Peter Hennessy: The Butler inquiry must examine the legal case for war

Related Topics

For nearly a year the great faultline under the Blair premiership has been the Attorney General's opinion on a war of exemplary pre-emption in Iraq without a further, specific UN resolution authorising any necessary means to force Saddam Hussein to comply with previous UN resolutions. Government lawyers were riven by this question. The number two in the Foreign Office legal department, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, resigned on the spot when she read the Goldsmith advice.

The Attorney General, the Prime Minister and his ministerial group in Iraq have gone to immense pains to ensure that the provenance of that opinion, as well as its full text, was not divulged to either Parliament or the public. If Katharine Gun's trial had proceeded it would have been very difficult for the prosecution to have prevented the defence having access to this legal opinion in full. That opinion turned largely on what intelligence told Whitehall about the degree to which Saddam Hussein and his weaponry posed a danger to other people's nationals other than this own.

If the Butler inquiry into intelligence does not follow the trail of intelligence documents into the Attorney General's office prior to the making of the legal opinion they will have let themselves and their country down.

In many ways, Lord Butler is an admirable choice for the job. A Whitehall lifer who served no fewer than five prime ministers in senior positions (Heath, Wilson and Thatcher as a Number 10 private secretary; Thatcher, Major and Blair as Cabinet Secretary), it's not so much that he knows where the bodies are buried in Whitehall, he was the body. Lord Butler, too, is a traditionalist believing in proper demarcations between the functions of Britain's governing tribes - ministers, crown servants and special advisers. He believes in proper process.

But now Robin Butler has to break the habits of a lifetime if his report is to have any credibility when it appears at the end of July. This would have been the case even if the Hutton report had not persuaded the political market (wrongly, in my view) that the Butler report is bound to be another executive-minded production that will cause the incumbent in Downing Street little anxiety. The announcement that the Butler committee of privy counsellors will concentrate on intelligence systems rather than individuals has reinforced people's minimal expectations.

In the end, this will do neither Butler et al nor Tony Blair and those who served him as warrior-premier any good at all. Because posterity will not be fooled. Lord Butler and his team should behave less like systems analysts and more like scholars, working as war historians rather than technocrats of state. In other words, from the first meetings and reading sessions in the Cabinet Office (the security-swept Joint Intelligence Committee room has been set aside for them), the Butler group must apply the skills of forensic scholarship, and bust their terms of reference and reconstruct as fully as they can all the real-time factors, files and discussions that went into the decision-taking.

Above all, they must not neglect the crucial intelligence inputs into the central opinion by Lord Goldsmith that the war was legal without another specific United Nations resolution. The Butler committee members cannot shirk this specific task if they are truly going to examine the uses to which Iraq-related intelligence was put.

How can he do this? My research historians 30 years on would start this way - by trawling for every scrap of material, from the Joint Intelligence Committee assessments to the tersest e-mail from, say, Number 10 press officers who should not have been allowed anywhere near the ebb and flow of the internal intelligence debate. Above all, historians will want to make sure they get at the Prime Minister's supply of personal documents - the stuff that went into his special intelligence box each day (which used to be known as "Old Stripey" because of its distinctive blue leather bisected by a red stripe).

If Robin Butler does not "rise to the level of events", to use a phrase beloved of the late Roy Jenkins, we have one last hope. If the Liberal Democrats had agreed to nominate a member of the Butler committee it would have been Alan Beith MP, who chairs the all-party Commons Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs. This scrutinises, among other things, the Law Officers' Department. It could (and should if Butler won't) investigate the provenance of the Attorney General's opinion on the legality of the war. Its first witness? Lord Goldsmith himself. Its second? Elizabeth Wilmshurst.

If Lord Butler declines to perform his historic function, Parliament is our last best hope of discovering why our armed forces were used in the 2003 war of exemplary pre-emption and whether, in international law, it could be justified.

The author is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary, University of London.

This article is based on a piece in the latest edition of 'The Tablet'.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Health & Safety Consultant

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic and exciting opport...

Recruitment Genius: Project and Quality Manager

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is an independent ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sales Executive - OTE £20,625

£14625 - £20625 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This role is for an enthusiasti...

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicky Clarke has criticised the Duchess of Cambridge for having grey hair  

Letting one’s hair turn grey would be the most subversive Royal act

Rosie Millard

London’s foreign money bubble is bursting – but will we be better off?

Chris Blackhurst
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals