Steve Richards: Those looking for a hidden scandal will be disappointed

Blair had come to regard the removal of dictators as one of his causes

Thursday 28 January 2010 01:00

Tomorrow Tony Blair faces a reckoning on Iraq. Or to be more precise, Blair faces a reckoning on Iraq again. He has spoken at length on every issue in relation to the conflict during the three other inquires and in countless interviews. There is no question the committee can ask that has not been asked before. There is no answer Blair can give that he has not delivered in some form or other in the past.

Inquiries into Iraq have become the equivalent of re-releasing Beatles albums in different formats. Each time an album is released there is feverish hysteria and yet the songs remain the same. Similarly inquiries into Iraq are greeted with a frenzy of excitement, and then we hear the same tunes. When Let It Be is released as a 3D digital DVD and sound-perfect CD in 10 years' time Tony, Jack, Alastair and Jonathan will doubtless be the subject of another investigation.

The insatiable appetite for familiar material is based on the assumption there is a hidden scandal that will emerge sensationally if an inquiry probes deeply enough. Even if there are another 10 investigations that assumption will remain. This is weird if only because so much that happened in the build-up to war was played out in public – the arguments, the scheming, the manoeuvring, the anguished post-mortems, much more so than in the case of the Falklands when Margaret Thatcher appeared rarely and generally only to demand that we all rejoice.

There are deep lessons to be learnt from Britain's decision to side with President Bush and go to war, but they will not be part of any inquiry. The lessons relate to domestic politics and Britain's place in the world. They have nothing to do with simplistic assertions that Blair is a liar and a war criminal.

The first lesson is to do with the origins of New Labour, a frail, insecure and defensive project from the beginning. It is highly significant that both Blair and Gordon Brown supported the conflict. They did not agree on much else at the time. The build-up to the war took place at a point during the second term when Brown was opposing virtually every Blairite initiative. He fought ferociously to prevent Prime Ministerial attempts to join the single currency. He opposed unfettered financial freedoms for foundation hospitals, and until the last moment considered blocking top-up fees for students. Crucially, at no point did Brown challenge Blair over Iraq.

As the joint architects of new Labour, a project defined against their party's past, neither Blair nor Brown dared to contemplate a scenario where they were placed against the US and the Conservative party by opposing a war. As I have written before, every instinct in Blair's political body would have told him to navigate a route that gave no space to the Conservatives and enabled him to remain in alliance with Middle England and the newspapers they read. Acutely aware of Labour's vote-losing past when it was regarded as soft on defence and anti-American, Blair was always going to stick with the US over Iraq and seek as broad an international coalition of support as was possible.

In terms of domestic politics, Brown made similar calculations. Working on the wrong assumption that he would be prime minister by 2004 he did not want to inherit a government that had opposed the war, sided with mediocre European leaders against the US, and lost the support of key newspapers. A recent myth suggests that Brown gave private indications that he opposed the conflict. He did not do so. He went as far as telling Clare Short when the two of them were close that he had seen the intelligence and agreed with Blair that something had to be done.

For Blair the intelligence became part of his wider case. That the intelligence had become an argument, and was not being deployed in a neutral manner, was obvious at the time and only became shocking retrospectively, or rather some chose to be shocked: the BBC because it was going through a tabloid phase of seeking to shock for its own sake, the Conservatives because of opportunism even though they had seen the intelligence and were even more gung-ho for war, and some opponents of the war who claimed vindication.

Not all opponents of the war did so on such grounds. I opposed the war, but at no point thought it could be explained by dismissing Blair as a liar. Blair, with Brown's tacit support, made a political judgement about how a Labour government should position itself in relation to the United States. On that judgement both were certain. The rest was clearly more complex.

Evidently Blair regarded Saddam Hussein as a threat and had come to regard the removal of dictators as one of his causes. I doubt if he was as evangelical about this as his public performances suggest, but when a leader of a middling power signs up to the agenda of a much bigger one he has made the only decision in the sequence over which he has some control. After that Blair was largely in the hands of a divided, incompetent US administration and had no choice but to follow its timetable while pretending to be in command.

I wish he had felt strong enough to turn away but I do not underestimate what would have happened if he had done so. Those condemning him would have included many of his current tormentors in the media: "Blair turns his back on Bush as US removes evil dictator". The intensity would have quadrupled if he had withdrawn support later in the face of opposition here.

Blair put some of the dilemmas to me in an interview for The Independent in 2005. I quote it at length partly to show that leadership is more demanding and interesting than screaming that someone is a war criminal. It is also the only example I can find where Blair is reflective rather than unapologetically crusading, an unattractive evangelical façade that is partly a defence mechanism:

"The only thing I would ask people to do is understand that it was a very difficult decision. What I object to is people trying to frame the decision in terms of my integrity rather than in terms of the fact that I was faced with the situation where there were 250,000 troops down there. Saddam wasn't fully co-operating with the UN inspectors, he remained in breach of the UN resolutions and yet I couldn't get a second UN resolution with an ultimatum. I had to decide whether we backed off altogether, with all that would mean, or go ahead still.

"It was a very difficult decision in very difficult circumstances and I have always made clear I respect those who disagreed with the decision I took. There are some issues that are a nightmare whichever decision you take ... We must remember the UN inspectors were only there because the troops were also there.

"It was the threat of force that got the inspectors back in. Now imagine what would have happened if I had backed away and that the Americans also backed away and the conflict had not happened. Saddam would still be in charge and immeasurably strengthened and there would be no further possibility about enforcing the community's will in regard to UN resolutions.

"Some will say that would have been better than having the conflict. That's a perfectly understandable view. I only ask people to understand there wasn't a middle way. So it was a nightmare in the sense that, whatever you did, you were going to get problems either in sorting out Iraq after a conflict or you would get big problems leaving Saddam in charge." Blair also spoke to me about the dossier: "In retrospect, it would have been better to have simply published the Joint Intelligence Committee reports".

That was then. Now we are about to get the re-released version. A future generation of Labour leaders will perhaps be less scared of challenging the US and Tory ones less gung-ho about the virtues of war. They will be significant lessons, near revolutionary ones for Britain. But the tunes will not change on Iraq and there are no new hits.

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