John Rentoul: Another act in the Leader's Tragedy

The audience was justifiably restive after an uncharacteristically defensive performance by Tony Blair

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It has been a good week for contemporary history. When Jon Davis and I set up the Blair Government course at Queen Mary, University of London, a mere 15 months after its central subject left office, some fellow historians thought we were being about 30 years premature. Now everyone is doing it. The Iraq inquiry is, in effect, an intensive contemporary history course, and many of the witnesses called to give evidence to it have also been to our classes in Mile End to answer questions from students. Last week, everyone joined in. Every newspaper in the land set exam questions. They all published revision guides with a timeline of the events of 2002-03. Some of the textual analysis of the primary documents was searching, and phrases such as "beyond doubt" and "active, detailed and growing" became the subjects of mini-PhDs.

The six hours of Tony Blair's evidence provided a rich new source for historians. Not so much the transcripts themselves. There was very little in them that has not been said before. He had an answer to all the exam questions that had been set by the antiwar media. Why, for example, did he say in September 2002 that the threat from Saddam was "growing"? Because he had just received the intelligence – which also turned out to be wrong – about the mobile labs. And there were telling details. "I believed – and in the end so did the Cabinet, so did Parliament, incidentally," he said, demoting cabinet and Parliament to "incidental" status. Thus he fed the antiwar theme that it was his personal war, because it feeds his perception of himself as All-Important Decider.

But otherwise it was a defensive performance. He was not going to change any minds by his evidence on Friday, but there was a chilly self-regard about him that suggested that he had given up trying. I can see why he went for the defensive option, but I think it was a mistake. He should have acknowledged the audience in the room. He should have turned to them at some point and paid his respects to the fallen. Of course, he must feel contempt for the way the Socialist Workers Party, which wanted Saddam Hussein to prevail, has exploited a tiny minority of the families of servicemen, and there was a risk of a negative reaction, but it was a risk worth taking.

He dealt with the "Fern Britton fallacy" only to close it down. He did not try to explain his unwise foray into counterfactual history: that he would have had to "deploy other arguments" for removing Saddam if Iraq had complied with UN resolutions. He had not meant it, he said, and moved on. Again, understandable: any attempt to explain that he would have feared that Saddam would resume his weapons programme would have been twisted and misreported by antiwar media determined to ascribe to him a "secret" real motive.

His failure to express regret for the 100,000 Iraqi dead was similarly defensive. I think his evidence would have been more compelling if he had stood firmly by the decision to join the American invasion, while accepting more directly and with sadness that the occupation had gone badly. Again, his reluctance is understandable. He does not want more of those "blood on his hands" headlines.

Thus the tragedy of Tony Blair continued to unfold. His priority was to manage the reporting of his session, and his defensiveness is understandable against the antiwar bias of most of the media. One junior producer at the BBC asked me without thinking if I had seen much of "the trial" during the day. But I do not think that the high-pitched obsession of the media reflected public opinion. The demonstration outside the inquiry was tiny, with the flags of Baathist Iraq prominent among the SWP placards. Nor would there be many takers on most high streets for the thin chant that went up, to the tune of "Yellow Submarine" – "We all live in a terrorist regime".

There was a curious divide among senior Conservatives who were around Westminster on Friday. More than one spoke privately of how much they admired Blair, and how brilliantly persuasive he still was. But another member of David Cameron's inner circle, more interested in public opinion, had not been watching Blair's evidence at all and had no interest in such "ancient history".

If Blair's objective were to minimise the liar and war criminal headlines the next day, he succeeded, although that may have owed more to the footballer John Terry's failed attempt to persuade the courts to collude with him in his deception of his wife. But if Blair's objective were to defend his historical reputation, he needed to engage more with the interests and arguments that informed his judgements, to explain why, when facing what Cherie described as a 51-49 choice, he came down on the side of the 51 rather than the 49.

The Iraq inquiry was the wrong forum – and there was something Roman about the thumbs-up for Elizabeth Wilmshurst (a round of applause when she finished) and the thumbs-down for him (shouts of, er, "We disagree" when he did). Because one of the interesting questions for history is how Iraq broke the Labour Party. It drove it to the madness of undermining and driving out its most successful leader.

But last week the Chilcot inquiry was not so much a historical inquiry into Britain's part in the Iraq war, as a case study in how the media works. One of the fellow defenders of Tony Blair into whom I bumped in the satellite-truck village encamped in the mud outside the QEII conference centre opposite the Palace of Westminster was Lance Price, a former No 10 press officer. He has a book serialised in a rival newspaper today, called Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v The Media. The answer is not a happy one for Blair. It turns out that the Chilcot inquiry is not contemporary history so much as media studies. Which is a shame.

John Rentoul blogs at www.independent/eagleeye

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