, given to the heady memoir, played an early starring role. His portrayal of events must have infuriated Mr Blair. The presence of the likes of James Dingemans QC, who questioned witnesses to great effect for the Hutton inquiry, would have enabled Chilcot and his colleagues to explore Sir Christopher's accuracy and views with precision, not so much in defence of Mr Blair as to ensure the emergence of a full and fair picture. In the chattering worlds of political and legal London, I have heard it said repeatedly that the presence of at least one team of advocates, serving the inquiry, would instil currently absent confidence. Many have commented that Sir David Manning gave evidence with dignity, confidence, and the hallmarks of credibility; others have undermined that view by asserting that cross-examination would have left a different impression. The discreet and measured former MI6 chief Sir John Scarlett probably would have welcomed forensic probing as a process at least of ensuring that the inquiry's range was complete.

The absence of real forensic questioning at any stage in the inquiry raises another problem. Nobody is accused of crime before it, so the fair trial requirements of the European Convention on Human Rights are not engaged directly. However, there is at least the possibility that it may be concluded that crimes were committed – perhaps nothing as dramatic as war crimes, but conceivably serious offences such as misfeasance in a public office; or significant non-criminal acts, such as contempt of Parliament; or professionally accountable misconduct. It is unacceptable that such conclusions should be even available without giving the objects of such serious criticism the opportunity both to have their main accusers cross-examined and to have submissions made on their behalf with equality of arms, ie in public before the inquiry.

I do not doubt the integrity and intentions of the Chilcot inquiry and its small team of advisers. However, it is highly questionable whether they should have accepted their task on the current terms. A methodology could have been devised which would have permitted acceptable scrutiny and submissions, without turning it into a Bloody Sunday. There is a real danger that the result will be seen either as unfair (if heavily critical of significant individuals), or insufficiently rigorous (if not). It will certainly be seen as lacking anything approaching a form of due process.

Witnesses who show restraint and caution may stand accused of fudge; those who expand will be castigated for strutting and fretting upon the very public stage provided. Whatever Tony Blair's merits or demerits were as prime minister of the time, that he was. That he is an easy target and possibly in a no-win position hardly needs to be said, but that the most important public inquiry so far this century should not afford the then prime minister an entirely fair process is a matter of concern and regret. No wonder he appears to regard Fern Britton on BBC1 as an appropriate proxy for the inquiry.

Despite the substantial loss of life on all sides in the Iraq war, and its rumbling consequences, the public may be losing interest in the issues subject to the Chilcot process. Nevertheless, even if not electorally crucial, those issues remain critical in terms of history and political accountability. I fear that we may never achieve the sense of closure and completeness that would have been provided by a more legally energetic and compliant form of inquiry.

Lord Carlile of Berriew QC is the Government's independent reviewer of terrorism laws

React Now

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

Austen Lloyd: Regulatory / Compliance / Exeter

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: Exeter - An excellent opportunity for a Solici...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Technician - 12 Month Fixed Term - Shrewsbury

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Helpdesk Support Technician - 12 ...

The Jenrick Group: Maintenance Planner

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: Maintenance...

The Jenrick Group: World Wide PLC Service Engineer

£30000 - £38000 per annum + pesion + holidays: The Jenrick Group: World Wide S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mary Christmas: the Bethlehem story is Mary's moment, when a poor peasant girl gives birth to the Son of God in a stable  

The appeal of the Virgin Mary: A supernatural hope at a time of scepticism

Peter Stanford

Letters: Why Cameron is wrong about EU child benefits

Independent Voices
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there