Mark Steel: They believed what suited them, and ignored what didn't

Iraq evidence was collected only to back a decision already made

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If you want to understand the details of how we went to war in Iraq, it is probably best not to watch a single moment of the Chilcot inquiry. Because the most glaring points of the big picture seem to get lost, amidst genteel discussions about whose note was at which meeting using which font at what angle.

If there'd been an inquiry like this into how the Second World War started, you'd have had reporters telling us, "The discussion today centred around whether there were seven or eight people present at Germany's decision to invade Poland. Hitler said the confusion might be because Goebbels was there at the start, but had to leave to edit a documentary about improvements in the Post Office."

But a judgement of whether the government lied in the months before the war can't be made without seeing the wider context, in which a decision had already been taken to support the war. So they were desperate to present a case for why we had to take part, and Saddam's weapons of mass destruction appeared the most persuasive. From then on, any snippet from anywhere that backed that case was proclaimed as evidence, and anything that refuted it, no matter how convincing, was ignored. So they announced Saddam had bought uranium from Africa, because someone had seen it on the internet. And included in their dossier evidence that appears to have come from an Iraqi taxi driver, who said he overheard ministers discussing their weapons.

But they ignored Hans Blix, who said he'd found no conclusive evidence, because unlike a reliable source such as a taxi driver or the internet, he was just the chief bloody United Nations sodding bloody weapons inspector, that's all.

If Alastair Campbell had got his way the dossier would probably have included other sections such as "The compelling testimony of Mr Dipworth, who said he saw Saddam personally buying plutonium at a car boot sale", before it emerged this was in a dream he had after eating three packets of Cheesy Wotsits. Or "The evidence of Mr Justin Toper, astrologer for The Sun, who said quite explicitly, 'This is a good time to confront old foes, as they may be hiding something massive'."

Yet Tony Blair said, "I have no doubt Saddam has weapons of mass destruction, no doubt, absolutely no doubt at all." The line they all follow is that they sincerely believed that, which is possible, but not one of them appears to have considered the evidence impartially or they would have had doubts.

We can all be mistakenly certain; I was once sincerely convinced that Doug Mountjoy had been 1978 world snooker champion runner-up, but as various lists and books were presented displaying this to be wrong, I started to have my doubts. But for Blair, the evidence wasn't collected in order to make a judgement, it was only accepted if it backed the decision already made.

Part of the government's defence for going to war is that "everybody" believed Saddam had these weapons, so how were they to know different? But the main reason why many people did believe this, was the government kept saying it. It's like running into a pub and screaming "Fire, for God's sake get out NOW." Then afterwards when everyone's outside and there's clearly no fire, you say, "You can't blame me, everyone else believed it as well."

Or there's the debâcle of the 45 minutes, which was revealed as the time it would take Saddam to launch his deadly weapons. So every newspaper was covered in stories and graphs showing how he could incinerate British bases in 45 minutes before it turned out much later that this only referred to the time it would take to launch his normal battlefield weapons, which any army could do. San Marino could probably get their army together in that time, if they could just find the key to the shed, so maybe we should invade them next.

The government knew exactly what they were doing, and none of them said, "Hang on, you've got this wrong." Similarly, if Blair really believed that Saddam's weapons were the reason for war, and that war could be averted if Saddam complied with the UN inspectors, then subsequently when it was discovered that there weren't any such weapons, why didn't Blair say, "Oh my God, what a mistake. I wouldn't have backed this war if I'd known. Wait till I get hold of that taxi driver."

For months they did all they could to create the impression Saddam had weapons that made him an immediate threat, as they calculated that this was the best way to sell a war they'd decided to have whether he possessed such weapons or not.

And that, if the word is to have any meaning at all, is a lie.

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