Peter Hennessy: Blink and you'd miss it. Brown said sorry

Before the Prime Minister updates his pioneering National Security Strategy, he must order a full inquiry into the road to war

You had to listen hard to the words of last Wednesday's National Security Strategy, unveiled by the Prime Minister, to hear it. But, just audible, was the nearest we are going to get to an apology from the Government for the way Tony Blair took this country to war in Iraq. There it was, in the first paragraph of chapter two on "Guiding Principles".

"Overseas, our belief in the rule of law means we will support a rules-based approach to international affairs, under which issues are resolved wherever possible through discussion and due process, with the use of force as a last resort."

Whitehall has been scarred by Iraq to a depth and degree not experienced since the aftermath of the Suez crisis and the invasion of Egypt in 1956. And it was a lack of proper governing procedures and of international legality that did the searing in both cases.

In essence, that paragraph means "never again, Tony Blair" – no more military action before the equivalent of Hans Blix's weapons inspectors have completed their work; no use of force without a specific UN resolution authorising it; no more bouncing a compliant Cabinet at the last minute with a caveat-shorn, shrivelled version of a legal opinion from the Attorney General.

For this reason alone, the National Security Strategy document is welcome and valuable. Nothing like it has been attempted before in public. On the rare occasions when Whitehall has mounted such productions in the past it has been kept behind closed doors.

The best ever was the Future Policy Study of 1959-60, the last of a series of private post-Suez reviews commissioned by then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to give ministers an idea of where the UK would be by 1970 if they continued to follow their policies. The civil servants, diplomats and the military who wrote it were so thorough and so candid that Macmillan pulled the paper from full cabinet discussion at the last minute.

Brown's effort is not a patch on Macmillan's, but at least it was fully discussed within the cabinet system – first by the National Security, International Relations and Development Committee (known as N-SID), then by the full Cabinet last Tuesday. Added to that, Macmillan's review took 30 years to reach the public domain.

Last week's document, subtitled "Security in an interdependent world", is very Gordon – a mixture of Lord Curzon (we Brits still have a chunk of high-quality armed forces at out disposal so Johnny Foreigner had better watch out) and Blue Peter (we Brits can lead the world to relieving poverty in Africa, and then, next week, to alleviating climate change).

Every nation that seems to be a player in the world tries to maximise its mix of hard and soft power, though there is no mention in the paper of either the BBC Overseas Service or the British Council, both prime and tested instruments of cultural influence.

Nor did they feature in what the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, called his foreign policy "refresh", which he launched with his fellow shirt-sleeved advocate, Permanent Under Secretary Sir Peter Ricketts, at a toe-curling, thoroughly Blue Peterish session in the FO's Locarno Room last month.

Both the Brown and the Miliband productions want us to cut a dash in the world way beyond our size and wealth. Nothing wrong with that, provided it avoids Pollyanna-ish delusions to which New Labour has been remarkably prone with an unctuousness made all the more unbearable by ministers' reluctance to face up to the consequences of their complicity in perhaps the greatest geopolitical disaster in the Middle East in the post-war era.

The best sections of the Brown security strategy are those that deal with what Robinson and Gallagher, in their classic study of Africa and the Victorians The Imperialism of Free Trade, called "the cold rules for national safety". It itemises the mix of new and old institutions that, together, comprise the new protective state built at great speed and largely to good effect since the atrocity of 11 September 2001. The multi-disciplinary Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre housed in MI5 is the single most important innovation, plus the putting right of the near-ruinous costs inflicted on the budgets of the intelligence agencies by the Treasury in the 1990s.

Brown's major contribution to date has been the creation of his N-SID cabinet committee, which is supposed to be a British version of the US National Security Council (not to be confused with the National Security Forum announced in last week's document, which will, if it happens, encompass the old and the bold from former service chiefs and permanent secretaries, plus the odd scholar).

Unlike its predecessor cabinet committees set up since 1945, N-SID is a brave attempt to bring together all the elements – overseas and domestic – that affect the security of the UK, from jihadism to bird flu, as well as the customary politico-military ingredients. What is still missing is the back-up that N-SID needs.

The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, is currently reviewing the Cabinet Office secretariats that underpin the constellation of cabinet committees. N-SID needs its own bespoke one reflecting the remarkable width of its remit.

The new secretariat also needs to possess a horizon-scanning capacity (which the review does mention) to both work alongside the assessments staff serving the Joint Intelligence Committee and to bring a sense of history and perspective that was disastrously absent under the destiny premiership of Tony Blair.

If such structures were in place, and if Brown were to use them as a major aid to collective discussion and decision-taking, it would increase the chances of avoiding the lamentable short cuts and lack of due process in the build-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, exposed by the Butler Report.

Sir Gus should also commission one of his "capability reviews" to examine all the agencies, departments, professions and capacities that feed – or should feed – into N-SID. These range from the first line of defence (the Secret Intelligence Service's officers and agents, the watchers and listeners of GCHQ and the counter-terrorist experts of MI5) through diplomacy, defence, aid and trade to the last line of defence, the Royal Navy Trident submarine (currently HMS Vanguard) on patrol somewhere in the North Atlantic, moving at a fast walking pace, huge, silent and undetectable.

There is, however, one overriding requirement upon the Prime Minister before we see the first update of the National Security Strategy in a year's time. After that muted act of contrition in this year's pioneering version, and notwithstanding the reservations of Alan Watkins on page 57, we must have a proper inquiry into the road to the Iraq War, the invasion and its aftermath if Gordon Brown means what he says in last week's document.

He can do no less; and we can wait no longer.

Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary College, University of London. His latest book is 'Cabinets and the Bomb' (British Academy/OUP)